Exhibit champions green design

Kawiaka's exhibit, now at the Strauss Gallery, includes models of existing homes she has designed.

Kawiaka's exhibit, now at the Strauss Gallery, includes models of existing homes she has designed.

A striking arrangement of transparent blocks tinged blue by lights lining the edges is illuminating the Strauss Gallery in the Hopkins Center this term as the key feature of an architecture exhibit by studio art professor Karolina Kawiaka. The exhibit, which opened Jan. 12 and is on display until March 14, also includes several miniature, expertly detailed models of energy efficient buildings and a series of framed abstract drawings that Kawiaka said deals with “compositional issues and depth of space.”

Kawiaka the proprietor of Karolina Kawiaka Studio, an architecture, furniture and visual art firm in Vermont received a grant from the Vermont Arts Council to create her “sculpture powered by the sun.” The piece, which uses the sunlight that floods the Strauss Gallery to illuminate hundreds of small blue bulbs, is highly indicative of Kawiaka’s approach to her work, which combines fine-art aesthetics with eco-friendly practicality.

The models on display in the exhibit are small-scale versions of some of Kawiaka’s architectural projects. And while some are still works in progress, others are tiny representations of constructed buildings.

Among these is the model of the LaRocque-Tipton House, an environmentally friendly house that was built in Maine two years ago, according to Kawiaka. The family that lives there makes all of its electricity and heat with solar panels and burns just one cord of wood per year for heat.

Funds are also currently being raised for the construction of a house for Habitat for Humanity, a model of which is also featured in the exhibit. Students in the Winter 2009 class in sustainable design co-taught by Kawiaka and Thayer School of Engineering professor Benoit Cushman-Roisin collaborated to create the designs for this zero-net energy house, Kawiaka said. The architecture and engineering students combined their efforts to come up with a plan that utilized many sustainable elements, such as solar panels and a solar hot water system.

Not surprisingly given the content of the exhibit, much of Kawiaka’s work, both at Dartmouth and through Kawiaka Studio, is concerned with green design.

“Sustainable design is just good design. It’s taking more of an ecological or ecosystem approach to building design,” Kawiaka said.

A proponent of “minimizing your ecological footprint,” Kawiaka builds homes that have “a more symbiotic relationship with their sites.” To achieve these goals, she focuses on minimizing resource consumption and using local resources whenever possible. By ensuring that her buildings are well-insulated and by designing smaller houses, for example, Kawiaka reduces the amount of fuel required for heat.

“They use fewer resources, but they can still be wonderful places to live,” she said of some of her smaller designs.

While purchasing local resources can be more expensive than obtaining resources from abroad due to higher local labor costs, Kawiaka emphasized that the extra expense ultimately supports the local community and environment.

“We should be thinking about keeping our local economy growing. And you’re not only helping the local economy, but you’re using less [energy] because the materials came from close by,” she said.

Kawiaka pointed out the irony in purchasing stone from outside Vermont and New Hampshire, given the fact that New Hampshire’s nickname is “The Granite State.” She also noted the benefits of using local, sustainably harvested wood.

Kawiaka traces her interest in “the relationship between the built environment and the natural landscape” to her upbringing on a Vermont farm and the experiences she had traveling with her father to granite quarries. This longstanding interest carries over into the exhibit, which she said explores the connection between the natural environment and the man-made one.

“I’d like people to appreciate the beauty and power of the natural environment,” she said. She also said she would like visitors of the exhibit to notice “the fact that the natural environment has a profound emotional and physical effect on us and vice versa, so in our daily lives we make an impact on the natural environment without thinking about it.”

On campus, Kawiaka spreads this message by teaching classes that focus on sustainability, including the engineering course “Sustainsable Design,” and several advanced courses in the environmental studies department. Students in those classes work to come up with plans to switch Dartmouth’s campus to renewable energy sources, Kawiaka said. They explored such methods as increasing building efficiency, implementing solar water systems and harnessing wind power for electricity, she said.

Apart from sharing her design savvy with students, Kawiaka has been recruited along with a handful of other studio art professors to give input on the new Visual Arts Center. The current exhibit represents an opportunity for visitors to see examples of art that has had, and will continue to have, a concrete effect on the community in which it is created.

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