Chris McDowell: Environmental Everyman

By: Zoe Brawner

Chris McDowell has had an interest in building since he was boy.  As a child McDowell would play with Lincoln Logs and building blocks.

“I was always fascinated with building so I would play with dirt and build stuff. I was into organizing kind of out doors stuff like rock piles.”

Chris McDowell is an environmental everyman. Motivated by training, literature and music, McDowell is building his part of the world with materials others have left behind.

As the director of the University of Georgia Material Reuse Program, McDowell is no longer building structures out of Lincoln Logs or building blocks. Today McDowell uses reclaim and found materials meaning materials you can find in a dumpster, somebody’s trash pile, or materials that are simply not being used.

Their mission is to divert construction and demolition waste from sites on the UGA campus and within the Athens region and actively reuse these “waste” materials on community-based and student projects, according to McDowell’s Material Reuse Program website. And that is exactly what McDowell does. There is no hiding McDowell’s ambitious work scope for his projects. McDowell has completed two dozen or so projects since starting this program and currently has several projects in the works all benefiting the community.

McDowell is just starting his most recent project where he is building a giant pavilion for the Athens Clarke County Recycling department. The ACC Recycling division has a composting facility where McDowell plans to build a teaching pavilion for students from kindergarten to the eighth grade.

“I’m building a teaching pavilion but also a site around it that uses waste water and you know there is probably going to be a rain guard in there or something like that and seating. So that’s going to be around 1500 square feet. We might build a green roof on it.

McDowell received his Bachelors degree in Urban Planning from the University of Cincinnati and his Masters in Landscape Architecture at the University of Georgia. Hence why McDowell wanted to build this teaching pavilion this way so kids can see the different types of environmental design. It is important to McDowell that they don’t just plop down a building in the middle of nowhere and leave it at that.

“I got into environmental design because I feel like designers can make a difference in peoples lives with connecting man with nature but in a sensible way not in a ludicrous way, McDowell said. “So that’s why as a landscape architect I do what I do. We are trying to bridge the connection between nature and the built environment.”

The Control of Nature by John McPhee is one of McDowell’s favorite novels he recommends to others to read. McPhee focuses on environmental problems in different parts of the country where man has attempted to control nature.

“His book was very powerful and a book that is very important to me.”

As an environmental designer, McDowell expressed the importance of building with nature and not against it or on top of it.

While talking to McDowell it was apparent that McDowell is down to earth man and a relatable human being to many. McDowell is not only a handy man but he is also a musician. McDowell started to play the drums when he was ten years old to recently about five years ago.

“I play drums so I like anything with a beat honestly. I listen to everything. I listen to jazz I like hip-hop you know I’m into pretty much anything that’s not like Justin Beiber. I like a lot of old class country like Hank Williams or Wailin Jennys.”

He even played for his church. Raised in a Presbyterian church McDowell thinks religion is important for communities. “It keeps people together and it is very family oriented” McDowell said.

Due to the fact that McDowell has lived in cities his whole life when McDowell moved to Athens he realized how much he enjoys being outside and working with others.

“I like working in rural areas and I think I would like to actually live in a rural area. Sometimes I think about getting a piece of property and building my house out in a rural area because its just nice to be away from all the clutter and all the nonsense that goes on in a larger area.”

Athens has been good to McDowell because it is a big enough city but he can also drive fifteen minutes out and be in the country. “It’s a nice mix here,” McDowell said.

It may seem as though McDowell’s lifestyle is all work and no play but his lifestyle has a balance. On a typical day McDowell likes to start his mornings off right and goes to the Big City Bread Café to get a coffee. If he is lucky enough to have the day off McDowell spends as much time as possible outdoors.  McDowell enjoys eating downtown at the Last Resort and Tlaloc El Mexicano off Chase Street whenever he can. In the evenings McDowell can be found at the Manhattan Bar drinking a Schlitz.

In the future McDowell plans to build his own house deep in the countryside. “I’ve always wanted to build a house out of rammed earth or something like that but I don’t know how it would hold up in this environment where it rains so much” McDowell said.”

I could easily probably build my stuff our of found materials or natural materials.