In late 1999, a fellow student at Mount Allison University (Sackville,
NB, Canada) proposed that a few of us work to create a 'sustainable
residence', a new environmentally built eco-theme house that would
also serve as a center for environmental and social justice groups.
Since that time, the project has taken off and become a focal
point in my life. As we began to explore the idea, we discovered
a number of exciting case studies we could work from.
realized that these were not just a few isolated projects but
the beginning of a grassroots movement during the Ball State 'Greening
of the Campus' conference in 2001. There I encountered students
who are living in eco-residences and meeting each other for the
first time. I met one of the architects who later helped us gain
official acceptance for our project at Mount Allison. I also sat
in on a meeting of the North American group, HENSE (Higher Education
Network for Sustainability and the Environment), at which the
student/grassroots dimension of creating a well integrated campus
sustainability movement appeared missing. Together these events
inspired and compelled me to explore the emergence of ecological
living on campus and to connect with those who are trying to create
or already living or working in campus ecological living centers.
Here I use the term 'ecological living center' for even the most
modest or informal of theme houses as they all provide a space
in which we can take steps towards living sustainably.
recruited students, educators and architects to join a network
of people working to create spaces for sustainable living on campus.
As I sent out feelers, I discovered the existence of nearly a
dozen more projects in various states of development and a good
number of additional allies.
Last spring, I was able to explore this grassroots movement on
the ground thanks to an undergraduate research grant from my university.
With a big pack and a month-and-a-half Greyhound Ameripass, I
set out to visit 12 universities around the northeast and Midwest
United States. At each school I was greeted with hospitality from
students hard at work to actualize ecological living on their
campus. Below is a reflection on what I learned as well as my
wider explorations of this movement.
of a Movement
In the summer of 1978 a group of students at Humboldt State College
(Arcata, CA) renovated an old house and turned it into the Campus
Center for Alternative Technology (CCAT). They were eventually
able to secure university support and today the majority of Humboldt
students participate in at least one weekend workshop at the CCAT.
Among the technologies that serve as educational tools are passive
and active solar design, a garden, and a grey water marsh, all
run by three live-in co-directors.
being the forerunner that it is, it is only in the last ten years
that student sustainability centers have been popping up across
the rest of North America. Many are residences with various degrees
of sustainable infrastructure and a focus on lifestyle. By 1995
there were centers with their own academic program at Slippery
Rock University (Slippery Rock, PA) and California Polytechnic
University (Pomona, CA), and planning was underway for a Northland
College (Ashland, WI) environmental residence, the McLean Environmental
Living and Learning Center, which opened in the fall of 1998.
Of course, significant aspects of sustainable living have been
visible at eco-theme houses and some housing and food co-ops for
decades, although without the direct purpose of being sustainability
ecological living centers are still rare, the last few years have
seen an increasing number of student groups and professors (and
the occasional institution) articulating this idea independently.
From Mount Allison to Dalhousie to Waterloo to the University
of North Carolina, students, professors and other allies are working
together to create a house that is, ecologically and socially
speaking, a home. And they are getting results! As we become aware
of one another and begin to communicate, we are building a grassroots
movement to bring examples of sustainable living to higher education.
Power to Create Meaningful Change
Perhaps student eco-housing is arising independently across the
continent because solutions that start at home are so often the
most profound and educationally powerful. Indeed, the Latin eco,
from which ecology and economy are derived, means "house"
or "home." Home is where we can enact our values, be
with people close to us, laugh and share our lives. It is basically
where we belong. If at the root of the ecological crisis lies
a spiritual alienation from nature, then creating a sense of belonging
and connectedness is a primary educational vehicle for creating
genuinely sustainable campuses and societies. If you tell young
people, who are growing up mostly unaware of the ecological crises
we face, "you can live without toxics, huge greenhouse gas
emissions, factory food, and slave labor goods, and be better
off for it," most would not believe or take notice of what
you say. If you invite them to participate and show them how,
they will be amazed, inspired, and transformed.
power of community-based, ecologically sound student housing is
that it integrates the technology and culture of sustainability.
The resulting firsthand, tangible lessons cannot be taught by
traditional environmental education. Nor can they be learned through
an ecologically built science building or a thematic earth-house
within a regular building (though both are great beginnings).
A green building will endure, but the values enshrined in it may
be forgotten. The educational value of the synergy between a community
and ecological design can create powerful and enduring catalysts
for change on campus.
Few Stories and a Few Lessons
I discovered on my travels an amazing group of dedicated people
who were delighted to be involved with my journey of discovery
and talk about other similar projects. I discovered a rich diversity
of approaches addressing challenges that range from the social
to the environmental. Many of the projects are in the planning/lobbying
stage, some are academic or interest-based theme houses, some
are student run farms, and a few apply the living-learning model.
