Sustaining the Bluegrass

Kentucky college launches green initiative

Environmental Education Directory

Central Kentucky is not generally known as a cradle of innovation in the field of ecological design, but an initiative launched by a small liberal arts college in the region may soon set new standards for environmental sustainability.

Located near the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, Berea College has been committed to serving Appalachia since 1855, but its mission has evolved to include an unlikely new facet: Helping preserve the region’s environment by teaching, demonstrating and practicing principles of sustainability and ecological design.

To accomplish those objectives, the college launched a $40-million initiative to revise the school’s curriculum, launch the Ecovillage demonstration project, and rebuild the college’s entire energy system to be more efficient and ecologically sustainable.

“The administration and faculty really researched the area of sustainability and environmental studies and came up with a program that is lodged in the college’s mission. We’re not just jumping on some national fad - we’re asking how our responsibilities to the Appalachian region dovetail with this concern,” said Berea College President Larry D. Shinn.

Selling a community on the benefits of sustainability and green design in say, California or Vermont, is one thing, especially where residents may be more receptive to an environmentally-conscious message. But in Appalachia, polluted streams, clear-cut forests and devastation of the mountain landscape through coal mining have long been accepted as facts of life. All the more reason to help Appalachian residents recognize how the environment impacts their wellbeing, says Shinn, “If we are really to provide stewardship for the region, it’s not just the people but their habitat that we have to be concerned about.”

The college curriculum has been revised to include a multidisciplinary Sustainability and Environmental Studies Program (SENS). As part of the SENS program, students helped design a five-acre Ecovillage, an $8.5-million working model of successful ecological design and living for the community. Berea College is also practicing sustainable principles in adopting its long-term energy master plan, which reduces pollution, saves money, and cuts campus energy consumption by nearly half.

Teaching Sustainability
When the Berea College faculty and board of trustees voted to create the SENS program in 1999, one of the stated goals was to “foster understanding of humankind’s interconnectedness to the natural world.”

Toward that end, students from disciplines across campus are encouraged to consider the various dimensions of environmental and sustainability issues - economic, social, spiritual, technological and ethical - while questioning how society can meet present needs without compromising its ability to meet future needs.

SENS courses teach the principles of ecological design, and students gain practical experience by helping to plan an environmentally sustainable campus, collaborating on several building and redevelopment projects, and learning about the fiscal and regulatory challenges of implementing green policies.

Demonstrating Sustainability
Perhaps the first and most challenging assignment for SENS students was designing the Berea College Ecovillage and SENS House, a teaching and residential housing facility that will also serve to educate the community about the benefits of ecological design.

The Ecovillage, already under construction, will feature 32 residential units for married and single-parent families, a daycare facility, and common areas, including a dining room, a meeting hall and gardens.
The village will also include the SENS House, a home where six students will live under the strictest ecological standards to gain a better understanding of sustainable living in practice.

Ecovillage’s goals are ambitious: reducing waste by 50 percent through recycling, reuse, and composting; and cutting water consumption by 25 percent by using low-flow showerheads, toilets and faucets, drip irrigation for gardens, and implementing roof and cistern systems to capture rainwater for irrigation.

Both the Ecovillage and the SENS House will be equipped with systems to separate wastewater and treat it through the use of a living machine - a complex system of tanks with aquatic plants designed to purify the water to a standard safe enough for swimming.

Since reducing energy consumption by 75 percent is a primary goal of the project, designers are planning a SENS House that is energy self-sufficient, with photovoltaic panels, pedal-powered generators and passive solar design being discussed.

The Ecovillage will likewise generate 10 percent of its electrical needs, and will conserve energy through the placement of shade trees to provide cooling in the summer.

Deborah Payne, a SENS minor who helped in the design phase of the Ecovillage, acknowledged living in the facility might be a lifestyle change for some residents, many of whom won’t be SENS students. But Payne said designers have made a considerable effort to create a living space that most residents can consider practical and comfortable.

“If it’s going to happen, it’s got to be attractive to people who may not think of themselves as being ecologically-minded,” said Payne. “It has to be a very feasible alternative.”

The foremost lesson of the college’s sustainability program, according to Payne, is that structures must be designed to work with nature instead of against it. She said that principle was apparent even in the design of gardens for the Ecovillage, since preserving the best soil was one of the first priorities.

