April 06, 2015, BY Matt Hughes

Watch Sigi Koko ’90 and Bucknell students put up the walls of a straw-bale building in less than two minutes. 

At first, it was almost like building with Lego blocks.

Together with students from Professor Steve Buonopane's sustainable building design class, Sigi Koko '90 stacked bales of straw on the lawn behind the Elaine Langone Center (ELC) on the Bucknell University campus, securing each block to the one beneath with a bamboo stake to create a u-shaped wall. Then out came the paintbrushes, and as Koko and the students coated the wall with plaster, it began to look less like child's play and more like a solid structure.

But could this rudimentary house of straw survive even the huffing and puffing of the Big Bad Wolf? It could, Koko, a natural materials architect and founder of Down to Earth Design, said with a smile.

"They've done hurricane-testing," she grinned. "The walls deflected about a half-inch, but they never failed, even at hurricane-force winds."

Throughout the day on March 26, the first day of the 2015 Bucknell University Sustainability Symposium, Koko darted between building her straw-bale structure and sharing the advantages of the construction method with passers-by who paused to watch. And while she was eager to tout those benefits (which also include exceptional insulation value and, when properly sealed, resistance to rot and fire), Koko said her main goal was simply to remind students of what is possible.

"I teach because I think education is the key to change, and your brain can't wrap itself around an alternative that you've never been exposed to," she said. "Once you know there are other options, it makes you think about everything differently."

Paul Hook '15 fastens straw bales together as Sigi Koko '90 looks on.

Inside the ELC, students and faculty gathered for the third annual Sustainability Symposium sought to imagine those alternatives, asking how disciplines as diverse as history, the philosophy of animal ethics and rhetoric and poetics can inform sustainability practices today. By the end of the day, eleven Bucknell scholars from eight different departments shared their perspectives on imagining, designing and creating sustainability.

"We were inspired by the idea that human beings have the power of creativity to shape their world and their future," said Dina El-Mogazi, director of the Bucknell Center for Sustainability & the Environment's sustainable design program. "So we played with the themes of imagination, design and creativity, and how these human gifts could work toward a sustainable future for everybody."

The Symposium was a two-day gathering sponsored by the Office of the Provost, the Bucknell Center for Sustainability & the Environment, the School of Management, the College of Engineering, the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering, the Rooke Chair in the Historical and Social Context of Engineering, the Pennsylvania Environmental Resource Consortium, the Bucknell Environmental Club, the managing for sustainability program and the environmental studies program.

Faculty and student panels, as well as keynote speaker Jason McLennan, award winning architect and author and founder of the Living Building Challenge, encouraged attendees of the symposium to rethink common practices and to deeply consider the logic that supports them.

"Be a troublemaker," McLennan said. "Find good mentors, then follow your bliss."

Professor Claire Campbell, history, reminded that even past decisions to transform nature that we now recognize as unsustainable, such as the conversion of the Midwest into a "gridded wheat production system" or the massive irrigation systems that have turned the California desert into "the nation's fruit and vegetable garden," were made by people in the interest "of the future they wanted to see realized."

"We can think of their actions having destructive consequences, but it's a good cautionary tale that encourages us to ask, what future are we imagining, sustainable or otherwise?" she questioned.

Professor Gary Steiner, philosophy, likewise raised an aspect sometimes overlooked in sustainability discussions. Citing the more than 50 billion land animals killed for human consumption annually, the animal ethics philosopher asked, "Sustainability for whom?"

A research poster session and student-led roundtable discussions were featured on the second day of the symposium.

For Paul Hook '15, a civil engineering major, the symposium, coupled with the opportunity to work with Koko, provided ample opportunity to look differently at a subject he studies every day.

"It helps you think of alternative ways to build things outside of the typical code book," Hook said. "It allows you to think more holistically in your design process about what can be done to achieve more sustainable results."

On Friday March 27, another full day of programming titled Sustainability in Action focused on student contributions to the sustainability of their campuses and communities. Students from around Pennsylvania shared posters, presentations and round-table discussions in Larison Dining Hall.