From these there are lessons to be learned in how we can successfully
bring ecological living to campus. I have yet to sort these out
sufficiently, so I'll touch on them quickly as they come up, with
any conclusions drawn being merely initial impressions.
It is remarkable that there is to date no collective account of
these projects. This article is a very preliminary set of snapshots
designed to whet the reader's appetite to learn more and visit
the developing campus ecovillage network website. What I found
most valuable that I am unable to share here is the story of each
project in its place.
I visited several eco-theme houses, some with an academic focus
and others based on personal interest. At Middlebury College's
(Middlebury, VT) Weybridge house and the University of Vermont's
(Burlington, VT) Slade house, around 20 students live in a typical
residential Victorian building, working together as a food co-op
buying local organic produce and serving nightly communal dinners.
Both experienced legitimacy problems with their respective institutions,
and both had a mix of students, most interested in living ecologically
and only some with an activist approach. During my visits to these
homes, I discovered a strong sense of community and an environment
which students found especially nurturing and rewarding.
at Slade, you can find a twenty year old scrap book at the Eco-house
at Northland College (depicting things like the building of a
greenhouse or a straw bale test building). The Eco-house, however,
has been moved from a recently demolished theme house village
that included spirituality, community outreach, and a women's
studies house, into the environmentally designed but short-on-character
McLean Environmental Living Learning Center (ELLC). The ELLC,
though progressive in its design, is a large dorm built to house
around 100 students, for most of whom the place seems to offer
nothing particularly special. The Ecology house at Cornell is
similar to the ELLC in concept, though not technology. It was
described to me as an extremely wasteful building that does not
facilitate community interactions. In addition, Cornell does not
always reserve it for students with ecological interests. Still,
my host (now living off campus with friends) found it to be an
unintimidating entry point from which to form activist communities.
Though I only saw a few co-operatives on my journey, it seems
to me that many are very similar to the smaller eco-theme houses
in that they constitute a stable community space and support local
farms, but are not usually engaged in optimizing the ecological
performance of their facilities. They differ from theme houses
in that they are economically self reliant.
It is difficult to track off campus student efforts to live sustainably
as they tend to be more informal than on campus eco-houses or
co-ops, and probably many have come, gone and been forgotten.
At any rate, I was privileged to see a few student groups taking
the ecology of their housing into their own hands. At Northland
College, some of those who 'graduated' from the Eco-house could
not let the concept go and attempted to maintain the lifestyle
and do outreach from the house they rent, now known as Bread House.
An engineer friend set up a solar panel and a grey water diversion
system for the Bread House occupants, but with no money for insulation
the heat stays low.
Unity College (Unity, ME), a working class college, students rough
it in the woods, not only to be close to nature and reduce their
footprint, but to save money. The story is different again at
Oberlin College (Oberlin, OH). Two tireless students have incorporated
Sustainable Communities Associates in order to purchase an old
downtown building to turn it into a multi-use building with a
community center as well as student and low income housing. When
you don't work within the institution, you don't have to lobby
or struggle with delays and dubious compromises, and you can be
as formal or informal as you like. On the other hand, if you can
win institutional support, its resources are available for the
project and it can be integrated into academic life and change
the character of the institution.
New Kids on the Block
Most of what I found in my search for places to visit were projects
in development, with only two of the twelve I visited being established
formal projects. In a receptive environment, a new proposal can
be quickly accepted and even come from the top. At the College
of the Atlantic (Bar Harbor, ME), an eco-house proposal went from
an idea brought up by a student returning from a natural building
internship to a study group to the subject of an architecture
class and into the campus master plan, all within a year. Unity
College is considering various options and soliciting student
involvement in planning any future residences, which many of the
people I spoke to felt would incorporate the school's existing
(Consortium for Ecological Living) at the University of Vermont
is a student group that emerged out of a class of ecological designer
John Todd. My CEL host, Michelle, shared stories of long, often
draining (though ultimately fruitful) lobbying to get the university
to integrate ecological design into its next student dorm project.
I know as well as Michelle that a foot-dragging institution can
sap the energy of a student group should they choose to continue
engaging it. Though prospects remain unclear in the long run,
UVM may also build an ecologically-designed community style house
that could include some living learning programs. People I spoke
to at all of these institutions expressed concerns over what the
planning and design process will lead to, how green the technology
will end up being, and who will control the process.
