Macalester's eco-house is both student housing and labby Art Hughes, Minnesota Public Radio
Students at St. Paul's Macalester College interested in ecologically sustainable living now have a house to do it in. One instructor is guiding a project to make a house into a living laboratory where students use state-of-the-art materials and ideas to minimize energy consumption and waste. Four students now reside in the college-owned "Eco-House" project open for the first time this semester.
St. Paul, Minn. — One of the first things that stands out about Macalester's eco-house is there is nothing that makes it stand out from the neighboring houses. In fact, there are barely any noticeable differences now from before assistant professor Chris Wells helped launch a $50,000 remodel. Take the new roof, for instance, made from galvanized steel with a 50-year warranty.
"Looking at it you can't tell the difference," Wells said. "Once it's installed it looks like a standard asphalt roof. They come in a variety of different aesthetic finishes so you can get one that looks like clay tile, you can get one that looks like slate, you can get one that looks like shingles."
Wells, who teaches environmental science, said the steel roof lasts more than twice as long as a conventional asphalt roof and can be recycled at the end of its useful life.
The kitchen also puts a new, environmentally-friendly material on display. The counter tops resemble slate, but are made from recycled paper and cashew resin.
But installing new and different materials isn't the only goal. Wells said one guiding principle is reusing what's already in the house, like the kitchen cabinets, to cut down on trips to the landfill.
"By cutting them out we made room for the dishwasher, we were able to extend the countertop all the way to the door which gave us significantly more counter space, we made room for a recycling center and then we just put a new counter top on top of it and turned it into a kitchen island," Wells said.
The home keeps its original wood floors, windows and trim. The walls and ceilings remain intact. The 70s-era, earth-tone, vinyl kitchen floor is not stylish, but the remodeling team found it too useful to remove.
There are some expected additions: kitchen appliances were all replaced with energy efficient machines and compact fluorescent lights replace all incandescents, cutting the light bill by three-quarters. In the bathroom, a bright overhead light needs no electricity at all.
"That's a solar tube providing all the light right now into the bathroom," he said. "You wouldn't know, you'd think that it was a bright overhead light."
The solar tube carries sunlight through the attic into the room.
Sunlight is also key to one of the biggest changes for the house: a conversion to solar heated water. A complex arrangement of copper pipes pumps 130 degree water from two panels on the garage roof through a specially designed water heater. Eco-house resident Austin Werth said he's not bothered by the unconventional set-up.
"Beyond just kind of thinking about when am I taking a shower, when is the hot water most available--which you try to do, you think the sun is shining let's use the hot water so we use solar--other than that it's no difference and it's completely reliable as far as we've seen," Wirth said.
Werth, a junior in environmental studies, beat out other students in a competition for a spot in the house.
The eco-house idea didn't start at Macalester. Green construction techniques are mainstream for residences and some campus housing. Places like Carleton College, Drake University in Iowa, and Ohio University are among a handful of schools that have either established or are considering student residences aligned with environmental studies.
Macalester does have a natural fit with other teaching programs related to other homes the college owns near campus--for instance some houses require residents to speak in a particular language. Once the initial renovations are place, the Eco House will ultimately serve as a 24-hour-a-day ecological work station for students, assistant professor Wells said.
"Part of the vision for the house and where we'd like to take it in the future is to install sophisticated energy monitoring equipment that will allow us to keep track of all the resources flowing through the house both water and electricity and to keep data that would be accessible on a web site to anyone with web access as to how well the various systems are performing," he said.
The original $50,000 for the remodel came from four grants solicited by students. Wells and the students are now working on additional grants to fund the next phase of the project.
- Morning Edition, 10/05/2007, 7:54 a.m.