Conservation Culture at Berea's Ecovillage
Munfordville native Ashley Burba hadn’t given much thought to living green when she chose Berea College right out of high school and applied to live in its Ecovillage, a residential community geared toward married or single-parent students and their families. It was the availability of on-site day care for her daughter, Isabella, now 4, at the village’s Child Development Laboratory that first drew her there.
It didn’t take Burba long, though, to adopt the community’s lofty environmental goals, including reducing residents’ energy and water use by 75 percent compared to regional averages, and recycling, reusing, or composting at least 50 percent of waste.
“Living here has made me more conscious of environmental issues,” says Burba, who eventually decided to pursue a degree in sustainable agriculture.
Even Burba’s daughter has gotten the message: “She’s always telling me to remember to turn the lights out, because we don’t want to waste electricity,” Isabella says.
Berea’s Ecovillage—50 total apartments, home to 70 adults and around 45 children—is not your typical college housing. It’s a place where reducing one’s environmental footprint is more than just talk. It’s being played out in how the apartments themselves were built and run and how the residents live in them.
Built in 2002 and 2003, the 28 newer apartments in the village were designed with environmental sustainability in mind, as part of Berea’s ongoing commitment to building a sustainable campus (see sidebar below). The earlier apartments in the village date to 1998.
Every newer apartment is equipped with low-energy, water-saving washers, toilets, and showerheads. There are no clothes dryers in individual apartments, although there is one in the common laundry room (line or rack drying is encouraged). Cabinets and countertops are made from recycled or recovered wood fibers, and the Forbo linoleum bathroom floors are made from linseed oils and other natural products. Concrete floors in the rest of the rooms help reduce energy by thermal mass, cooling the homes in the summer and helping retain heat in the winter.
Residents are required to recycle, and are encouraged to compost and use only green cleaning products. They’re encouraged to grow their own vegetables in individual garden plots and to help care for the community’s “food forests” of nut- and fruit-bearing trees. Energy and water use is monitored monthly, and prizes are awarded to residents who use the least.
A state-of-the-art, 1,440-watt photo-voltaic solar panel harvests the sun’s energy to provide roughly 60 percent of the electricity for the Sustainability and Environmental Studies (SENS) house within the Ecovillage, home to four students. There, a composting toilet helps turn waste into natural fertilizer, and a 3,000-gallon cistern collects rainwater for outdoor irrigation. A gray water treatment system collects water from the SENS house sinks and showers for watering outdoor soil beds, where bacteria eat the soap and dirt.
Even the entire village’s sewage water is cleaned and put to use via its innovative, on-site “Ecological Machine”—a series of tanks housed in a greenhouse and filled with aquatic ecosystems, including microbes, bacteria, and plants that filter out contaminants naturally. A portion of the reclaimed sewage water is reused for toilet flushing; all wastewater leaving the village is of at least “swimmable” quality.
“We’re pretty much showing the community that we can live a low-energy lifestyle without degrading the environment,” says freshman Hannah Clampitt of White Plains, whose job is to maintain the Ecological Machine. “It’s a high-quality lifestyle, too, because we’re relying on things that can be relied on, unlike oil and other nonrenewable resources.”
Jean Majewski, a junior from Virginia majoring in agriculture and natural resources, came to Berea’s Ecovillage, like Burba, because it offered her on-site day care and a supportive system to attend classes and still care for her young daughter, Lilikoi, who is 3.
All the village residents take turns with assigned jobs to help make the community run—from babysitting and leading educational programming to doing groundskeeping or collecting compost and recycling. Majewski often helps collect compost.
When Majewski sees Lilikoi rushing to scrape whatever’s left from her dinner plate into the compost bin each evening, she feels she’s witnessing the lasting, positive effect living in the Ecovillage will have on her family. “It’s important that she’s getting this message at such a young age,” Majewski says.
“If children are living here and growing up in a community where it’s more natural to use green cleaners or recycle, the hope is they’ll go on to continue doing that for the rest of their life,” agrees Elaine Adams, the Ecovillage coordinator.
The SENS Program
Students living in the Ecovillage apartments pursue all types of majors and, like all Berea students, their education includes a mandatory labor component. For the four students who live in the SENS house within Berea’s Ecovillage—and the attendant responsibilities that come with it—that is their labor component.
Berea’s SENS program, launched in 1999, is innovative among other college environmental studies and sustainability programs nationally in its emphasis on “practical skills and teaching what people need to know for the transition to building more resilient communities,” says Richard Olson, director of Berea’s SENS program.
Currently the program has six students pursuing minors in Sustainability and Environmental Studies and six more pursuing independent majors in that subject area (there is no formal SENS major yet). About 30 minors and 10 independent majors have graduated from the program to date, and in any given semester some 60 or more students may opt to take one of the program’s eight courses either as an elective or to fulfill a university requirement.
