The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

Ecological-themed house takes root on language row

By Peter Wright

From the outside, it’s not particularly unique. It appears to be just another regular home next to Macalester’s language houses. Even the inside of the house is unremarkable. In fact, the only two things that may reveal its purpose are two black panels on the garage roof and a worm bin in the basement. It is EcoHouse, Macalester’s newest themed-housing option, and although from the outside it may appear to be simply another housing option, it has a larger purpose than most.Plans for the house started in the summer of 2006 when Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Chris Wells, was trying to think of a good way to raise money for the Clean Energy Revolving Fund (CERF). Wells wanted a project that could receive grants, and he was planning to create something off campus when Tom Welna, Director of Macalester’s High Winds Fund, suggested he should design something on campus where students could be involved.

Wells said the ultimate vision for the house is comprised of two main goals. The first, he said, is to provide a place for students to live and think conscientiously about the environment. The second is to turn the house into a live-in lab that would make scientific data about the house and its sustainability available on the Internet to any students or non-profit groups that want to use it.

“The whole project took off very quickly,” Wells said.

By Feb. 2007, the administration had chosen a house to be renovated. Shortly after that, the home was added to the housing options for the 2007-2008 school year.

Wells said that with about three days notice, more than ten people had applied for the four beds in the house. The four students chosen were Austin Werth ’09, Avery Bowron ’10, Heidi Evans ’10, and Rachel Brunner ’10.

Once the groundwork was laid, the next step was the physical renovation. That task was left in the hands of Justin Lee ’08, who acted as the project manager over the summer of 2007.

“It was pretty much left up to me to decide what was put in the house and what wasn’t,” Lee said.

Renovations to the house were made with the standards of convenience, usability, aesthetics, and functionality, in addition to overall sustainability. According to Lee, one of the biggest projects was the roof.

The old shingles had deteriorated to the point that the roof had to be replaced. Instead of using shingles, the EcoHouse roof was covered in metal sheets, which will last for at least 75 years and are recyclable. A ventilation system was also installed to cool to attic and new insulation was blown into the home.

The panels on the roof are part of a water heating system, which uses sunlight to heat an anti-freeze type substance that runs to the water heater and heats the water without using much, if any, natural gas. Inside, all the appliances were selected for their high-energy efficiency rating, but the living area itself looks like any other house.

Lee emphasized that the house was built with the intention of being able to apply ecological standards with a “homeowner’s budget.” With the relatively meager budget of $50,000 for the entire renovation, he said that the amount of money was comparable to what anyone planning major renovations on their home would be willing to spend.

Werth, a resident and member of the committee that created EcoHouse, said that day-to-day activities in the home are not that different from regular college life, other than a few small chores like watering the herb plants that were given to the house or taking care of the worms kept in a worm bin in its basement.

The residents are also recording their practices to share as suggestions to future inhabitants. Werth said that the chores aren’t a burden; in fact, he said that they enjoy them. He added that more than anything, the biggest change has simply been a heightened awareness of the social aspects of what it means to live ecologically.

“It’s not all about technology,” Werth said. “It’s also about practices, relations, and cooperatives.”

EcoHouse was partially funded with a $5,000 grant from the Xcel Energy Foundation for community outreach, which was another important aspect of the project, Wells said. He plans for the house to network with various non-profit organizations not affiliated with the school. He added that he hopes EcoHouse will become a symbolic and meaningful feature in the community.

The prospects of community outreach still seem to be evolving for EcoHouse. Lee mentioned a large grant from the
Environmental Protection Agency that could provide an opportunity to go into the Twin Cities community and develop 10 other environmentally friendly houses in different neighborhoods. Werth described the community outreach goals of the program as sharing the skills developed within EcoHouse.

“If you want to just create a house for college students to live in, it’s kind of cool, but it has pretty limited impact,” Lee said.

Now the task of raising money for the system lies in the hands of the new EcoHouse Advisory Committee. The committee is composed of Wells, Lee, Welna, and Vice President for Student Affairs Laurie Hamre. In addition, the four current residents of EcoHouse have been invited to join in the board’s decisions if they would like to, Wells said.

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