Renewable Residency

Photo by Connor Perrett

Ohio University offers an off-campus living option for sustainability-minded students.

By Kat Tenbarge

Nestled behind The Ridges is an unorthodox housing opportunity for upperclassmen. Drive down Dairy Lane and the light reflected off a huge solar panel display will strike any passerby’s vision. A wild but well-kept garden sits enclosed behind it. Prairie-like grasses sprout up the incline that leads to the Ecohouse — a dark brick building that would be easy to miss if it weren’t for its sprawling natural appendages.

The Ohio University residence functions as an experiment, a model for sustainable living and a home for Arden MacDonald and her two roommates. The senior grew up afraid of climate change. Today, she expresses her environmental concern through her living space.

“Sustainability has been woven into the way I want to live,” MacDonald said. “I didn’t grow up really wealthy, so I’ve always been thinking of ways to preserve, and sustainability fits in with that. It’s personal for me.”

During the fall semester of MacDonald’s sophomore year, her public health class saw a presentation that ended with a brief description of the Ecohouse. She went online to apply, wrote an essay of why sustainability was relevant to her life and got accepted.

“At the time, I made the claim that I wanted to be put in a setting where you were mandated to follow these rules, not because it was voluntary but because the structure was in place,” MacDonald said. “It would reinforce the habits I wanted to acquire.”

Some of those habits involve using green technology, including an energy-efficient washer and dryer set and a wood pellet stove. Others are a little more personal.

“I guess I’m in the habit of not flushing the toilet every time I use it,” MacDonald said. “Some people think that’s gross, but I don’t need to waste two gallons of water every time I pee. I’m very reflective. Before I leave the house I feel guilty if I don’t turn off the lights. I just reflect more on my usage.”

For self-described fourth-year junior Emily Schaffer, the house has been a learning experience. She first learned of the Ecohouse during the annual involvement fair her freshman year and applied as soon as she was eligible to live off-campus.

“I think that what drew me to it was the idea that I’m not going to harm the Earth more than necessary,” Schaffer said. “I always thought it would be silly to throw things out quickly and not reuse things. It’s a good way to save money, which is nice. It’s overall a lot better for you, health-wise and economically.”

Photo by Connor Perrett

Each week, the three current residents of the house meet with representatives from OU’s Office of Sustainability to discuss their progress at the Ecohouse. The meetings take place on the concrete front porch, complete with creaky swing and various potted plants.

Housemates sign a lease at the start of their residency and agree to terms and conditions set by the Office of Sustainability detailing the expectations for living in the Ecohouse.

These include the standard guidelines of maintaining cleanliness and order. Indoor furniture has to stay indoors, and locks on doors cannot be tampered with. It also mentions stipulations such as “buying local first” and using “natural” cleaning products, according to the terms and conditions agreement.

Paul Reed, a junior and Ecohouse's only male resident, said no one is there to enforce the requirements directly.

“As far as sustainable measures we have the (photovoltaic) unit out front for generating electricity,” Reed said. “We have another solar panel on the side of the house for heating and water. We also have a generator which is a bicycle unit to generate electricity.”

Annie Laurie Cadmus, the director of the Office of Sustainability, considers managing the Ecohouse to be the “coolest” part of her job. While the original farmhouse is over a hundred years old, most of the sustainable infrastructure is relatively low-technology.

“Some of the tools available to the students, such as the solar arrays, are expensive,” Cadmus said. “But most (are) actually affordable for the average renter or homeowner. For example, a clothesline is a great cost-saving initiative and is very affordable.”

Cadmus said one of her favorite Ecohouse features was the online dashboard students can use to monitor their water and energy usage in real time.

“This allows them to change their consumption habits and reduce the amount of resources they use. Every house should have that,” Cadmus said.

MacDonald, Schaffer and Reed meet weekly on the front porch of the house with the Office of Sustainability to discuss their progress. They are also responsible for planning activities for community members and each other once a semester.

“Whether that be something as easy as growing herbs in a garden or developing another way of using non-potable water, you’re basically agreeing to live up to the standards, like keeping the house clean in case a tour were to come by, and you’re agreeing to work with two strangers,” Schaffer said.

One such activity was a multi-faceted presentation the three gave the afternoon of May 30 that covered sustainability in transportation, cooking and cleaning to a group of about ten interested underclassmen and residential assistants.

Photo by Connor Perrett

In an effort to reduce emissions and eliminate waste, the Ecohouse relies primarily on reusable and alternative energy sources, such as the solar panels, which are difficult to ignore even when simply passing the property by car.

Schaffer carried in reusable grocery bags and unpacked them, one after another, to reveal various locally available, sustainable and healthy food items. There were canned vegetables from on-campus markets, cooking supplies from the Farmacy — Athens’ 40-year-old organic grocery store — and goods from bulk grocery stores.

Together, Schaffer and MacDonald demonstrated how to cook a vegetarian chili, which they noted would decrease the impact of factory farming, using a crock pot and basic culinary techniques. With chili served on gluten-free, corn-based tortillas with local chips and salsa on the side, the group answered questions from those in attendance about everything from natural-based cleaning supplies to mass transportation on campus.

The three are not typical environmental science majors. Reed is an environmental geography major hoping to work in environmental monitoring, which fits the sustainability bill. Schaffer studies chemical engineering and MacDonald is a linguistics major.

“It’s personal for me, but I see connections with linguistics because there’s this international, global push to learn English and to push that on to younger people and to people who speak a mother tongue,” MacDonald said. “Sustainable development is a way to improve conditions economically but through actions that sustain the environment. Sustaining people’s languages is a way to honor people’s lifestyles. I know it’s a far-reaching idea, but I just think that … they’re both sustainable development.”

Schaffer too recognized her experiences in the Ecohouse as a lifestyle choice.

“It’s kind of hard being a chemical engineering student,” Schaffer said. “These companies make chemicals that harm the environment. My lifestyle would assess further what I do with my career, definitely. When I’m looking for a job I’m looking for something that looks for sustainability.”

She was optimistic about sharing her experiences and getting other students to engage with sustainable life lessons. Later on, she said she would like to be part of an organization in her community that promotes sustainability.

“I think the biggest thing is that it’s a little off-campus, but it’s a great thing OU has to show others,” Schaffer said. “‘Hey, we have this sustainable living house.’ It’s definitely a token to show to people. And I can say I participated in it. I can bring that further with me in life and try to make more of it.”

MacDonald recommends that green-minded students be open to alternative lifestyles. Suggesting the Internet as a valuable source, she also proposes finding ways to slowly alter one’s lifestyle so that instead of building up an idea of being 100 percent sustainable, a middle ground can be found.

Reed advises people interested in the lifestyle to get involved and to consider how much a student is consuming, then make decisions based off those realizations. He wishes that he could reach every student and make them realize their individual impact.

“I guess consider your lifestyle,” Reed said. “The biggest thing is that it is possible, and it might seem like there’s nobody out there interested, but if you just look, there are plenty.”