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Special young adults learn about their roles in sustainable design

Barbara Moser

June 2011

Darlene Berringer’s loft at the Château St. Ambroise near Atwater Market is where she welcomes those she mentors—young adults along the spectrum of autism and Asperger’s syndrome.

We featured her almost two years ago on the cover of The Senior Times and described her efforts, many successful, to integrate these young people—often extremely intelligent but lacking communication skills, into the complex working world.

On this afternoon, Darlene has invited me to a marble-table discussion between Yosef Robinson and Loren Gabbay, both 28, and Andrew Dolin, who teaches sustainable design at Concordia. Andrew is working on a self-designed MA in Arts, more specifically industrial design with a touch of architecture and is working in a project involving what he calls “cross pollination” among faculties and departments at Concordia. He tells us about such far-reaching projects at Concordia as a pedal-powered beehive honey extractor and an urban farming project at Loyola “so we understand where our food is coming from.

“The university has an abundance of power, student power,” he tells Yosef, an urban planner, and Loren, a self-made technology buff who works in commercial real estate, writing up leases. Yosef also works at Maimonides hospital centre, leading Jewish services when the rabbi is absent, three times a week.

Clearly, neither of these young men is average. They ask intriguing questions and make perceptive comments when Andrew begins to describe his central project: building a compound for Concordia volunteers in Uganda. The conversation then moves to 3D learning, a new approach to teaching those with autism and Asperger’s.

L to R: Loren Gabbay, Darlene Berringer, Yosef Robinson and Andrew Dolin Photo: Barbara Moser

“People with autism don’t learn through traditional means,” Darlene explains.

Andrew adds: “It’s visual. You see, you understand. Students like these will excel in this environment by actually experiencing it.”

He proceeds to open his laptop so we can see the project he is working on as well as an explanation of how he develops ideas. “We discount what we learnt as children—toys!” As children, Andrew explains, we play with Lego, blocks and Mechano, building and designing and then disassembling and reassembling. Andrew shows us examples of small wooden structures he has assembled. Wood, he says, is much better for the environment than concrete and plaster, and he adds, you can take it apart and use it for another function. He proceeds to show us chairs and tables that can be altered to fit the needs and body size of the user or can be altered to change functions entirely.

The genius of the Vancouver Olympics, he says, is that everything that was built could be disassembled.

The conversation then veers to “organic essentialism,” using only what we need and creating it from natural resources. In Uganda, he has done just that, designing a compound for Concordia volunteers that includes four round structures with thatched roofs, all fitting in with the natural environment and building standards of Uganda.

Somehow we are off and running on the subject of recycling and from there to the plastic bottles on the tables, all half filled with water. And from that seemingly insurmountable environmental issue, we are on to the biggest environmental problem in the world, according to Andrew, the iPhone. Apparently, these critters are made to be replaced as soon as possible. When one program goes wrong, like the camera, we are encouraged to throw out the phone and replace it.

It’s called “planned obsolescence,” Yosef says.

As Darlene and I clear away the pizza boxes, Andrew, Yosef and Loren are huddled in a corner of the large loft, talking more about career paths in the realm of sustainable development. We have made new friends, talked about what we can do to live better in this ever increasingly wasteful world, and how we can make others aware that they, too, can change the world, one mind and heart at a time.



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