“When a conventional housing project is developed, builders don’t typically think of everything else that’s going to be on the site,” Payne said. “What we’re trying to do is a more organic process - to integrate that step before the houses go in. We designated a spot for the garden first so the best soil doesn’t get destroyed in the construction process.”

A Model of Ecological Design
Once the Ecovillage is operating, Kentucky builders and homebuyers might initially be skeptical about the concept of sustainable housing because it is unfamiliar, which is why the most significant impact of the project may be as a model of green housing that consumers can accept.

“Developers are selling everything they have now, so why would they take a chance on something different?” said Berea College SENS Director Richard Olson. “That’s why we need alternative development styles so that people can actually see what these ideas are and how they are put into practice here. There needs to be a place where people can come and say, ‘This is nice. I’d like to live in something like this.’ Maybe then buyers would begin expressing that desire to developers.”

Since the Appalachian region may only now be coming to grips with problems that generations of pollution and waste have caused, appealing to state residents in the region based on principle might be a slow process. But Olson suggests where principle fails to persuade economic, self-interest can succeed.

“I don’t think there are many people in our area who would not be receptive to ideas that will save them a lot of money on energy use, that will protect or improve the quality of their water, or that will preserve open space and farmland. Those are values widely held in this area,” Olson said. “A house that will cost them almost nothing to heat, cool and light would be perceived as a good value worth paying for.”

Unexpected Lessons
One of the unexpected lessons of building the Ecovillage in central Kentucky has been dealing with regulatory hurdles that confront new green technologies.
From the beginning it was planned that wastewater from the Ecovillage would be treated through the use of a living machine, but state water regulators have been skeptical about that process, citing state laws that require new structures to be connected directly to the city sewer system.

“We do have an uphill battle at the state level,” noted Diane Kerby, assistant vice president for Business and Administration at Berea College. “We’re developing strategies on how to deal with that.”

State regulatory agencies have not accepted the living machine as the sole method of water purification. For now, water treated in the living machine will be released into the city sewer, as required by law, but it will also be analyzed and data will be collected for submission to the state. Officials are hoping that process will enable the college to build a case for stand-alone operation of the living machine.

Sustainability in Practice
Perhaps Berea College’s most significant investment will be in sustainable practices in the everyday operation of the campus.

Last March, the board of trustees approved the preliminary phases of an energy plan that will enable the college to replace its coal burning, steam heat energy plant with a cleaner alternative that will significantly reduce total energy consumption.

The board adopted a multi-phase plan in which Berea College will either convert to a natural gas burning plant or build a wood fuel energy facility that would burn sawdust from local industries.

Whichever plan is formally adopted next year, Berea will significantly cut the level of greenhouse gas emissions released into the air over a 100-year period, equivalent to 57 percent less in carbon dioxide tonnage by implementing the gas burning plan, or 98 percent less carbon dioxide by utilizing the wood fuel plant.

SENS professor James Dontje credited college trustees with pursuing sustainability in a very holistic way, ensuring that existing facilities will have retrofits that will conserve energy before the new plant becomes operational in 2006. Buildings on campus, for example, are being refitted with high insulation glass.

“The potential is to knock energy use down by about 40 percent, based on what we have found,” said Dontje.

Berea College’s aggressive sustainability agenda wasn’t the result of a drastic philosophical conversion. Instead, President Shinn notes that each decision on ecological design and sustainability was adopted on its own merit. But the sum of those decisions may have unwittingly made Berea College one of the most ecologically progressive institutions in a state slow to address long-term threats to its natural environment.

“We have never said,‘We want to become one of the most ecologically avant-garde institutions in the country. Will you support that, trustees?’ I would say that we have incrementally built a set of self-understandings about the curriculum and about our institutional action that when taken together, are quite impressive and are fairly avant-garde, but we never began with that as a goal,” Shinn said. “In every case we were able to show that the new ecologically sensitive method is good business, but it’s also good environmentally. Our trustees have become convinced that we’re making good economic decisions, not just good ecological decisions.”

For more information, contact: Andy McDonald
878 Richmond Road
Berea, KY 40403
(859) 986-7251


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