Sustainable inspiration

As the dialogue dome and eco-oven draw near to completion at the southwest outside corner of Smith Center, the unique construction project has proved not only to be earth-friendly but a source of inspiration to many people.


Students have worked side-by-side with parents, at least one professor has joined in and a number of organizations and individuals on and off campus have contributed money, counsel and skills. More than becoming a mere symbol of sustainable construction, the project has become an incentive for many to contribute to one dramatic symbol of sustainability.


For those unfamiliar with the dome project, it is an unfamiliar-looking pair of structures built of all eco-friendly materials, mainly wood and a construction material known as cob. Cob is an amalgam of sand, clay and straw. When properly compacted and shaped, mainly by foot and hand power, cob is reputed to be durable and lasting, particularly if given finishing coats of all-natural pigments similar to the washes used on Da Vinci’s Last Supper fresco. The clay acts like glue, the straw gives tensile strength and the sand hardens the structure.


The guiding energizer for the project is Heidi Moore, graduate student in conflict resolution. She had proposed the project as her thesis subject. Her strong right hand is Jason Wallace, graduate student in urban planning.


The purpose of the project, Moore explained, is “to create a space for dialogue to occur, an interdisciplinary dialogue to address the ecological collapse. Everything has to slow down if we’re going to make sustainability happen.”


Wallace has gained fame in the past two years as a creator of eco-roofs, a type of roof planted in vegetation to reduce and conserve rain runoff. He originally gained attention by erecting a sample eco-roof near the streetcar campus stop, a portable structure still being recycled throughout the campus. The two eco-roofs at the dome project are his number seven and number eight roofs.


The planners and workers for the dome have designated themselves Project Sustain Urth, giving earth the U to make the acronym PSU. If the work proceeds on schedule, the project will be finished in about two weeks.


Some of the most inspirational associations have been those of students working with parents. One example: student Casey Wilson’s father, Phil Wilson, is a carpenter who lent his skills and efforts, working side-by-side with his son.


“It’s nice that students are working with their families for a common goal,” Moore said.

An adjunct professor who gave only her first name, Julie, walked by the unfolding project, decided she wanted to get involved, grabbed a shovel and started shoveling sand.


“I’m always interested in the environment,” she said. “Better something than nothing.”

Moore maintains a passionate fervor for sustainability. She originally posed as her thesis question, “What will be a catalyst for change in the minds of the American people to bring themselves from a consumptive materialistic way of life to an ecologically sustainable one?” Her response was the dialogue dome and oven.

Only visible from the third floor window of Smith Center is a spiral design of the plantings on the dome eco-roof. Moore explained that the two spirals are the ancient Fibonacci spiral design, a natural shape that is found, for instance, in the nautilus shell. Wallace said the roofs are planted in native sedum, a ground cover, and succulents, a group of plants that includes cacti.


The floor of the dome will be paved in flat stone blocks, spaced so grass can grow among them, and is being designed to be wheelchair accessible.

Bumps in the ground north of the dome, called bio swales, are designed to slow down and channel rain runoff so the moisture nurtures plantings in the ground.

The eco-oven now sports a locking bar to protect against vandalism or contamination. It will be available to Food For Thought bakers to bake organic bread. Moore said they may also cater their baking skills to the Saturday Market crowd.

Moore envisions a kind of grand opening program in November, where she and other dedicated workers will take the Smith Center stage to present their project and its significance.


“We’re hoping to create a sense of awe,” she said.


She considers the dome and oven only the beginning of similar projects, and thanks the facilities landscaping department for invaluable advice and assistance.

The City of Portland awarded the group a $3,300 grant, but the bulk of the work and materials for the dome project have been volunteer or donated.