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Thinking green: Warren Wilson moves to the head of the class: explore the college's green side with Michelle Keenan.

"Once you do something right, you can't go back to doing it wrong again," said Stan Cross, director of Warren Wilson College's Environmental Leadership Program. His words were also the consensus at the college upon completion of EcoDorm, the college's first green building. After the dorm's completion, it became immediately evident that the school was heading in an entirely new direction in its growth, both physically and philosophically.

Cross and I met to talk about this direction on a warm, sunny day in January. We sat in Appalachian-style rockers on a patio that overlooked the college farm. The vantage point was ideal for the conversation. I asked him what precipitated the building of the EcoDorm and Warren Wilson College's commitment to green building and environmental sustainability.

Cross explained that about seven years ago, the college updated its minion statement to include environmental responsibility via broader sustainability practices. Adding this component to its mission statement was a natural dovetail to the college's environmental and agricultural roots. As the board and faculty then asked what exactly environmental sustainability would mean for the college, it was the student body that brought about the ultimate environmental vision and direction for the school.

Enrollment growth in recent years meant a need for a number of new campus buildings, including dormitories. A group of students, many of whom were teaming about environmental concerns and sustainability in the classroom, decided they wanted to put what they were learning into practice. They rallied for an eco-friendly dorm. "Basically, they put it to the college, 'If we're going to be doing so much building, shouldn't we be doing green building?'" said Cross.

The administration agreed and decided to lead by example. Very shortly after EcoDorm was finished, everyone realized it wasn't just the right thing to do, but a smart thing to do. EcoDorm uses only a fraction of the amount of energy of the other dorms on campus. The dorm immediately demonstrated its purpose, and Warren Wilson faculty, board, and students fully backed this as the path for smart growth. The example and proof were there.

After its completion, EcoDorm became a showpiece for Warren Wilson College. Cross admitted that the PR was nice: "It was great to see an initiative like this received so well. But, more importantly, it was, and is, great to show the world that this effort in environmental sustainability is energy efficient, cost effective and, ultimately, brings a high quality of life for its students ... The more the rest of the world sees this, the more often we will see there's no going back."

Soon after EcoDorm, Warren Wilson College was faced with a housing crisis when one of its dormitories, Schafer, burned down. Students and staff were dedicated to rebuilding Schafer to be as sustainable as possible. They were also committed to doing it affordably and efficiently. "Time was of the essence, and that can cost you sometimes, but we did it," remarked Cross. Straight away, students and staff took the standard list of building materials and replaced everything with sustainable alternatives.

Many of the materials were locally sourced. Builders also utilized materials that contained highly recycled content and sited the building for maximum solar gain. The result? Schafer is 70 percent sustainable and was built for the same cost as it would have been had it been built with standard materials. Cross points out though, "The savings down the, road will be huge.

Once again, energy efficiency proved a fraction of its previous cost, so, in the long run, this building will cost less than a traditionally built building."

Since the construction of the first two eco-conscious dorms, all previously existing buildings on campus have been or are in the process of being fitted to be more energy efficient, and, in 2006, Warren Wilson College converted to 100 percent green power. The year also saw the completion of the Doug and Darcy Orr Cottage. This new facility, which houses the admissions office, made Warren Wilson College the first college or university in North Carolina to have a Gold Certified Building under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system, a designation that only about 100 buildings nationwide have been awarded. The Orr Cottage also received the Green Building Project of the Year Award from the Carolina Recycling Association.

Two more green dorms are currently under construction. According to Cross, "As it stands now, these two dorms are poised to earn at least Silver and maybe even Gold LEED certification." Cross was clearly jazzed as he talked about the work that's happened on the campus in the last few years. He acknowledged that Warren Wilson's work program certainly helps to cut construction costs, but it also enriches the college because of the ownership the work program gives its students.

The Warren Wilson College work program and commitment to sustainability are truly a community effort. "Students provided the labor and were fully involved in all of these projects and so much more," he said. He also noted the beautifully stone-scaped patio. "Students designed this and did this. The stone is from the campus. The plants are native." Cross continued, "We source what lumber materials we can from our own forests. The farm provides an enormous portion of food for our dining services. We encourage simple acts from students to add greater sustainability. This is the knowledge and perspective they'll take out into the world. They are our future, and they will go out there knowing what can be, knowing that they can create greater sustainability everywhere."

After Cross and I finished talking, he invited me to take a 'Green Walkabout' with a bunch of new students. Warren Wilson offers weekly Green Walkabouts to showcase the college's environmentally sustainable initiatives. Cross easily engaged the students in conversation while conveying a plethora of information. Along the tours, one gets to enjoy the beautiful new buildings and scenic grounds of the campus while learning about environmentally friendly products you never knew existed, innovative air handling systems, creative recycling of building products, and so much more. Tours are open to the public and are well worth the time.

With their many green initiatives in place, the college is setting an example for both students and other institutions. Warren Wilson, you may step to the front of the class.

Michelle Keenan is a quill for hire, traveler and budding photographer. She can be reached at
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Author:Keenan, Michelle
Publication:New Life Journal
Date:Apr 1, 2007
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