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Green Living at College Teaches Valuable Lessons

September 09, 2010 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

It's not easy being green; nor is it easy being a college student but across Minnesota, a growing number of students live in sustainable housing.

These "eco-friendly" living quarters model world language houses, where residents practice the lifestyle exclusively when home. However, instead of speaking and eating as if they were in a foreign land, enviro-students perform sustainable tasks such as creating vermiculture mulch in the basement and hang their clothes on a line to dry.

"It's about using the house to see how we can get all students to develop ecologically friendly habits," said Theo Eggermont, a Sustainability Fellow at the College of St. Benedict and St. John's University.  "We're hoping to show habits and lifestyle changes can be done through conservation."

Rainbow House at St. Ben's has been active for seven years, Eggermont said. The converted day care center on campus houses five students who live in a sustainable environment that includes eco-friendly light bulbs, plastic sheeting over the windows, line-drying clothes and maintaining a large garden that includes tomatoes, beets, peppers, and other vegetables.

St. John's University is just beginning its enviro-house mission with Edlebrock, an on-campus house for six residents. Although Edlebrock is only now getting off the ground, St. John's has a leg up because a 3.9-acre solar panel collection field generates 400 kilowatts of power, supplying much of the campus' electricity.

Eggermont said $3,000 in grants will allow SJU to conduct an energy audit and determine the best way to renovate Edlebrock into a model environmental house.

Southwest Minnesota State in Marshall has Sustainability House, an on-campus residence hall with 35 students focused on a variety of green living issues. They've helped increase the residence halls' recycling program, organized campus Earth Day events, and hosted a number of sustainability speakers. They've also conducted outreach sessions to area residents and are working with a food service provider to install a commercial food composter later this year.

These schools, however, have a way to go before matching Macalester College's environmental housing project. The EcoHouse  --  former off-campus faculty housing owned by the college  --  accommodates four students. Each year the students take on a project to promote the house, said Chris Wells, an Assistant Professor of Environment Studies.

"Each group has an agenda," Wells said. Students in the first year concentrated on civic engagement, offering workshops and open houses for area homeowners. The second group of students focused on sustainable food practices. The third looked at edible permaculture along with installing rain barrels and worm composts in the basement. The fourth group meets in a week and will determine its goal for this year.

The key to Macalester's EcoHouse is that it is unremarkable and the renovations aren't drastic or unduly expensive.

"There's nothing special about this house and that's the point," Wells said. "All the changes we made are invisible, except the solar panels and they're not visible from the street.

"The aesthetics didn't change but the performance changed dramatically. With three years of data we can see that gas, electric and water costs have dropped 30 percent to 35 percent," Wells said.

Some of the changes include:

Insulation: The walls had 2 inches of fiberglass batt (R-7) and the attic had around 8 inches of blown fiberglass and cellulose (R-40). Cellulose was blown into the wall cavities bringing the wall up to an R-14. 

Metal Roof: Crews replaced two layers of rotting asphalt shingles with stone coated steel shingles with cooling vents below. The shingles are rated for 110 mph wind tolerance and hail resistant.  The roof has a 50-year warranty.

Solar Hot Water: Two 4x8 solar hot water panels were installed on the garage roof and connected to a heat exchanger and a pump in the basement.  The liquid glycol mixture pumps through the panels to collect heat, and then transfer it to the water in the heat exchanger.  The heat exchanger acts as a pre-warm for the traditional gas hot water.

Lighting: Compact fluorescent lighting replaced all the light bulbs.

Water Efficiency: Low-flow sink and showerhead faucets replaced the old ones. The toilet was replaced with a dual flush toilet which uses 1.1 gallons of water.

These institutions are performing an essential task. Not only are students developing environmentally safe habits, but the university and the community as a whole learns from their experience that simple changes in habits can make a different to both the environment and to the pocketbook.

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