Her Design Is to Save the Earth

Architect Mary Otis Stevens says people `connected' to nature take better care of it. INTERVIEW: `GREEN' BUILDER

IN laying out her architectural ethos, Mary Otis Stevens likes to explain what good architecture should not do. It should not be a matter of seeing how many people can fit into X number of square feet. It should not isolate people from land, sun, and the natural beauty around them, stuffing them into artificial environments ``bad for the human soul.'' Nor should it trample upon Earth's resources.

In fact, Ms. Stevens's goal as a professional architect is to make buildings more ``womblike,'' nurturing, pleasant, and ``sustainable.'' Though it is an uphill battle, she has devoted her career and established her national design award-winning firm, Design Guild, toward achieving that aim.

``Architects have been trying too hard to do signatures, to express their own private feelings or [those of certain] architectural schools,'' says Stevens, a demure woman whose sturdy handshake hints at her resolve. ``They all sort of play their own little games,'' leaving the rest of the world ``out of the loop.''

``But what are we actually doing when we're building?'' she asks. ``That's the big question - not the style, but what are we doing to the Earth? What is the impact of this building on the environment around it?''

That may sound strange coming from an architect, but Stevens is one of a small but growing number of architects committed to environmental or ``sustainable'' design. This ecological approach involves everything from how a building conserves heat and water, to building materials, to where trees (``nature's air-conditioners'') are planted. It helps people get ``connected'' to their natural habitats, so they will then desire to care for it.

Roughly 25 percent of the nation's energy usage goes into maintaining buildings, says Drew Gillett, a solar engineer who often consults for Stevens on her projects. Architects, therefore, have a vital role as ``caretakers'' of the Earth, Stevens says.

Sustainable design ``is not post-modernism or deconstructionism or the various fashions that sweep through the architectural world,'' says Sarah Harkness, a member of Architects for Social Responsibility, a committee of the Boston Society of Architects. ``It's an approach and a reasoning process,'' she says.

The 40-member committee, which sprang up over 10 years ago to oppose nuclear weapons, now focuses on promoting sustainable design. Stevens is co-chairman.

``People who want this approach are strong-minded about it,'' Mrs. Harkness adds, ``but I wouldn't say it's a majority.''

Sustainable design is often more expensive than conventional building. ``Many of the corporate clients would not feel comfortable with me,'' Stevens says, smiling.

But sustainability, which began to be applied to architecture in the late '70s, is ``the future for architects,'' Stevens says. The war in the Gulf adds new urgency to the demand for creative approaches to energy needs.

``This war will probably intensify the follies that have gotten us to this point. ... I think people are getting tired of going to war over resources.''

``Right now, there's very little national focus on the environmental costs of the way we design and build buildings,'' says Donald Watson, solar energy advocate and dean of the School of Architecture at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. ``But it's going to be part of the public debate in the coming decade,'' he says.

Stevens's designs include such elements as south-facing windows, solar-heated water storage systems, greenhouses, rain-water cisterns, plantings of shade trees, and non-toxic building materials.

AS devoted as Stevens is to energy-saving measures, she also stresses the importance of ``placemaking'' and historic resonance. ``You have to worry about peoples' stability and emotional life as much as you do about whether they are warm or cold,'' she says.

It was her study in the '70s of America's vernacular traditions, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, that helped shape her current vision.

``I tried to find out what people like the farmers did out of their own habits and traditions,'' she says. In the early '80s, she brought pre-Revolution German and English barns from New York State to Vienna, Va., to use in the construction of the Wolf Trap Performing Arts Center. Design Guild frequently renovates or adds on to existing historic structures, trying to preserve the ``substance'' of the past.

``You want to take something that exists and preserve the integrity and the importance of human settlement, memory, meaning,'' Stevens says.

In her research, she found that early American settlers were extremely frugal in their use of resources like wood, stone, and clay. ``And they were always orienting their buildings to take advantage of the sun or winds,'' she says. These ``low-tech'' methods are just as applicable today, she says, and are made even more efficient by such inventions as photovoltaic cells, which produce electricity from sunlight.

``You take the vernacular traditions, and you get a whole other way of looking at the world and of looking at building,'' Stevens says. For instance, ``it's absolutely ridiculous that we are using drinking water to water our lawns,'' she says, or that rainwater goes directly into storm sewers. ``This way of thinking is so alien to life!''

The key, says Stevens, is to integrate alternative technologies in a balanced way: After the oil embargo of 1973, ``people suddenly said, `Let's go solar.' But then people learned quickly that dumping a lot of solar heat into a building isn't going to solve everything. In fact, it's going to cause a lot of problems in the summer, when you don't want the heat.

``You can't just think of solar; you have to combine things,'' says Stevens, things like rainwater conservation, solar energy, cogeneration (of heat and electricity), land use and planning, waste disposal, recycling, and landscaping.

Though the path Stevens has chosen may be a rocky one, ``One can play a big role just being another voice,'' she says. ``I never have expected that what I've been working for is suddenly going to be triumphant. ... My way has been to keep plugging along and keep pressuring.''

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