The program stresses hands-on learning, often having its students utilize environmental chemistry or principals of ecological design to tackle real-world problems. On-site research in the college’s forest and farms is common. Paul Smithson’s environmental chemistry class once assisted the city of Berea in determining the source of high levels of chloroform in the drinking water. This semester, Jason Coomes’ design class will work to design and build a small potting shed and rainwater collection building out of reclaimed barn wood for marketing and sale.
Even the design of the SENS house itself, completed in 2003, was a student-run project. Former SENS independent major Kelly Cutchin, a 2004 Berea graduate, and other students in her introduction to ecological design class researched green building technology and practices and then worked with an architecture firm to adopt those strategies in Berea’s SENS house, she says.
Kutchin had never heard of sustainability studies until taking her first SENS class as a freshman.
It has become her career. She now works full time as a consultant with a Washington, D.C.-based environmental and energy-efficiency consulting firm and as an instructor in natural building techniques twice a year for the Yestermorrow Design/Build School in Warren, Vermont.
Phil Hawn, who graduated from Berea in December with an independent major from the SENS program, spent seven semesters constructing the just-completed natural building structure that sits next to the SENS house. The six-sided, 150-square-foot structure serves as a demonstration and teaching tool for using natural building techniques and materials and serves double duty as a meeting space. One wall is made from earthbag construction, one is slip straw, one is cordwood, two are made of cob, a mixture of clay, sand, and straw similar to adobe, and the sixth wall primarily consists of a door, with additional wall materials of both cordwood and cob.
Hawn hopes to return to his native North Carolina and teach others about the advantages of natural materials. “It’s a trend that’s going to have to grow,” Hawn says of the move toward natural or green building. “Most of today’s building materials are really energy intensive, really oil intensive, and it’s going to become more and more difficult to find oil.”
While Berea’s SENS program will continue emphasizing ecological building design principals and sustainable agriculture techniques—its current two main course tracks—the plan is to expand its course offerings in a new direction Olson and Coomes call “deep renovation.”
“We already have millions of homes built out there at a time when people were depending on inexpensive fossil fuels,” explains Coomes, who is in his first year at Berea. “They have low insulation levels, inefficient windows, very expensive and inefficient to run heating and air-conditioning systems.”
But rather than knock those down and start all over, the environmentally responsible thing to do is to “remodel and improve what we’ve already got,” he says. Courses offering tips on retrofitting older homes to be more livable and energy efficient will be one of Coomes’ areas of focus.
“Your hope is that students take from the program a sense of the interconnectedness, that we’re not separated from nature and that what we do has effects on the environment,” says Smithson, who has taught with the SENS program for seven years.
The message seems to be taking hold—especially among the students living at the SENS house this year.
Sophomore Libby Kahler’s previous experience working with the Ecological Machine (she has since moved into the SENS house and shifted her labor responsibilities to maintaining the technology there) has sparked her interest in one day helping communities build their own sewage treatment facilities that could double as an aquaculture farm or hydroponic gardening facility.
David Edwards, a sophomore from Michigan, has set his sights on founding his own sustainable community—patterned after Berea’s Ecovillage—after he graduates.
And Oakland, California, native Zack Sieben, a sophomore majoring in nursing, with a minor in Sustainability and Environmental Studies, is certain his home will one day be equipped with its own composting toilet.
“It’s great,” he says. “I love it.”
BEREA'S GREEN INITIATIVES
The Ecovillage and SENS programs are just two of the many initiatives Berea College has undertaken in its goal to create an environmentally sustainable campus. During the past decade, Berea has invested more than $125 million in eco-friendly building renovations to reduce its environmental footprint, says Tim Jordan, director of Berea’s public relations. Those include the following:
• The $9.6 million eco-friendly renovation of historic Boone Tavern Hotel begun in January 2008 will earn its distinction as the first LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) hotel in Kentucky.
• Construction of Berea’s new Central Plant in 2006 provided the campus with more efficient heating and cooling and reduced air pollution. The new plant reduced energy distribution losses from 25% to 3%. Sulphur oxides emissions and nitrogen oxides emissions were reduced by 99.7% and 95%, respectively.
• The rededication in 2002 of Draper Hall classroom building, following a 14-month, $11 million eco-friendly renovation, dramatically increased water conservation and efficiency of the heating and cooling systems and allowed for more efficient insulation to be installed.
• Remodeling of Lincoln Hall administration building in 2001-2003 made it the first LEED-certified building in Kentucky. In the remodeling, 75% of the existing materials were reused or recycled in the renovation. Carpet, ceiling panels, and slate-roof tiles were made from recycled materials.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: MAKE YOUR OWN GREEN CLEANERS
You can help in the green effort while also saving money by making simple but effective green cleaners. For recipes from Berea’s Ecovillage coordinator, Elaine Adams, go to green cleaners.