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Sustainable living every day at new WSU theme house (09/30/2012)
By Emily Buss

Photo by Emily Buss
     Winona State University student Tom Gorycki, 21, helped write a grant for $5,000 that enabled WSU to purchase three composting bins. The theme house owns one of the devices, Gorycki said, which helps him and his roommates "really live sustainability."

Effects of the global environmental movement can be found on every street corner, every cereal box, every aluminum can and almost every new vehicle pushed off the assembly line. Go Green, recycle, eco-friendly. These words are inscribed on products at hardware stores, grocery stores and convenience storesaa across the United States. For the last 40 years, generations have seen a dynamic shift in the environmental paradigm with a heightened awareness of one’s carbon footprint. More and more people are buying organic, composting food waste, and making simple lifestyle changes that relieve some of the stress on Mother Earth.

In an effort to promote the Go Green movement, Winona State University (WSU) is trailblawzing a pilot program that gives students with a minor in Sustainable Living or with a strong passion for the environment the opportunity to learn more about sustainable living by living it in the campus’ first-ever theme house.


Learn it by living it

The house on the corner of Main and Eighth streets doesn’t look much different from any other student housing unit on the WSU campus, except that it has plants on the roof, a compost out back, and a beautiful garden wrapping around the front. The university-owned house served as underused office space for many years before it was transformed into a state-of-the-art living facility. After the building of two new residence halls on campus was complete, nearly $5 million was left over. Vice President for Student Life and Development Connie Gores said she knew just what to do with about $500,000 of the money.

“We wanted to bring back the home to its original form but bring in a new sustainable approach,” Gores said. “We really wanted to make it a living lab.”

Equipping the two-story, nine-bedroom home with solar panels, Energy Star appliances, motion detector lights, and even toilets that have two flush settings was completed in just one year. With the help of Southeast Technical College students, new cabinets were made and installed in the updated kitchen, and construction workers poured concrete that breathes, and absorbs water into nearby plants. But, probably the most distinctive feature that defines the house as living is the foliage roof.

“We call it the green roof. It has succulent plants that take in a lot of moisture,” Gores said.

The small patch of roof that hovers over an enclosed porch helps to regulate temperature in the winter and summer months, cutting back on the use of electricity during peak times.

In the back part of the house, a composting bin with a few weeks' worth of food waste sits, soaking up the last bit of summer heat. With the help of a $5,000 Warrior grant, the housemates can really say they are living sustainably.

“We wanted to make sure we really were in the spirit of living sustainably,” Tom Gorycki, 21, said. “I don’t think a lot of people really take into account what the impact of wasting food has on the environment. It’s helping us to learn simple ways to cut back and recycle.”

Another way the students are cutting back is on their use of electricity. Motion detecting Ecobulbs are placed throughout the house and a tubular solar light illuminates the kitchen at night. It is solar charged during the day and spreads the light in the evening. And if roommates forget to turn off a light, they get the tape treatment.

“We’ve started this new thing, just this week actually, that if you forget to turn off a light when you leave a room, you get a streak of blue tape across your room door,” Gorycki said. “If it happens again, you get another piece of blue tape to form an ‘x.’ And if that happens, you aren’t allowed to use the light in that room for the rest of the week.”

Gorycki admitted a couple of people have one slice of blue tape on their doors, but the disciplinary action speaks louder than words, he said.

Throughout this first year of discovery, students will be responsible for documenting changes and findings that occur each week at the house. The housemates will measure how much energy they are saving by using solar panels, how much food is recycled by using the composting bin, and apply it to their daily lifestyle.

“We are hoping that what we find here this year we can communicate to the community,” Gorycki said. “We really want to connect with those around us and help lead in a future of students wanting to make a difference.”


Environmental pioneer

While the sustainability theme house is the first of its kind on the WSU campus and in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System, it isn’t the first attempt at getting Warriors to Go Green.

During the 2008-09 academic year, the WSU Food Committee and Residence Hall Advisory Board conducted a research project that made cafeterias on campus trayless. The overwhelmingly positive results yielded a 30 percent reduction in food waste in 2008 and a 40 percent reduction in 2009. It was decided in October of 2009 to stay trayless.

That same academic year, the campus introduced the Zipcar in an effort to reduce the demand for parking by using environmentally friendly cars. Two Toyota Matrixes and a Toyota Prius were available for students to use for a low fee.

As the theme house idea continues to develop on campus, so does the Sustainable Living minor. The 2012-13 academic school year marks the minor’s first full year and Gores said it is quickly becoming a campus favorite.

“It definitely is one of the university’s fastest growing minors,” Gores said. “As the first full year plays out, we expect it to continue growing.”

The minor provides students with basic teachings of energy and resource conservation while developing their skills to lead community members to live more sustainable and environmentally-friendly lives.

With the introduction of the environmentally friendly theme house, WSU is becoming a leader in the race to save the planet. Gores said students are already discovering positive data at the house, and she said it will only get better.

“As a university, we had to adapt to the changing times and we felt that we really can’t just talk about it, we need to live it and do it,” Gores said. “I think we are at the forefront of this university movement and we are committed to helping improve the lives of those around us.” 


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