Transcend and Include

By Thomas Parry

For a moment, professor Rob Fleming has lost the room. 

He’s just revealed to his students that there are secret lists. These lists detail the materials and building components that meet the criteria of various sustainable building standards.

“Wait,” says a student from the back of the room, “why are they secret?”

Fleming explains. Suppose that you’re an architect and you have to put a water heater into a building that you’ve guaranteed will meet the Living Building Challenge, the most rigorous of all sustainable building standards. It’s a headache. The water pump will contain myriad pieces, epoxies and alloys and more, that might off-gas or corrode. The wrong pump will jeopardize the project’s integrity.

“The lists are secret because it’s valuable information,” Fleming says. “Architecture firms don’t want to hand that out to their competitors.”

The students mull it over, then rebel. This is a class on sustainable design, the practice of steering humanity away from climate cataclysm. The firms should share what they’ve discovered.

“But the firm put all that time and money into making that list,” Fleming says, smiling at the piqued energy of the room. 

Fleming looks to his teaching assistant, Abhiri Khisty, perhaps for rhetorical support. Khisty came to Jefferson all the way from India to pursue a master's degree in sustainable design after Fleming visited her university west of Mumbai. Today, however, she appears unwilling to join him in playing devil’s advocate.

The students, who are from around the world and the region—Egypt, Bangladesh, West Philadelphia, to name a few—appear united. To safeguard the future, altruism and cooperation must prevail over greed.

“There’re things more important than money,” says the student from West Philly. “I mean,” he says, laughing, “what are we doing here?”

As an expert in building with the climate in mind, Fleming obsesses on the future. As a professor and director of Jefferson’s sustainable design program within the College of Architecture and the Built Environment, he’s consumed by how to best educate students. The twin obsessions come together in his latest book, Design Education for a Sustainable Future, a title that serves as both a description and a demand.

You don’t want to destroy the past.

Rob Fleming

His operative framework in teaching for the future is “transcend and include.”

“You don’t want to destroy the past,” Fleming later explains. “You want to both transcend it and include it. You pull forward what’s useful. It’s part of a continuum.”

Fleming’s lecture is future-minded, replete with a colorful array of digitized information and online components. But the heart of it is Socratic. Fleming challenges the students. The students challenge Fleming. Together, they coax knowledge out of information, and wisdom out of experience. Education occurs.

In Fleming’s class, as in university classes across the country, the continuum of learning moves along. There are, however, certain problems of the present that threaten the whole endeavor for students and schools alike. 

Cost, for one. Tuitions have nearly doubled in the past generation. For students, the burden often results in real poverty. On the second floor of the Kanbar Campus Center, a few hundred feet from Fleming’s class, Jefferson students who struggle to afford food stock up on donated mac and cheese, ramen, and more from the Ramily Market, a free food pantry. 

The hunger goes far past Jefferson, of course. Roughly one-third to one-half of college students at four-year institutions report food insecurity, according to two major surveys. When students soften the burden of tuition with loans, the problem then rolls over into the country’s ever-darkening crisis of student debt, a tally that’s topped $1.6 trillion.

The cost crisis is not confined to students and their personal futures. As they glimpse the storm clouds of debt and poverty, more and more students are deciding against college, foreshadowing a dire future for academia. As of spring 2019, college enrollment declined across the U.S. for the eighth year in a row. The seats that these dissuaded students leave vacant, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, are mostly in the classrooms of small, private universities. 

Band Together

When Thomas Jefferson University and Philadelphia University merged in 2017, dozens of small, private, tuition-reliant colleges were in the midst of shuttering due to declining enrollment and rising costs. 

In banding together, TJU and PhilaU entwined the strengths of their institutions, giving the new Jefferson unique footing in the competition to attract students. 

With its intersection of medicine, design, and engineering, Jefferson is niche. Lots of students, however, see college as a time for variety and exploration, a time to grow the soul before settling on a profession. Rather than surrender these seekers to the “all-around” institutions—large public universities and endowment-rich private schools—a new initiative at Jefferson could turn its particularity into a portal. 

Mark L. Tykocinski, MD, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at Thomas Jefferson University, envisions a network of exploration. 

“We are positioning Jefferson as an outward-looking enterprise,” says Dr. Tykocinski. “By 2024, we want to have among the most extensive university pool partnership networks in the nation.”

Under Tykocinski’s vision, admission to Jefferson could mean entry into as many as two dozen other universities.

“Students would be able to take individual courses, semesters, or whole years at one of 20 institutions with no tuition-negative consequences,” he says.

