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Our House

At Alma College, the entire institution helped build a residence hall. Now everyone reaps the benefits of this environmentally friendly facility.

By Jerry L. Scoby and Nicholas A. Piccolo

In keeping with our underlying goal of sustainability—meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability to meet future generations’ needs—our institution invited the ideas and opinions of current as well as former students to ensure shared ownership of the process and outcomes of this project. We also established multidiscipline partnerships that went well beyond the typical construction planning team. For example, the partnership between our finance and administration and student life sectors proved critical in conceiving and balancing program and facility needs throughout the design and construction phases. The project planning team included representatives from residence life, student life, finance and administration, the physical plant, students, and faculty.

Our intentional efforts to involve all stakeholders in all aspects of planning and design have produced a living-learning space that is not only a comfortable, efficient facility, but is also a welcoming home to many classes of students to come.

Giving Students a Strong Say

We decided early on to take student involvement beyond the norm, doing so in a couple of ways. Our institution sponsors an annual contest that challenges participants in teams of three or more students across disciplines to offer a solution to a predetermined project or issue. The challenge for the 2003 Kapp Honors Day prize: create a design for new student housing. To reward an excellent concept, we gave the chair of the winning team a seat on the project planning team. 

We also added the president of the residence hall association to the project planning team, along with two current students and a prospective student. We weighted the student voices more heavily than those of the rest of the team in the selection of paint color, carpet design, and furniture upholstery. How? In the selection of interior finishes, nonstudent planning team members cast one vote for various scenarios, and the student members of the planning team cast two votes each, ensuring that a student vote counted twice as much as any other individual’s vote. Similarly, when it came time to select furniture fabrics, a group of students selected the color for the sofas and soft seating in the individual apartments and community spaces in the laundry room. 

Pushing student involvement even further, we created a partnership between the physical plant and the head football coach to use members of the football team to unload the semi-trucks of furniture and move the new pieces of furniture to the individual spaces within the building. Instead of paying the shipping company an extra fee for furniture handling, we made a contribution to the football program’s budget.

The input of the advancement and alumni partners helped to link the design elements to the heritage of the institution and to build for the future. This interaction influenced the physical placement of the building and design elements. For example, alumni suggested ideas for the front porch and the dormer style rooflines that are reminiscent of a similar beloved housing unit that was located on that site and had been torn down in 1976.

Designing for Sustainability

To guide the design of this project, we used a portion of the institution’s mission statement: “…to prepare graduates who think critically, serve generously, lead purposefully, and live responsibly as stewards of the world they bequeath to future generations.” During the design phase, we included some of the sustainable components because of the general commitment to the mission, some for planned educational purposes, and others for pure economics. Following are the primary design elements of sustainability.

  • Geothermal wells for heating and cooling
  • Building orientation for active and passive solar purposes
  • Three solar panels for a small part of the domestic hot water
  • Products with recycled content (lobby furniture fabric 100 percent recycled content)
  • Carpet with up to 75 percent recycled content
  • Lower-flow showerheads
  • Dual-flush-valve toilets in lobby restrooms
  • High-efficiency frontload washers
  • Electric eye and computer board on vending machines to save energy
  • Glass to maximize the amount of natural lighting
  • Space for recycling containers
  • Operable windows for air quality and air flow
  • Low-emission paints
  • Carpet tiles rather than rolled products to allow for partial replacement
  • Native plants in landscaping
  • Existing plant materials maintained wherever possible
  • Trees planted on the west side of the building for shade

While we have used items such as low-flow showerheads for years, we went well beyond the traditional and conventional items to include geothermal well systems for heating and cooling the facility, dual-flush valve toilets with separate flush valves for disposing of liquid waste (as opposed to solid waste), and active solar heating tied to the domestic hot water system. While taking advantage of the obvious small things, we made a larger financial commitment to include a geothermal well system that would be very friendly to the environment and would minimize the consumption of natural gas. The solar heating system, while not driven by economics due to the northern location of the campus, was included to complement other items in the building design that will be useful in the education program delivered in the building.

Planning With Education in Mind

Our student life and academic affairs offices were instrumental in incorporating educational programming in Wright Hall. During the design phase, we planned spaces for faculty- or student-led seminars in the building. For example, the facility design included two seminar rooms off the main entrance to encourage faculty to teach seminar courses in the building. One seminar room was also equipped with “Internet2,” a leading-edge network for advanced applications that is about 1,000 times faster than the speed of most local area networks.

Student-led educational components are under way. A residence assistant program will extend the education about various sustainability parts of the building to the residents and guests in the new Wright Hall. The installation of new meters for electrical, gas, and water consumption allowed for fun, interfacility contests, such as a water-usage competition. Still under development is the computerized display for the lobby kiosk in Wright Hall to educate building residents and guests about consumption of multiple energy sources.

More Than a Place to Sleep

Searching for More on Sustainable Practices?
To learn more about sustainable business models, don’t miss the Campus of The Future: A Meeting of the Minds, July 8–11, 2006, in Honolulu, a joint conference hosted by NACUBO, APPA, and SCUP. A track dedicated to sustainable business models will be included in a program featuring more than 150 concurrent sessions. The conference will provide enhanced education and networking opportunities for all campus administrators, encompassing both business and academic spheres. The program will offer an inventive look at the future and the opportunity to envision it together by hearing what the experts are saying, what campus leaders are doing, and how campus administrators can work together for creative solutions.

From the outset, we wanted and expected more from this facility than someplace for students to sleep. We wanted a residence hall that would feel like home and be based on a sense of shared ownership among all dwellers and users. We attribute the successful completion of Wright Hall in large part to the strong partnerships established among our institution’s various sectors and their subsequent planning, as well as with the architect and general contractor.

The excitement for such a facility was evident. Most of the funds for this $4 million facility were raised during a one-year window, which allowed our institution to delay borrowing. We also remained on track with construction, completing the hall in less than 10 months. At the end of December 2004, when final preparations were being made for the building’s opening on January 2, the project had only a $750,000 negative cash flow.

On the heels of our success with Wright Hall, we are now engaging in other sustainable living awareness raising through efforts such as our “ugly bike” program. Our plan for this program is to tie in a sustainability message beyond Wright Hall by promoting wellness and reducing point-to-point vehicle traffic on campus. Students and the administration will partner to provide bicycles that will be gaudily painted (i.e., easily identifiable) that anyone can ride—from residence hall to classroom to any other venue—and then leave anywhere on campus for another person’s later use. The focus on shared ownership of ideas and outcomes that we incorporated in the planning and design of Wright Hall will likewise allow Alma College to pursue other projects and programs that center on a key message of sustainability: involvement by all stakeholders.

Author Bios  Jerry L. Scoby is vice president for finance and administration and Nicholas A. Piccolo is vice president of student life at Alma College, Michigan.
E-mail  scoby@alma.edu; piccolo@alma.edu