A Sustainable Movement

EcoDorm sketch

It may look like a simple log cabin set against a wooded hillside, but the EcoDorm being built at Warren Wilson College is on the cutting edge of a new movement to make universities friendlier to the environment. And in most cases it is the pupils, not the teachers, who are paving the way.

Along with other students at Warren Wilson, Olja Milenkaya, an environmental studies major, felt that there was an incongruity between the concepts she was learning in classes -- including conservation and sustainable development -- and the way her university actually functioned. "We are at an educational institution and learning about the environment, yet not able to live the values that we are developing," she says. Last year, she and a few others began working with their college administrators to design a new dormitory that would use natural resources such as sunlight, shade, and breezes more efficiently while implementing eco-friendly technologies like photovoltaic panels for electricity and solar space and water heating. According to Olja, the EcoDorm is a great opportunity for her, and the thirty-five other students that will be living there when it opens next fall, to "live out those values more fully."

Warren Wilson is one of many schools across the nation that have begun experimenting with renewable energy sources and energy-efficient building materials in their own facilities. Because universities are among the biggest energy users in the world, college and university campuses could save a lot of money by finding alternative means of generating their energy, while producing a lot less waste and pollution at the same time. In doing so, universities can become catalysts in their local -- and even global -- communities by demonstrating the benefits of sustainable development.

The positive effects could be far-reaching. According to the U.S. Department of Energy's website: "If only 10 percent of homes in the U.S. used solar water-heating systems, we would avoid 8.4 million metric tons of carbon emissions each year."

"If only 10 percent of homes in the U.S. used solar water-heating systems, we would avoid 8.4 million metric tons of carbon emissions each year."

While environmental concerns are paramount to students like Olja, however, economics play a much larger role in administrators' decisions to implement sustainable development plans on their campuses. "If you look at it up front," she explains, "some of the materials are more expensive. If you look at it through the life-span of the building, it will prove to be way more inexpensive, because of how much energy and water you save."

Max Harper, a junior at Colorado College, is spearheading a similar push for sustainable housing at his school. Last year he and several other students operated a sustainable living theme house; activities at the house included, among other things, replacing individual refrigerators with more energy-efficient models and converting many lights to use compact fluorescent bulbs. The result was that the house's energy consumption was reduced by 33 percent compared with the previous year, according to Max.

Largely due to the success of the theme house, this year the college approved a proposal put together by Max and other students and has granted them use of a 6- to 10-bed house that will be retrofitted with environmentally friendly features. Although the administration supports sustainable development in theory, it certainly has its own vested interest in the results.

Max says that Colorado College's business office, along with the departments of residential life, facilities, environmental sciences, and economics are all interested in being a part of the project. "Facilities is very interested," he explains, "because they would like to use the building as a test site for campus-wide implementation of something like a composting toilet, different light bulbs, or different kinds of insulation."

While Colorado College's administration aims to use the house as a test site, Max and the other students that will be living there hope to demonstrate the viability of sustainable housing to their fellow students. In this way, the house will be used as an educational model. For example, Max says it will have a window through its interior wall to show the insulation; a sign will explain to passers-by what the insulation is made of (probably, in this case, recycled jeans) and why it is more efficient -- as well as Earth-friendly -- than typical insulation. "There's a lot to be said for living in a natural house," he says. "It's a pretty serene setting, like a sanctuary. It's not a box leaking energy everywhere. It has a really wholesome feel."

"There's a lot to be said for living in a natural house. It's a pretty serene setting, like a sanctuary. It's not a box leaking energy everywhere. It has a really wholesome feel."

Being a center for promoting awareness about sustainable housing concepts and materials is a common feature among projects of this kind. That's also the case at Humboldt State University's Campus Center for Appropriate Technology. Known as CCAT (pronounced "See Cat"), the house has experimented with a host of inventive technologies since its inception in the '70s.

