Knowing that today’s students could be tomorrow’s sustainable design leaders, New York’s Pratt Institute is going green in more ways than one. Rather than merely tacking courses in sustainable design onto its current offerings, the school is working to embrace green thinking at its core. And instead of dictating the rules from on high, it’s taking an approach that’s bottom up.

The changes began about five years ago with Sustainable Pratt, a grassroots group of concerned faculty members that sought to identify opportunities for bringing sustainability issues to the fore. Starting out with less than a dozen members, the ranks have since swelled to about 120. In recognition of that group’s impact over the years, Pratt created a new position last September – the Academic Director of Sustainability – and appointed longtime instructor Debera Johnson to the post. “I was one of the original founders of Sustainable Pratt,” says Johnson. “It was a little group of people from across the institute who were interested in bringing sustainability into the classroom and doing interdisciplinary projects. It ultimately resulted in a real grass roots strategic plan that was presented to the president and actually taken on.”

Johnson wants to keep that organic approach growing. “When you’re dealing with artists and designers, they’re change makers who are creating what’s next. You can’t go in and tell people what to do,” she says. “That would be a real mistake in an art and design institute that’s very much based on individual vision.” Instead, she is leading the development of a Center for Sustainable Design Studies, which will host workshops and seminars to further educate faculty about sustainability so that knowledge about different design approaches continually filters down throughout the school’s curricula. At the same time, the center will put together interdisciplinary groups that span different specialties to help encourage a holistic green education.


On campus, Pratt is also trying to walk the talk. This spring, it breaks ground on a new building at 524 Myrtle Avenue by Studio A and WASA Architects, that is designed to achieve a LEED Gold certification. It is also developing a Green Walk across campus to show off many of the school’s green initiatives that might otherwise go unnoticed. “It’s like a map of Pratt’s campus that will speak to different interventions and actions that are taking place,” says Johnson. That will include everything from a building being retrofitted with new windows, to research about water quality in the Hudson River, to a model green dorm room.

Johnson also heads up the Pratt Design Incubator for Sustainable Innovation. The incubator’s goal is to help Pratt students, faculty, and alumni take their ideas for sustainable products and services beyond mere concept, and launch them into the market. Projects in development include everything from ivy-like Grow solar panels (which were selected by the Museum of Modern Art for its Design and the Elastic Mind exhibition) to furniture made with wood reclaimed from New York City water towers.


For those on the outside hoping to get a peek at today’s Pratt, the institute’s second annual Green Week, March 24 to 28, is a good opportunity. Organized by Sustainable Pratt, Green Week hosts a wide variety of events and invites the broader community to join in. “It’s all really about how the community and Pratt campus are synergistic,” says Jaime Stein, a graduate student in environmental management systems who is one of the organizers. “Sustainability is supposed to take all these different things into account – the environment, the economy, and social equity – so we open it up to everybody.”

This year’s keynote speaker is Paul Polak, founder of International Development Enterprises, and one of the thinkers behind the design movement catering to “the other 90 percent” (March 27, 6:00 p.m., Higgins Hall Auditorium). The week officially kicks off on Monday, March 24, with an exhibition on sustainable materials, and a show of student proposals under the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group that are aimed at greening the urban environment. On Tuesday, the focus changes to alternative transportation with offerings like free bicycle repairs to help keep students and community members rolling. On Wednesday, it’s sustainable architecture, with presentations addressing everything from Pratt’s own actions on campus to seminars on energy efficient building. Thursday’s activities focus on social equity and include urban gardening demonstrations as well as Polak’s presentation. Green Week then wraps up on Friday with films about the state of the planet as well as a green market where local organic food producers will be invited to sell their products on campus. For more details, and the full schedule of activities, visit Green Week.

With a wide range of green design activities beginning to permeate its campus, classrooms, and larger community, Pratt is increasingly integrating green thinking with design education. “Nowhere has an art and design school with the size of Pratt, and with the range of disciplines of Pratt, done this at an institutional level,” says Johnson. “One of our goals is to become a model for other art and design schools.”

Posted March 21, 2008