Ron Kander, PhD, Dean of the Kanbar College of Design, Engineering, and Commerce and associate provost for applied research at Jefferson, offers an example: “We could have a student who wants to take a semester away at Haverford, because Haverford has Russian language classes and we don’t.”

To create this open network, participating institutions will have to drop the standard use of that small but mighty bureaucratic detail, the credit hour.

At present, universities use the credit hour to mercenary advantage. As 36 million Americans with college credit but no degree can attest, the credit hour keeps students captive to the institution and on the hook for the tuition bill. In contrast, credit hours in a Jefferson higher ed network would become free-flowing, informative, and compatible bits of information that empower students to explore.

Ditching the territorial model of credits for an open network is a big ask, but for many universities, the future is at stake. 

“As the number of butts becomes less than the number of seats, universities have to do something creative, or we’re just going to see more schools closing,” Dr. Kander says.

On the other hand, collaboration, especially by schools that hold different strengths, can multiply the value of those skills. In other words, niche—such as medicine plus textiles, or public health and sustainability—is good.

“We’re in an interesting position,” says Kander. “We’re a very unique kind of professional school. We don’t look like very many institutions.”

Crossing Boundaries

Dr. Tykocinski is the son of Polish Jews who survived Auschwitz, made it to America, became chicken farmers, and sent him to Yale University. The farm boy studied philosophy and went to Boston, where, by his telling, he happened down a hallway that had but one open door. In that room was a man named Bernard Lown, a medical doctor who would later win a Nobel Prize for fighting the threat of nuclear war. More immediately, Lown befriended Tykocinski and set him on the path to becoming a doctor.

With this personal history, this sequence of improbable steps—borders crossed, expectations defied, chance encounters—it’s no wonder Tykocinski believes in the benefit of unlikely partnerships.

The results, he says, can save lives. He has evidence.

Loud noise in neonatal intensive care units stresses medically fragile babies. At certain levels, it can halt their lungs. 

“The people who’ve tried to deal with this problem have used all these crazy contraptions,” Tykocinski says. 

At JeffSolves 2019, a collaborative program between Sidney Kimmel Medical College and the Kanbar College of Design, Engineering, and Commerce, industrial design student Colin Lew and medical students Alex McCullough, Mohammad Rasool, and Alison Romisher developed a cozy, breathable headband with earmuffs containing four sound-dampening layers.

Calling their product Earpeace, the medical and design students fashioned an inexpensive, comfortable, and simple solution that could reduce NICU decibels by half for infants.

Dr. Tykocinski points to another JeffSolves prototype.

Problem: Nurse anesthetists and anesthesiologists suffer elevated rates of spontaneous abortion and cancer due in part to anesthetic gases that leak from masks and collect in their bodies over time. 

Solution: Medical students Cary Hess and Jonathan Karp and industrial design students Cory Jameson and Delara Kiani created Respiro, a simple anesthetic mask overlay that traps gases. It’s simple, cheap, and poses no interference for the anesthesiologist. 

“Essentially, they’ve solved the problem,” Tykocinski says with no small measure of pride.

To foster more experimental, unlikely, and beneficial partnerships akin to JeffSolves, Jefferson is building a “creative core curriculum” in which each discipline, from architecture to fashion to medicine and more, will include “creativity intensive” courses. 

“We’re not talking about whether you can draw or sing,” says Stephen K. Klasko, MD, MBA, president of Thomas Jefferson University and CEO of Jefferson Health. “We’re talking about whether you can think differently. Can you create change? Can you enjoy change instead of being afraid of it?”

To cultivate an appreciation of creativity in, say, public health, nursing, or construction management, students will take courses that ask them to reflect on how creative problem-solving could transform their disciplines, careers, industries, and lives for the better.

Meanwhile, the curriculum will stitch these reflections to reality with experimental workshops that require student teams to work together across disciplines to solve problems.

“Transdisciplinary, cross-cutting collaborations work,” says Tykocinski. “But they only work when students learn to communicate.”

Each discipline and profession implies a way of seeing the world, a mental model of reality. At times, these models clash.

“You’re sitting there, facing a problem with people of a different discipline,” Tykocinski says. “How do you talk their language? How do you relate?”

Digital Building

On the second floor studio of the East Falls campus’ Sustainability, Energy Efficiency, and Design (SEED) Center, master’s degree students are flexing some expertise.

With each at their own butcher block table, they work on individual designs to repurpose Fort Miles, a former Army base in Cape Henelopen, Delaware, that once stared down German U-Boats prowling the American Atlantic coast.

