Avery Bowron wakes up and takes a shower with water warmed by two solar panels on the roof of the garage. He eats breakfast on counters made from recycled paper and cashew resin. And before heading to class, he takes his fruit peels, coffee grounds and uneaten bread crust downstairs and throws them in a box containing hundreds of slimy wriggling red worms.
Another day has begun for the four students who live at Macalester College's Project EcoHouse, a green-living laboratory that looks unassuming from the curb, but is a blockbuster of sustainability.
Campus ecology is catching on in a big way at both small and large campuses around the state, offering students a unique housing option. It's a movement that's being driven by energy cost savings along with growing interest among students and faculty.
At the University of Minnesota Morris, for example, the goal is total energy self-sufficiency. By 2010, the entire campus will be heated by two giant wind turbines and a biomass burner. Morris is also in the process of building a residence hall that incorporates sustainable or green building design.
St. Olaf College in Northfield is putting sustainability and environmental design into action with several projects. A new science center aims to achieve a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) "Gold" rating from the U.S. Green Council. It also has a giant wind turbine that generates about a third of the energy for the college. A composter keeps 250,000 pounds of waste from its food-service operation out of landfills.
Macalester began renovating its eco-house last summer using green building techniques aimed at capturing the savings from energy upgrades to repay capital renovation costs. Once the capital costs are repaid to the Clean Energy Revolving Fund (CERF), the college will realize the ongoing savings.
Student Justin Lee was put in charge of the green renovation and used the three R's of recycling -- reduce, reuse and recycle -- to establish remodeling priorities on a $50,000 budget.
They kept the flooring and kitchen cabinets, refashioned one cabinet as a center island, and bought a recycled bathroom mirror from the ReUse Center in Minneapolis.
Ongoing savings are expected to come from the pricier modifications to the house, a typical midcentury rambler. A steel roof that looks like a traditional asphalt shingle roof has a 50-year guarantee and will most likely last 70 years. Though it was twice as expensive, it will last three to four times longer than a typical shingle roof and can be recycled when it's time to replace it. The water heater is hooked up to a holding tank and two solar panels on the garage roof; it is supplemented by a traditional gas water heater for heavy use and cloudy days.
Chris Wells, assistant professor of environmental studies and founder of the eco-house concept, hopes that neighbors will be inspired by the house and apply some of the concepts to their own houses. In addition, grant money from the Xcel Energy Foundation will be used for community outreach and education through a website and seminars that will treat the house as a laboratory for sustainability in action.
The college hopes to install a sophisticated monitoring system that will track consumption of electricity and other resources. The students and the administration are hoping to show that using a solar water heater, Energy Star-rated appliances and compact fluorescent bulbs can be cost-effective.
Eventually, the college hopes to apply some of the same principles to other buildings on campus.
Austin Werth, a housemate and environmental studies major who jumped at the chance to be one of the first occupants of EcoHouse, said that the opportunity to live in such unconventional student housing is not about sacrifice, but about fulfilling his needs. "I will always be aware of my energy use and waste - it's how I can be happy," he said. "Once you are aware of the steps you can take, you can't not do it."
Other housemates celebrate the pleasures of cooking for each other with locally grown and organic foods and then sharing a meal. They have an indoor herb garden and compost food scraps in a basement worm bin that will produce soil for their indoor and outdoor edible plants.
Perhaps one day, all college life will begin with worm feeding and checking the previous day's energy consumption. Until then, I am hoping that more colleges will put their money into green housing to save resources and teach practical life lessons that extend far beyond the college campus.
Kim Carlson is at firstname.lastname@example.org