As the academic year draws to a close, housing is fresh in everyone’s mind. As students navigate room draw and look ahead to next year’s living arrangements, it is important to consider what could use improvement. Going into a new academic year, the College should reexamine aspects of residential life that are often overlooked or dismissed as inconsequential.
In light of the Climate Whiplash event that took place this Tuesday and Vassar’s plans for upcoming renovations, the College needs to take into account the environmental sustainability of Vassar housing. While the current residential system fosters community in many ways, it is crucial to consider the ecological aspects of the Vassar community as well.
Schools across the country have begun incorporating eco-friendly practices into dormitory renovations, and Vassar should follow suit moving forward. Environmental sustainability can be incorporated into everything from water usage, to lighting, to energy sources and while many of these changes require considerable time, money and planning, there are certainly ways in which to gradually implement eco-friendly living at Vassar.
Wake Forest University, for instance, has Energy Star appliances and water-saving shower heads and toilets throughout its student housing (NBC News, “More colleges redo dorms with green touches,” 07.16.2008). Vassar would be able to implement this change for a reasonable cost and would not only conserve water, but would also save money in the long run.
Pitzer College in Southern California constructed several of its housing facilities using building materials that mainly originated from areas within 200 miles of the school, which cut down on environmental damage inflicted in the process of transporting materials, as well as transportation costs (NPR, “Colleges Create Eco-Friendly Dorms,” 08.31.2007). In addition, the rooftops of the buildings are insulated with gardens and incorporate photovoltaic panels, which generate renewable energy. The materials themselves include recycled concrete, carpeting and insulation. While it is obviously unrealistic to expect Vassar to implement these changes in the near future, it would be beneficial to keep options such as these in mind as the College gradually renovates and reconstructs houses and other buildings.
While some buildings across campus have energy-saving lights in the bathrooms that use motion sensors to ensure that the lights are not on unnecessarily, the College has yet to introduce this feature into dormitories. Although this is only a minor change, it would significantly cut down on energy usage over time.
Some schools, such as Colorado State University, have gone so far as to install solar plants on or near campus (Best Choice Schools, “50 Great Affordable Eco-Friendly Colleges”). Colorado State’s solar energy usage is projected to reduce greenhouse emissions by approximately 5.5 million pounds each year. Many colleges and universities are taking a more gradual approach to the integration of alternative power sources, such as installing solar panels on residential buildings over a projected period of time.
LEED, a building program that spurs sustainable building, design and construction, is becoming more common on college campuses. The program provides “a framework that gives project teams the ability to choose solutions that contribute to aggregate environmental progress” (USGBC, “LEED Facts,” 08.07.2013). Although the main purpose of LEED is to improve environmental sustainability, it also focuses on improving building performance. In fact, studies have shown that LEED-certified buildings not only conserves energy, and therefore money, but also rank among the highest performing buildings (USGBC).
Examples of environmentally friendly living exist within our own campus as well as outside it: Most Vassar students walk past Ferry House on a regular basis, and yet few are actually aware of the effort that its inhabitants put into sustainable living each day. Those who live in Ferry have weekly meetings to discuss household responsibilities and goals, and each person plays a part in cooking, cleaning and keeping Ferry House running. The rest of Vassar could benefit from an increased awareness of the environmental efforts of their fellow students.
The College should also take into consideration the changes occurring in the surrounding area. The Vassar Brothers Medical Center, which is scheduled to open in January 2019, will “incorporate the latest in sustainable design and is expected to receive LEED certification” (Health Quest, “State approves Vassar Brothers Medical Center’s plan to build $466 million patient pavilion,” 10.15.2015). It is significant that the largest construction project in the history of the City of Poughkeepsie, which is a feat in itself, is placing premium on sustainability.
It is important, of course, to take into account the financial implications of environmentally sustainable refurbishments. Particularly in light of the new meal plan, which will go into effect in the fall of 2017, Vassar must be cautious about the financial burden that these changes place on low-income students.
The new meal plan, however, is also an opportunity to implement more environmentally friendly practices into student life. As the school attempts to transition upperclassmen to an all-inclusive meal plan rather than independently preparing food, Vassar should consider ways in which to limit food waste and implement sustainable methods of preparing food, cleaning dishes and maintaining dining facilities.
Vassar is fairly successful, for the most part, in creating a socially inclusive and community-oriented environment. The College needs to give just as much attention to the physical environment, however, in order to accommodate students in a sustainable manner.