Environmental studies professor’s passion for green design extends Elon’s reach in the community, ignites creativity in students’ work
There’s a gleam that flashes across Robert Charest’s eyes when he’s excited about a project.
Hang around long enough and you’ll catch it in the architect’s widening brown eyes: at a design concept, a student’s innovative solution, and especially a project he knows will benefit communities outside Elon University.
That gleam appeared on a recent Thursday as he described the just-conceived, still evolving elementary school project the associate professor of environmental studies’ students will design and build this spring.
Along with classes in Elon’s School of Education, they will build a greenhouse at Eastlawn Elementary School in Burlington, North Carolina. It will complement the garden and outdoor spaces Associate Professor of Education Scott Morrison’s students established there over the last few years and expanded last fall.
“I envision a ‘barn raising’ in April, on the week of Earth Day,” Charest said. “We will all be together as a community making this happen. The elementary students will be pulling on the ropes with us.”
He gestures around the design workshop at Loy Farm, anticipating what it will look like when ENS 366: Sustainable Design Technologies students have it filled with panels and frames of the building.
Morrison also buzzed about the project and the idea of constructing a greenhouse that would bolster Eastlawn’s garden club and double as an outdoor classroom. The project gets to the heart of his Environmental Education courses, and addresses aspects of the food justice movement to empower lower income communities and people of color to grow their own food and start agricultural businesses within food deserts.
“We need the space for students to start seeds and learn how to transplant seedlings to a garden. We want the kids to have ownership over the seeds they’ve grown,” Morrison said. “Robert and I both believe in this kind of work for a community, and this is the kind of engaged learning that Elon values so highly.”
Though details were still being worked out over Winter Term, Charest and Morrison were sure of the project’s merit. It was too good an idea not to come to fruition, Charest said. Morrison planned to apply for a Community Partnership Initiative Grant through the Kernodle Center for Service Learning and Community Engagement. The center’s funding “really matters,” and makes impactful teaching and learning opportunities possible at Elon.
The elementary greenhouse is the kind of project Charest gets most excited about, and why he’s grateful to Elon University for allowing the space, collaboration and intention to make them happen.
Charest is into his ninth year at Elon, having come from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro where he established the Urban Studio to allow students to complete design-build projects for the greater good. He brought that ethos to Elon — along with his passion for sustainable design — and began setting students here upon design and furnishing work as part of the NEW Studio. Elon students also contribute work as part of projects his architecture firm, atelier Charest + associates LLC, contracts with.
As often as possible, Charest assigns environmental studies students real-world projects for extended, public use.
“It’s not sustainable to make things just to make things. What we make has to have a purpose,” Charest said. “So, if we can make something for a deserving, underserved segment of the population, and make a positive impact on the community, we should do it.
During these nine years, Charest’s architecture studio with the assistance of Elon students redesigned and refurbished a 20,000-square-foot 1960s print shop to become the Shirley T. Frye YWCA in Greensboro, North Carolina. It features offices, classrooms, a daycare, women’s shelter and commercial kitchen — a $2.1 million project. The YWCA serves multiple purposes for various populations, lending challenges and opportunities for Charest and students to use in the space. The 1966 building was redesigned to allow abundant natural light, add architectural interest and functionality, and lovingly enhance areas the community uses.
Elon students co-designed and built the Container Space workshop at Loy Farm, fashioned from reused shipping containers. It’s where ENS students build their designs, stuffed with hardware, carpentry and power tools.
Most recently, students helped complete the farmhouse at Blawesome, a 4-acre working farm and homestead for an autistic adult near Saxapahaw, North Carolina, who sells the flowers and produce to support his livelihood. The home is replete with clean, modern lines, precise wooden and steel details, efficient uses of space, and — Charest’s trademark — flooded with natural light.
“They’re contributing to the field of sustainable design. We’re able to develop new methods, materials and techniques that anyone, anywhere can use.”
— Robert Charest, associate professor of environmental studies
In the classroom, Charest teaches sustainable design principles and often has students design and prototype tiny houses and sustainable community spaces.
For Charest, the basics of sustainable design are simple.
Steel, concrete, glass and wood are the best materials to build with — and the only ones he uses — because they are recyclable and renewable. He often uses shipping containers in designs because they have a limited life for their explicit purpose and can be easily customized and combined to create small homes and offices.
He emphasizes using the existing landscape to position a structure to decrease energy use. For instance, his designs feature more windows oriented on north-facing walls to capture indirect sunlight, and fewer on south-facing walls which take in more heat.
Because the structures are small, space is economized for maximum functionality.
In this semester’s ENS 110: Humans and Nature course, students designed compact affordable dwellings meant to house two to four students each and proposed as a new living-learning community at Loy Farm. Their ideas were beautifully simple: two or three joined shipping containers with shared living spaces; a two-story A-frame home with glass walls; tiny houses built on stilts with gathering spaces beneath.
For their final, each group presented its designs, building cost estimates and energy-use audits.
With each presentation, Charest became more and more enthusiastic, that gleam reappearing as he offered gentle critiques and praise.
“Every square inch has to be accounted for,” he told one group. “What if you rotated the washer-dryer to the right of the sinks? Immediately you’d get better access to the shower.”
“You have to bridge economy with efficiency, and you do that very well,” he told another.
“This is brilliant! Beautiful,” he gushed over the group whose A-frame design stood out among the eight class projects.
“I was incredibly impressed with their designs,” Charest said later. “This was the best class yet.”
Charest believes in the meaning and impact of students’ work, not just in their own knowledge of design, but because it holds the possibility of being part of their legacy at Elon and in the broader community.
“Seeing students get excited about their work: They’ll return to campus to show their families, maybe one day their children, and see what they built,” he said. “And they’re contributing to the field of sustainable design. We’re able to develop new methods, materials and techniques that anyone, anywhere can use.”