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University Housing increasing emphasis on sustainability

Photo: GreenHouse
UW student members of the GreenHouse Learning Community, located in the Leopold Residence Hall work in the rooftop greenhouse to plant a variety of lettuce plants in empty water bottle containers on Nov. 12. The learning community is designed for students to think, work and live in more sustainable ways. Photo: Bryce Richter

A picture of Aldo Leopold graces the lobby wall in his namesake building, the newest residence hall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

As seems fitting for a building named after such a champion of conservation, the hall boasts numerous elements designed to reduce the environmental impact of the building and its residents, including solar water heaters, heat recovery units for more efficient heating and cooling, and landscaping with an eye toward stormwater management.

But these visible features are just the surface of a broader underlying trend toward increased sustainability in campus housing.

“We try to weave elements of sustainability in Housing into all aspects of a student’s living,” says Laura Shere, who a year ago became the first sustainability program manager for the Division of University Housing. “That ranges to everything from an intentional decision like choosing to live in the GreenHouse [Residential Learning Community] to sustainable aspects of our building designs.”

There seem to be as many definitions of “sustainability” as there are people using the word, but Shere says for Housing, it boils down to the responsible use of university and student resources, including financial, physical, and social assets.

For the first time this year, Residence Life has appointed two student sustainability involvement coordinators who will be responsible for developing sustainability-themed programs and activities for all students living on campus. A unit on sustainability was also added to the Housing student training, where a costumed “Captain Planet” taught 500 student leaders about recycling and encouraged them to model environmentally responsible living for residents.

Much of the emphasis has been driven by student demand. Shere and Mike Henry, co-chairs of the informal Housing Sustainability Committee, say they have seen steadily increasing interest in sustainability among incoming students and regularly receive calls and suggestions from residents.

“You can see the concern people have. They’re getting it from a very young age now and they want to bring it here and do something meaningful with it and carry it on through their lives,” says Henry, an assistant director of facilities in the residence halls. “There’s a groundswell from the residents who come in here that they want to do this, but they don’t know how to execute it. So it’s up to us to format it and make it happen.”

Every student room on campus now contains recycling bins for paper and mixed cans, glass, and plastic with labels to help students understand what can and can’t be recycled on campus, provided through a partnership with the We Conserve program. Each residence hall contains at least one water bottle filling station to encourage the use of reusable bottles and four (Leopold, Cole, Sullivan and Chadbourne) also collect compost to feed into a collection program run by the UW Physical Plant.

“The big message is that everybody’s individual actions add up to a big result,” says Henry.

Dining and Culinary Services is also getting involved, especially in newer facilities. The new Gordon Dining & Event Center, which opened in in fall 2012, repurposes old fryer oil in a waste oil boiler for heating water and uses a heat exchanger to improve the efficiency of the refrigeration system. The kitchens in both Gordon and Dejope Hall also have pulpers for post-consumer food composting.

The goal is to engage students at whatever level they feel comfortable, Shere says, while making sustainable living a part of the overall educational experience on campus.

One key partner in Leopold Hall is GreenHouse, which fills 1 ½ floors of the building and is dedicated to sustainable living. “We want to give students the opportunities to use not just their heads, but also their hearts — their values — and their hands,” says GreenHouse program coordinator Alan Turnquist. “It’s not just about recycling. It’s also about being a responsible and upstanding member of a community.”

GreenHouse residents also run a workshop space in Leopold as well as an actual greenhouse on the roof, where students and faculty can experiment with growing food and other plants. Turnquist sees rising interest in the RLC, which expanded this year to 61 residents but still had to turn students away.

Sophomore Aaron Conradt, an intern with the We Conserve program who lives in the GreenHouse, sees the housing changes as especially valuable for reaching students early in their college careers. “I think if you can get them listening right away, then they follow the trend,” he says.

And, Shere says, those trends have a way of leading to new ones. Housing has ramped up other recycling programs, including mattresses and futons at move-out, Styrofoam packaging at move-in, and a pilot program for electronic waste collection in the residence halls. Based on feedback and participation, students are reacting positively, she says.

Every piece helps, agrees sophomore GreenHouse resident Melanie Kohls. Being surrounded by cues in the residence halls, she says, “the easier it can be for students to make a transition toward more sustainable living, and incorporate those decisions into daily life.”