Supportive environments for such projects could be found at the
'work colleges,' at which students must all work for the school
in order to graduate. Because they have a greater role in the
institution, students are more likely to be welcomed into governance,
and their labor can contribute directly to projects. The most
developed project is at Berea College (Berea, KY), a full scholarship
school for low income students, with abolitionist roots. Though
Berea only introduced the concept of sustainability in 1998 as
a strategic priority, they are about to build an 'ecovillage'
housing complex (which is needed anyway) for single parents, which
includes a childcare school and a demonstration house proposed
by the Sustainability and Environmental Studies program (SENS)
and partly designed in a SENS class.
Sterling College (Craftsbury Common, VT), an environmentally focused
school (though not yet in terms of design) of only 100 students,
half the school turned out to see a student-directed study presentation
on a proposed green-dorm. The Ecodorm at Warren Wilson College
(Asheville, NC) was designed with students, who participated in
weekly meetings with the architects for an entire year. The dorm,
which will come on line in January, will include a food co-operative
and as of yet undetermined educational activities. It is, however,
the last of eight new dorms and the only one designed from an
environmental perspective. This is despite Warren Wilson's being
an environmental studies school. Even the most supportive environments
have a long way to go.
Sustainable living centers, whether in concept or in existence,
offer an opportunity to focus on learning how we can live
on campus through the greatest 'untapped' resource in higher education
- class time. Outside of class, there is rarely enough time for
students to build a sustainable future. Every project I have come
across integrates academic to some extent. From personal experience
I can say this is not only useful but exceptionally educational.
At Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania, a state school, the
entire Masters Program in Sustainable Systems is run out of the
Mackoskey Center, an education and research facility that supports
environmental and science-oriented academic programs. Students
must undertake a hands-on project in the streams of 'built environment',
'sustainable agriculture', and 'ecosystems management'. Twelve
students exchange tuition for work-time devoted to Center educational
activities, and two even live at the Center. Past projects include
building a straw bale barn, a living machine, and an interpretive
Cornell University (Ithaca, NY), Ecovillage at Ithaca is building
partnerships with professors to become involved in academic activities,
and engineering students, working with a leading expert, have
used a directed study course to propose solar electrification
of a new residence building. At Mount Allison University, we have
run out of ideas for directed studies and are now using a 'planning
process' class to move the design phase along. Oberlin's Ecological
Design Innovation Center is planning to take full advantage of
this as it develops the George Jones Farm, which will include
a student housing co-op and space for educational activities.
The Farm is intended to introduce agricultural innovations to
local farmers, educate the wider community about organic farming,
and serve as a training and research facility for Oberlin College
I have not explored student farms as much as other forms of ecological
living centers, they too can form a synergy between design and
community. Aside from the work colleges that already offer students
the opportunity to work on organic farms, students are attempting
to create farms they can learn on and eat from. In addition to
the Jones Farm at Oberlin, there are similar efforts at Middlebury
College and Cornell University.
Though the concept of an ecological living center is powerful,
it remains a hard sell for typically conservative university administrations.
Successfully lobbying for a project can be a long and intensive
process. Building alliances, compiling case studies, and making
presentations take a lot of time and can sometimes be overwhelming,
no matter how dedicated students are. Off campus efforts require
a different but no less rigorous effort. That is why a new network
is being formed to help students and their allies push, strengthen,
and celebrate these initiatives. There is, after all, no reason
why some variation on this theme should not be present on every
Campus Ecovillage Network would support the emergence and growth
of sustainable student life on the college campuses of North America,
with a focus on home and student housing. It could aim to (1)
inspire and empower students to create community-based and ecologically-sound
housing; (2) strengthen projects in development by linking them
to other such project in North America and to resources and people;
and (3) strengthen existing projects through providing avenues
of communication and opportunities for cooperation.
far a significant number of students, academics, architects and
designers involved in these projects have taken an interest in
some form of network to nurture this fledgling movement. A website
will be up soon at www.sierrayouth.org,
where you can find resources and more in-depth information on
these projects. I believe that in the coming years we will see
more of these initiatives take hold and even more new ones spring
up. We should all be grateful to those who are blazing the trail
and have built up the critical mass necessary to bring sufficient
attention to the awesome value of living sustainably on campus.
Strauch is an undergraduate student at Mount Allison University
in Sackville, NB, Canada. You can contact Yonatan at email@example.com
with any questions or comments, or to get involved.
and case studies:
Ecovillage Network: www.gaia.org
Education Program: www.livingroutes.org
State College Campus Center for Appropriate Technology: www.humboldt.edu/~ccat/
State Polytechnic University Center for Regenerative Studies:
College Mercury House: www.prescott.edu/news/headlines/113000.html
College McLean Environmental Living and Learning Center: www.northland.edu/studentlife/ELLC/index.html
College Ecovillage: www.berea.edu/sens/ecovillage.htm
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