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Featured Faculty: Brook Muller

muller_brookBrook Muller has been interested in green building for a while now. “I remember back as high schooler I got a Sierra Club book called Better Homes and Garbage, which told you how to calculate heat gain and loss and how to make a solar house. I got really excited.”

Muller went on to major in Environmental Studies at Brown University and earn his Masters of Architecture at the University of Oregon, after which he worked as the director of a program in sustainable environments and as an assistant professor at California Polytechnic State University. He arrived as faculty to the University of Oregon in 2004. Through it all he has maintained a commitment to environmental thinking, and often collaborates in his design projects with both ecologists and professors in the environmental humanities. “I was also just on the Environmental Studies department’s English search committee, which was an extraordinary experience given that I’m interested in the poetics of green building. My summer reading list is now twenty summers long.”

Such interdisciplinary collaboration reflects how his interests have grown since Better Homes and Garbage. Although sustainable architecture typically evokes “performance-based propositions” highlighting issues like energy conservation, Muller pushes the concept further: “I feel like when we start engaging environmental issues more deeply it opens up a new set of possibilities for expression within architecture. Buildings have to perform well, but they are also symbolic; they communicate an ethos. I’m really interested in the poetics of environmental design.”

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This interest finds expression in his new book, Ecology and the Architectural Imagination, which considers how “designers might gain some measure of ecological literacy, and the opportunities that that opens up.” Architects have always used metaphors to describe their work, and Ecology and the Architectural Imagination highlights a few like the “organism metaphor,” that buildings are bodies. Muller explains that “we are smitten with that idea today and we like evolutionary biology terms like replication and genetic switches. However, my contention is that while we use these terms to create buildings that have adaptable façades that may perform better, we can also be thinking about biology in ways that affect how species are actually going to be able to occupy human-dominated environments.”

As an example of such thinking, Muller remarks that his colleague in landscape architecture, Bart Johnson, “would say that cities from the standpoint of species are like rock outcrops—great for shelf- and cavity-nesting birds, but not necessarily for a whole lot else.” By re-examining the meaning and purpose of our buildings, we have the opportunity to design spaces that support a greater diversity of species. As such, Muller sees his book as “a rumination on how the design process would be affected in positive and exciting ways, if we started to think more ecologically.”

Muller also sees the University of Oregon as the perfect place to explore such possibilities. The university has a deep history in green design and issues of social equity: “in the ‘80s, which was sort of the ‘Ronald Reagan era’ of architecture, when one of his first acts as president was to remove all the solar panels from the White House, we hung to our green building values.” As a result, the U of O remains a leader in sustainable architecture and continues to attract architecture students who are interested in environmental issues. Many of them end up as Muller’s students, and he loves it. “I have two students who were in my architecture studio in the winter who are Environmental Studies minors, and it’s great to see smart, capable students in the department, putting together these kind of connections. They understand the significance of what we’re doing.”