Niranjan Patil adjusts the computer rendering of a staircase on his laptop. A few years back, Patil set out from undergrad and made a successful start of his own architecture practice in Kolhapur, India. 

“The firm was doing well. We had work,” Patil says, “but I needed more knowledge.”

He wanted to deepen his command of design, construction, cost, time, and quality. He wanted structures at peace with their natural surroundings.

There are no secrets. Patil, a digital native, could have scoured the internet alone, but knowledge and information aren’t the same. He closed his firm and came to Jefferson to pursue a double masters in sustainable design and construction management. “Everything I’m learning here,” he says, “it all applies.”

At the next table, Jeffrey Zarnoch is not only reimagining Fort Miles, he’s making a home for his own future. 

Zarnoch and his partner are moving to southern Arizona to be close to family, and they’ve bought a plot of land that looks onto the fearsome mesa of Gold Canyon.

“It’s shaped like a basset hound,” Zarnoch says with a smile.

Zarnoch has decades of design experience. He’s earned his LEED credentials and completed advanced studies in business. He’s even clocked over a dozen years teaching design at Jefferson. But he’s become a student once again so that his new home, which he’s having built in modules, will maximize its solar capacity, put use to cross breezes, and even harness the rare but torrential rains that sweep the desert valley.

Plus, a Jefferson MS in sustainable design will put him higher in the running for university teaching jobs out West.

For now, he works at the Henelopen project on paper. As befits a professor of technical drawing, his lines are flawless.

Under Tykocinski’s vision, admission to Jefferson could mean entry into as many as two dozen other universities.

At the third table, Abhiri Khisty, Fleming’s teaching assistant, works the Henelopen project on both paper and screen. Khisty is soft-spoken and easygoing, but she has velocity, the sort that comes with increasing mastery of skill. 

Within a little over a year at Jefferson, she’s already interned with a playground designer, a real estate developer, and an environmental consulting firm. She’s taught high school kids how to design a sustainable building for their own campus. On the way she’s amassing experience, connections, potential partners, and new opportunities for the future.

Elsewhere in the SEED studios, undergrads are working toward the independence and capability of Patil, Zarnoch, and Khisty. 

Numbering 24 in all, they gather in groups at shared tables. Each student has their eyes on their own laptop, though they’re all looking at the same thing. 

The screens depict a proposed building at 10th and Chestnut. The parameters and purpose of this project are set: It’s to be a multilevel meeting and workshop space for Jefferson Center City and East Falls students. The lot and neighboring structures are determined. The building must reach net-zero carbon emissions, or get damn close. And it must be beautiful. 

The students come from different disciplines: sustainability, engineering, construction management, interior design, and architecture. They look up from their individual screens and begin talking with one another. They begin the project of creating—at least virtually—a building that exists within its limits, fulfills or even exceeds its purpose, and creates a meaningful experience for those who enter.

It’s not easy work. Each of the students represents a different discipline, and each brings the pressures and vision of their discipline upon the group.

Students of sustainable design, for example, might sweat the interior architecture’s students desire to add another floor. The size of the roof is fixed, and its solar array cannot expand to meet the energy draw of another story.

Compromise: Light shelves could bounce more sunlight deep into the interior and cut down on the need for electric lighting. The shelves, the architecture student might object, attach to the outside of the building and interrupt the grace of its exterior line. 

Gears may grind, but the students go on. They learn about each other’s priorities, each other’s way of seeing. They learn that these ways of seeing all exist at once, and at times they align and synthesize. They communicate. They come up with new solutions. 

What about beehives on the roof to promote pollination of urban food systems? What about a cistern with an ultraviolet light chamber to purify collected rainwater?

Between the tables of collaborating groups, three professors patrol. 

Laura Baumbach, professor and director of Jefferson’s interior design and interior architecture program; Brian Johnston, adjunct professor of architecture; and Rob Fleming make rounds, checking in with the students. 

The professors operate both as avatars of their disciplines, reminding the students what they have learned, and as stand-ins for reality. 

Each professor is deep in their own professional career, and have all dealt with unforeseen problems, unforgiving sites, and tough projects. 

Sometimes you get a bad batch of drywall. Halfway through building, a client might revise their demands. Costs balloon. When digging geothermal wells in Philadelphia’s historic core, who knows what you’ll find?

These buildings exist on the digital plane. The students render them with luminous, hi-def glass. They create lightwells several stories tall, curved walls draped with leaves, digital pedestrians entering the lobby, and birds in the computerized sky.

The human lessons, however, are real: Keep your creativity alive. Communicate and collaborate. Share, listen, assert yourself, cede the floor, and keep an open mind. 

They’re learning to work together.