There's a bike-generated TV and blender, as well as the Human Energy Converter, which is seven bikes hooked up to a generator that can be used to power an entire stage during a live music performance. There's also a greenhouse built onto the side of the house, from which the residents get many vegetables, as well as heat, thanks to windows that open into the house's living room. All waste-water is recycled as "gray water" for use in the greenhouse and garden -- which, in turn, end up providing the residents of the CCAT house with a substantial portion of their diet.

For electricity, the CCAT house currently uses what's called a grid inter-type system. "Right now we have our solar panels on the roof producing electricity, and when it's sunny out it just goes through our house, into the grid, and spins our meter backward," says Jared Zyskowski, a senior majoring in biology and a resident of the CCAT house.

That means that the CCAT house is actually giving PG&E energy most of the time, not the other way around. According to Jared, this also means that in addition to producing most of the house's electricity by sustainable, non-polluting means, there are no electricity bills to pay -- at least, Jared hasn't had to pay one since he moved in to the house last December.

Ultimately, the goal of the CCAT house is not just to develop the most efficient technologies, but to demonstrate their efficacy as well. Jared says: "We find the things that work well, and are easy for people to do. And we promote those things for people who are living in apartments, living in dorms, who are scraping by on money and are hoping to both limit their impact on the Earth and maybe to try and limit their energy or garbage bills."

Brad Tito says he also had an educational mission in mind when he began construction of his own house while in his junior year at Prescott College, in Prescott, Arizona.

Brad originally conceived of the house while he was studying sustainable development at Prescott. A project he did for a class turned into the plans for the house, called Mercury House. It features solar panels used to generate electricity, passive solar space heating, solar water heating, and a water catchment system (which collects and filters rain-water for household use). Brad built the house in 1998 with the help of local contractors and craftsmen, using sustainably harvested and local "leftover" lumber, as well as cast earth and straw bale structural elements.

Mercury House

The home even has a wetlands environment constructed in the backyard that treats all of the house's outgoing sewage through a completely natural process. Brad built it to mimic the old growth forests he admired while hiking and backpacking as a kid. "Ecosystems that are left untouched function in miraculous ways," he says, "and they don't produce waste."

According to Brad, all of these amenities are intended to make Mercury House a "life-affirming" place to live as much as to demonstrate what sustainable building is capable of. "I wanted to show people that it was possible to build a self-sufficient home, that you could live more environmentally-friendly without compromising," Brad says. "I consider it a success."

All of the energy brought in to Mercury House is backed up by the conventional systems for producing it, so Brad never has to go without. For example, he uses all of the solar-heated water first, and if this proves an insufficient amount he switches on the natural gas and conventional water heater. "You get all the creature comforts that everybody expects," he says. "But it's delivered in a much more environmentally friendly manner."

Brad says that more than a thousand people have come through Mercury House. He participated in the National Homes Tour and invited classes from Prescott and other nearby colleges to come out. His efforts to create a sustainable campus initiative at Prescott eventually led to the creation of the Crossroads project, which aims to build an ecologically-designed teaching and learning space on campus.

But even larger than that -- and indicative, perhaps, of the true potential of this -- Brad's project has made an impression on the community of Prescott, Arizona, as well. According to Brad, who graduated from Prescott College in 2000 with a degree in sustainable development, there's now a market for sustainable student housing in Prescott, and some private entrepreneurs have begun building to meet that demand.

Within this movement, collaboration certainly is the key. Just as students can't turn their goals for their campus into reality without the support of the administration, the environmental movement can't push society in a more sustainable direction without enlisting the help of society's architects. Brad says that the builder he worked with had never been involved in an "environment-oriented project," but is now committed to "green" building after his experience with Mercury House. Brad tells a similar story about the contract sales manager at the lumberyard he got most of his wood from:

"When I first met him to set up an account, he asked me if I was one of those environmental 'whackos.' There was nothing eco-friendly about this good ol' boy. Now you go into his office and there is a poster of a pristine mountain landscape. All this guy does is sell wood. Some people might think he's the enemy. To me he's one of the greatest environmental activists I know."

Michael Gaworecki is a writer who lives in San Francisco in a triangular loft that probably leaks energy everywhere.
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