Living the low-impact dream at Warren Wilson College

John Brock, a chemistry professor at Warren Wilson College, offers a startling bit of information to the tour group that has just crowded into his lab:  “You may not realize this, but if I took a blood sample from each of you right now, it would contain traces of many synthetic compounds such as DDT,” a pesticide. Brock, who once worked at Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, has made a career of trying to protect people from environmental pollutants through education and scientific study.

The effect of his brief lecture is to illustrate the direct link between environmental issues and human health. The point hits home with the tour participants, a group of realtors hoping to attain certification as eco-agents with expertise in green building. Led by representatives of Warren Wilson’s Environmental Leadership Center, they’ve assembled for a “green walkabout” to learn about the college’s innovative green construction designs, the solar-powered golf carts used as maintenance vehicles and other sustainability initiatives. Stan Cross of the center notes that launching green projects on campus does more than enhance the college’s image: ultimately, the initiatives limit the amount of harmful substances in the environment.  “As an administration, we recognize that we, too, contribute negatively to problems such as carbon dioxide emissions that lead to climate change. So our goal is to constantly try and reduce how much a part of the problem we are,” says Cross.

They’ve taken the goal seriously. Highlighted during the walkabout are the new admissions building and the 36-bed EcoDorm, completed in summer 2003. Green architecture is only part of the lifestyle at Warren Wilson. A plethora of environmental programs keeps student work crews busy turning compost, driving biodiesel-powered tractors and pickups for landscaping, researching and restoring native vegetation, and tending livestock on the organic farm. The college promotes itself as a green campus and states in its environmental policy that it will “strive within the limits of practical considerations to conserve energy and resources, reduce waste, purchase environmentally-friendly products and minimize our adverse impact on the surrounding environment.”

The admissions building

The new admissions building will undergo application for LEED-Gold certification. The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system, developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, is a national standard for constructing high-performance, sustainable buildings. The admissions building uses half the energy a typical structure its size would consume, according to the college’s Web site. Heating and air conditioning are supplied with a geothermal system, which harnesses heat from underground rather than from burning fossil fuels. Wood in the siding came from the 750 acres of college-owned forestland. In an aim to leave the forest intact, workers harvested — using draft horses — only the yellow pine that was victim to the blight from the pine bark beetle.

Inside, the doors are a mix of salvaged antiques, some custom-fitted for their frames. Desks consist of recycled filing cabinets and wheat-board desktops that were selected because wheat, unlike wood, is considered a “rapidly renewable” resource. The lights are all compact fluorescents (CFLs), which last 7 to 13 times as long as incandescent lights and use less energy.

Immediately noticeable is the abundance of windows that allow natural light to stream in. This design feature employs passive-solar heating, reduces electricity consumption and caters to the comfort of the building’s inhabitants. While introducing the admissions building, Philip Gibson of the Environmental Leadership Center stresses the importance of incorporating “creature comfort” into architectural design, with consideration for circadian rhythms. “The body needs to feel the rhythm of the sun and know what time of day it is. Everyone in this building can see out as they’re working, and they’re likely to feel more productive because of it,” Gibson says. The windows display the landscape of farmland and hillsides that stretch hundreds of acres.

Outside the admissions building is a rain garden placed to absorb storm water runoff.  Designed to catch the first inch to inch-and-a-half of rain that scours parking lots before moving downhill, the system uses gravel barriers to naturally filter out harmful particulate matter before the water is released. Eventually, wetland plants with the capability to absorb toxins from the runoff will be transplanted there to give it an aesthetic appeal while keeping nearby creeks safe from contamination.

The EcoDorm

Plans for the EcoDorm started years ago. In 1998, when college officials decided to increase student housing, students wanted at least one new building to be “green.” Students, faculty and representatives from green-building firm Samsel Architects oversaw the eco-dorm design. Four goals — energy efficiency, water conservation, healthy indoor-air quality and use of local and recyclable materials — were design criteria. The building features photovoltaic panels, composting toilets, low-energy lights, high-efficiency boilers and other green elements.

The walls and ceiling of the EcoDorm are made of structural insulated panels (SIPS), which consist of expanded polystyrene between two layers of oriented strand board. SIPS create a nearly-seamless building envelope, or exterior shell, that reduces air infiltration. For the interior wood framing, beetle-blighted yellow pine, the most locally available option, was chosen. The wood posed logistical issues with its tendency to warp, but students wanted the most environmentally-conscious choice.

Photovoltaic cells make up the awnings of several south-facing windows in the EcoDorm, and solar panels behind the building preheat water, which is piped inside for further heating by high-efficiency boilers. An underground cistern collects rainwater before it is pumped into the dorm, pressurized and used to flush toilets. The gardens surrounding the EcoDorm will be a “99 percent edible landscape,” according to landscape crew coordinator Tom La Muraglia. Using permaculture, a sustainable-agriculture method, students plan to grow herbs, kiwis, figs, apples, pears, persimmons, greens and other natural treats outside their dorm.

Of course, racking up all these green points doesn’t come without a price. Larry Modlin, the college’s vice president of business affairs, said the tab for the building totaled $180 a square foot, compared with $120 a square foot for other new construction in the same time frame. It may have had something to do with the EcoDorm’s two composting toilets, which cost a total of $50,000. But in an article about the EcoDorm released by the college, the issue of expense is addressed: “The financial picture changes when using full-cost accounting, which recognizes costs as resources that are used or committed, regardless of when the money is spent, from the moment something is produced to the moment it biodegrades. Perhaps the main question an institution (or individual) should ask when considering green building is, what is valuable to us?”

[Rebecca Bowe is coordinator of the 2006-2007 Green Building Directory for the Mountain Xpress.  Her writing has appeared in E: The Environmental Magazine, Terrain Magazine, and the Mountain Xpress. Contact her at]