Earth to Oberlin: SEED House Blooms
For the Oberlin campus, and three students in particular, a dream years in the making has recently come to fruition. An 1870s duplex on East Lorain St., just across from the Allen Memorial Art Museum, will be dedicated to Student Experiment in Ecological Design — Oberlin’s newest theme-housing option and first ResEd living space to focus on sustainable living.
“It just seemed like something the College should have, and that everybody supports,” said College junior Lucas Brown, one of the students behind the SEED house idea. College junior Amanda Medress, also a SEED house founder, said that many of Oberlin’s peer institutions, such as Brown, Middlebury and Tufts, already have green housing. Medress and Brown, along with College junior Kathleen Keating, felt that Oberlin should live up to its reputation for commitment to the environment by creating an ecologically aware living space of its own.
The three members drew inspiration from David Orr’s Ecological Design class two years ago, where they spent a whole semester brainstorming ideas to propose to ResEd as the culmination of the course.
Though they initially considered purchasing an off-campus house for the project, they decided that working with the college was both easiest and most beneficial for Oberlin.
“We thought the theme-house channel would be the best way to go,” said Keating. By implementing their ideas in a village housing context, they plan to find ways for all village houses to decrease their ecological footprint.
“People are looking at this as a way to test out ideas that could save the college a lot of money,” said Brown. He noted that the College had been paying over $6000 a year in utilities on the duplex before redesign commenced and has strongly supported their efforts to reduce that bill.
Director of ResEd Molly Tyson and Director of Facilities Operations Keith Watkins, both of whom were instrumental in making SEED house happen, shared in a joint e-mail why such a project matters to Oberlin: “Environmental awareness and sustainability efforts on campus have become a priority, and this theme house specifically with its academic connection meets not only the sustainability mission but also the mission of Residential Education. This is an important initiative because it supports the campus sustainability effort, academic development and community relations.”
After winning funds last spring from Oberlin’s Capital Maintenance Budget, which the College uses to keep its buildings up to code, the group arranged for the first of many future renovations to take place over the summer. They said they never could have done it without Tyson and Watkins.
“It was so great to find two people who really believe in the cause of the project,” said Keating. “It’s been rewarding to get such support from the administration.”
After finding a space and making it livable, the group needed only to find enthusiastic members to share it with them. They received over 25 applications for the five spots last spring and took diversity and creativity into account in the deciding process.
One question required the applicant to come up with an environmental project that would not depend on funds from dorm Hall Councils. “We got some really funny, exciting answers,” said Keating. She remembered a few of her favorite ideas, including the suggestion of putting a picture of someone staring over the shower stall to make people shorten their shower time and another of an energy-saving version of the game Assassins, where people can only be tagged out if they have their lights on.
The group also aimed for a diverse membership. “We were looking for enthusiasm for environmentalism but we didn’t want all environmental studies majors,” said Medress. The house now boasts writers, artists, mathematicians, Conservatory musicians, scientists and athletes. The rules of village housing dictated that only upperclassmen could participate, and the house contains a mix of juniors, seniors and fifth-years.
Fall finds the SEED house in full swing, with weekly meetings wherein the members brainstorm ideas to save water and energy, raise funds for next summer’s renovations and spread their gospel to the greater Oberlin community.
“At our meetings we talk about day-to-day things we can each do to reduce our energy usage,” said Brown. “We have a policy of innovation, always trying new things. If we try something for a week and we hate it, we’ll try something else.”
At night, house members do their homework together in the living room in order to save electricity in the rest of the house. “We might even try a policy of never using the lights in our rooms,” said Medress. “Being as clumsy as I am, I might perish. But I’m willing to give it a try.”
SEED will also experiment with porch vermicomposting, which is the use of earthworms to break down organic matter and enrich soil. “If successful, it would be something easy to implement in other village houses,” said Keating. “I think people would be very receptive to the idea of pet worms.”
SEED’s plans for the future include running the furnaces off biodiesel, installing disks in sinks and showers to lower the water flow, sprucing up the exterior of the house with low-VOC paint and installing an already ordered system for monitoring the house’s energy usage with the help of Associate Professor of Environmental Studies John Petersen.
“I’ve been working with the students to design a data monitoring and display system for the building that will allow residents to view electricity consumption in each student’s room in real-time, to view water and gas consumption and to view total greenhouse gas emissions of each of the duplex units,” said Petersen. The equipment should be installed in the next month.
The three founders of SEED, not wanting it to become a place of isolated innovation, have put effort into community outreach. They plan to lead workshops with local churches, host student environmental group meetings and plan events for the college as a whole.
“We’re hoping to get more people involved than just the eight people who live here,” said Medress. “We want to get community members and students in on this. By the end of the semester we hope to have some outreach events.”
Tyson and Watkins emphasized SEED’s potential to set an example for town living: “One mission of the SEED house is to provide examples to the Oberlin community of sustainability improvement projects that homeowners can implement.”
The input of students, faculty, administrators and Oberlin residents are welcome at SEED. “We’d love to talk to anyone who wants to get involved,” said Medress. “We’re really approachable.”