Lehigh’s Green House

By J.F. Pirro

Plenty of college campuses have green initiative buildings—buildings designed and built with green innovation in mind—but Lehigh University’s Green House stands out as a residential community of students who are “living green.”

Green House is the campus’ evolving environmental residence hall that’s geared toward sustainable living. Its 17 residents promote daily conservation, calling attention to conditioned habits like excessive energy use. They also compost kitchen waste and monitor the house’s electricity, water and natural gas usage.

Green House, a 6,801 square-foot red brick twin located in the Warren Square area of campus, hosts several events each month ranging from dinners that feature foods with low environmental impact, like vegetables and grains, to cold or no-shower days. Skipping a shower after a low-intensity day helps reduce the amounts of water consumption and energy required to heat the water. Residents encourage limited air conditioner use when opening a window will suffice. They air-dry laundry. They’ve made their own biodegradable laundry detergent and shampoo, thus reducing the amount of plastic bottles and chemicals that get put down the drain.

Lauren Gidula, a residence life coordinator for Lehigh University’s Office of Residence Life, helps oversee Live Lehigh!, the student-driven, interest-based community living program. Currently, there are four such communities: Green House, Music Appreciation, CHOICE (upper-class substance-free living) and LUTIS (Lehigh University Technology In Society). Each community is advised by a staff or faculty member with kindred interests. Active programming efforts are spearheaded by a student community coordinator who lives in the community.

The application and selection process begins in the spring with written and presentation-based evaluation. If a community is chosen for Live Lehigh!, the Residence Life and Residential Services offices work with students with housing placement and room selection. Green House has nine single rooms and four doubles. Ana Alexandrescu is the house’s Resident Assistant, or Gryphon.

“We also work with each community year-round to assist and guide the members with programming, marketing, member recruitment, time management, facilities concerns, etc.,” Gidula says.

Katie Karabasz, Green House’s community coordinator, spent her childhood summers at the Wildlands Conservancy camps in Emmaus. Years later, she taught those camps.

“Without my experience there, I doubt that I would have had the appreciation for the environment and the interest in studying about the environment in college,” she says.

At Lehigh, where Karabasz is a journalism/science and environmental writing and studies  major , (and earth and environmental science minor), she became a member of Green House as a junior, and says the community’s mission uniquely matches her own and those of the other residents.

“The house has been really great for its members by providing a place where we support each other in our goals of sustainability through group programs and events, as well as daily activities like composting, recycling and planting spices and vegetables in our greenhouse behind our house,” she says. “The Green House works to be a model of sustainability for the rest of the university.”

However, more remains to be done to spread the commitment to sustainability across campus and to other universities in the Valley.

“In my experience with other living situations–even on this campus–there was very little concern for even the simple act of recycling when the two cans were next to each other,” Karabasz says.

Plans are in place to start working with the volunteer student sustainability coordinators to support sustainability in the freshman dorms. Karabasz would also like to have a few movie nights for films that have an environmental theme.

In the fall, there’s the possibility of a community camping trip during one of the first weekends back to Lehigh. “Large events like this take a lot more planning which is why it would be best to start now,” she says.

In past years, the house had a membership to Bethlehem’s Coalition of Appropriate Transportation (CAT). Two designated house bike mechanics took a mechanics class on basic bicycle maintenance. Also, several house residents took the Traffic Skills 101 class designed to teach bikers how to safely and legally ride in traffic.

One major undertaking was a 16×8 greenhouse built on the south side of Warren Square A behind Green House. Affectionately called the “solar shed,” thus avoiding confusion with the “Green House,” it is used to grow vegetables. The “solar shed” also serves as a better model for college students than a community garden plot since they can grow salad greens and early-season vegetables before the spring semester ends. An outdoor garden’s prime growing season is the summer, but students have already returned home by then.

Though he was not a resident of Green House, alumni Colin Gore, designed and oversaw installation of the solar shed in February 2009, just in time to get seedlings started for a spring crop. Alice Kodama, a campus friend, founded the dormitory initiative. It is a “passive solar” greenhouse, so named because it of its lack of moving parts or external power sources. Passive solar sheds are so efficient that they don’t require additional heaters like the glass-box style greenhouses do.

“A naturally-warmed building in the dead of winter is something wonderful to experience,” Gore says. “Sometimes when I was feeling stressed, I’d pop into the greenhouse for a few minutes to warm up and cheer up.”

In order for the design to be effective, the angle of the sunlight gathering window needed to match the angle of the sun during the coldest part of the year. This helps the greenhouse absorb the most sunlight during the time it needs the most heat. The other main considerations were adequately insulating and sealing the structure. Internal water barrels—10, 55-gallon drums (donated by Rudy’s Car Wash on Stefko Boulevard)—absorb heat during the day, keeping the plants from overheating, then release heat at night when there’s no natural sunlight.

Lehigh not only granted permission to build a greenhouse on university property behind Green House, but Residential Services agreed to fully fund the project. When finished, students contacted local seed vendors and asked for seed and soil donations. Rodale Institute asked some of its suppliers to donate materials as well.

Since graduating, Gore has continued to act as the solar shed consultant for those interested in gardening in it—like Green House’s Dave Chrobuck—while pursuing a career in sustainable energy generation in a Ph.D. program at the University of Maryland. His research group founded the University of Maryland Energy Research Center, and is out to develop solid-oxide fuel cells, which can convert existing fossil fuels into usable energy much more efficiently than traditional combustion engines.

“As for my impression of Green House, I like what I see,” Gore says. “Reducing per capita energy consumption is the best solution for an impending energy crisis. Reducing your footprint, whether it be for energy, water, or any other resource, puts less strain on fragile resources and helps ensure a more stable future for everybody. New, more sustainable, sources of energy are being explored, but we will have more time to find sound solutions if we slow the pace of consumption.”

Katie Karabasz, community coordinator, knk211@lehigh.edu

Ana Alexandrescu, aia210@lehigh.edu, 484-767-6088

Lauren Gidula, lpg210@lehigh.edu

Delicia Nahman, new adviser, den210@lehigh.edu

Colin Gore, colin.gore@gmail.com

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