A Moran Plan
By Kevin Foley Article published April 30, 2003
The Moran building, a defunct and dilapidated coal-fired power plant decorating a prime swath of Burlington waterfront with all the beauty of a prizefighter’s elaborately broken nose, is a persistent problem for city officials.
But for students in John Todd’s ecological design studio, it’s a potential haven offering an opportunity to unify the community, clean lake water and push the limits of ecologically conscious redevelopment.
The studio course is the conclusion of a two-semester sequence that first introduces students to the concepts of ecological design Todd’s term for the science and practice of finding sustainable ways to address energy, architecture, food production, waste transformation and environmental stewardship then sets them loose to use what they learned on a problem of public importance.
“This process has influence,” says Todd. “In the early years of the class, we worked on proposals for an industrial eco-park in the Intervale, something that will start becoming a reality in about one month.”
In other years, students have argued for renovating UVM’s Hills Building into an ecological design showpiece and created proposals for greener and more expansive university student housing. Some of the student ideas have found some traction among planners and architects, others have not, but the goal of class, Todd says, is always to “produce a product others can use.”
In an April 29 presentation, students spent more than 90 minutes outlining their vision for the plant to an audience of local planners, architects and stakeholders in the building. Their proposed set of alternatives leverages the Moran’s unique architectural features and location near the center of the Burlington bike path to create an ecological showpiece and community center that would, the students say, bring the city’s disparate neighborhoods together.
“Our goal as a class was to present a collective vision,” says senior Mikal Burley, “a demonstration of sustainable development.”
Location, location, location
Creating that collective vision required the students to break into small working groups targeting particular areas of the rehabilitation. One team researched the building’s energy needs, others investigated the possibility of using the building’s sunny south-facing “steps” to create greenhouses for a waterfront restaurant or community kitchen. Others did feasibility work on roof gardens and a basement artificial kelp forest that would purify lake water using the building’s existing system of basement sluices.
The theme was to work with the building’s problematic architecture, which thus far has rendered it impervious to redevelopment despite its prime location, rather than try to eliminate it.
“Some of the students caught fire to the idea that this building is a sitting gold mine,” says graduate student Mark Keffer, the course’s teaching assistant. “And it’s not just this building, it’s hundreds of buildings across the state and nation. The idea that really captivated students was that a building could be redesigned to give back to the environment, not just the biological environment, but the social and community environment as well.”
The cost of mining that “gold,” while probably less than tearing down and rebuilding, is not cheap. Student estimates for a green roof pushed $1 million, with millions more in other proposals for photovoltaic panels, special trombe wall insulation and other projects. The class argues that the investment would respect Burlington’s industrial past while looking to the city’s green future, and pay huge dividends in inspiration.
Not all of the student proposals were pricey. Their research led them to argue for effective, inexpensive methods to start remediating the property’s environmental problems. A poplar grove in the coal- and oil-stained “black soil” surrounding the Moran, the group proposes, may be able to naturally clean much of the tainted earth.
As the sprawling presentation unfolded, expert observers in the audience chimed in on aspects of the proposal good and bad. An idea for developing a bicycle rickshaw service “had been tried before and didn’t work,” said a local planner.
The student presenters, fortified by months of internal debate and research, were undeterred by such skeptical feedback. Their answers took the site’s negatives into account then focused relentlessly on the possible, rather than just the merely probable.
Austin Troy, an assistant professor of natural resources and member of the Burlington Planning Commission, watched the presentation with three of his colleagues from the commission. He personally felt that the students’ work made a real contribution to Burlington’s ongoing conversation about the Moran’s fate.
“The question is always where the money is going to come from,” he says. “But what they’ve done is great: They’ve given out some information on green technologies that might apply to the site given its unique location and factors. They’ve given the city a lot of material to work with.
“If they want to pursue this, they need to talk with decision-makers and get the word out,” he continues. “Students have had influence in getting the new Intervale center to become reality and there’s reason to believe that the same thing could eventually happen with the Moran.”
That’s exactly what Keffer, and some of the non-graduating students who worked on the project, hope to do. And he’s optimistic about their potential for success.
“Ecological renovation is becoming more and more relevant all over the world. The momentum is at a point, and Burlington is progressive enough, for these two things to mesh and make a project like this happen,” he says. “We have waterfront, an industrial past, and a lot of green thinkers. Will something like this happen here in the next ten years? I would be surprised if it didn’t, either at the Moran or elsewhere.”
Mark Keffer invites dialogue about the course and the Moran, and is happy to share presentation materials. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.