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The sustainable residence

Mount Allison's Cuthbertson House gives students a lesson in ecologically friendly living

By ALLISON LAWLOR | FEB 11 2008

The grand old green house on picturesque York Street in Sackville, New Brunswick, sits in total darkness, except for a single light in the kitchen. It’s 5 p.m. on a cold evening in early December and the residents of the house are gathered in what they call the heart of the home to prepare a vegetarian meal.

Standing at a big wooden table in the only warm bright room in the house, Jacquie Pereira sprinkles buckwheat on top of a pan full of sliced apples to make a crisp for dessert, as she talks about how she and her seven housemates have an unspoken agreement, not only to switch off lights when they leave a room, but also to turn down the heat and take fewer showers. It’s all part of their mission to save energy and use less water.

“We all seem to be on the same page. There’s kind of an informal understanding,” she says. Without having to set strict rules, Ms. Pereira says they have chosen not to shower daily and, when they do, to make them short. “Having a 20-minute shower would not be cool.”

Home for Ms. Pereira, a second-year international relations and environmental studies student, is Cuthbertson House, Mount Allison University’s residence devoted to sustainable living. When the residence opened in the fall of 2005 (initially in a different house) after years of students lobbying for a green residence on campus, it was reportedly the first of its kind in Canada. From the beginning, the tiny residence has differed from the bigger, energy-efficient dormitories increasingly sprouting up on Canadian campuses because it gives students the opportunity to make environmentally conscious choices on everyday household tasks, from drying clothes on racks instead of in the dryer to turning down the thermostat.

When Ms. Pereira finishes making the crisp, she tosses the apple cores into a big yellow garbage bin behind her. It’s where most of the kitchen waste goes. Bypassing the landfill, it heads straight to a composter in the backyard. Since Ms. Pereira and her housemates eat mostly organic, locally grown produce and buy few packaged foods, the entire house produces as little as a bag of garbage every two weeks.

“We’re just a group of students who think sustainable living is achievable,” says Megan Lowry, a second-year philosophy and religion student, as she puts a casserole of polenta, squash, beans and corn and a pan of root vegetables into the oven to bake. “I think we can make a difference here. I think taking personal action is important, but I think education is more important.”

When the casserole and roasted vegetables are ready, Ms. Lowry pulls them out of the oven and everyone sits down to eat. Communal meals are a big part of what makes Cuthbertson House what it is. The students take turns cooking dinner Monday through Thursday. Other meals are eaten together more by chance. At the start of the school year, Ms. Lowry and her housemates, who are all women this year, pooled their money and bought enough vegetables and grains to last them well into the second semester. When their bulk order arrived, their cold storage filled up with 23-kg bags of onions, carrots, cabbage, potatoes and turnips, along with 11-kg bags of everything from rice and lentils to kidney beans and buckwheat.

“We don’t grocery shop a lot,” says Koré Guenzel, a third-year biology student. When they do shop, it’s to pick up fresh eggs weekly at the Sackville farmers’ market or in-season vegetables from a small stand a few kilometres down the road.

Talk around the dinner table soon turns to their work outside the home. On campus, they act as ambassadors for eco-friendly living. They run open houses and workshops, are active in campus environmental groups and eagerly talk about their house and what it means to live sustainably.

Last semester, explains Ms. Guenzel, they hosted a dinner followed by a talk on nuclear energy. About 35 people from the university and the larger Sackville community came to eat a home-cooked meal and listen to a presentation by a physics professor and master’s student. This semester, Ms. Lowry wants to hold another talk on the ethics of eating. After spending last summer working on a small organic farm, she’s been thinking more about how to eat sustainably, the merits of vegetarian versus non-vegetarian lifestyles, and how governments influence the way we eat.

Sitting down for a meal in Cuthbertson House, you don’t feel like you’re in a university residence. “This is like a home. It is much more of a community environment,” says Ms. Guenzel. All the students in Cuthbertson House tried to live a sustainable lifestyle before moving into the house, but found it harder to do in a regular residence. Living in a bigger, more conventional residence last year, Ms. Guenzel found herself constantly turning off lights or bothered by the amount of waste she saw.

Cuthbertson House fits well within the spirit of Mount Allison, where half of the university’s roughly 2,000 students live on campus. The small liberal-arts institution has long been committed to environmentally friendly measures, from introducing campus-wide recycling and community organic gardens to reducing electricity use by converting light switches on campus to motion sensors or timers.

One of the university’s newest waste-reduction initiatives was introducing a food scraping station in its main student dining hall last September. The idea was to “put waste in their face,” says Michelle Strain, Mount Allison’s director of administrative services. Getting students, rather than kitchen staff, to scrape uneaten food off their plates and into the garbage got them to pay more attention to what they put on their plates. It resulted in a 44-percent drop in food waste. “This campus is kind of a beacon in the fog on the East Coast,” says Ms. Strain, referring to the university’s environmental initiatives.

Mount Allison isn’t alone in trying to become a greener campus. More and more Canadian universities – often at the urging of student activists – are undertaking various conservation projects. These include McGill University replacing Kentucky bluegrass with a community garden, students enjoying a vegan meal on Carleton University’s campus, and students and staff using communal bicycles at the University of Calgary. Thanks to decades of attention to energy conservation, Simon Fraser University just won recognition from an international building association for meeting its “Go Green” criteria in all 26 main buildings.

At Mount Allison, awareness is growing about Cuthbertson House. Some students still think of it as a “freakish” place where people live without electricity and running water, but most are simply curious about the residents’ lifestyle choices, says Sylvie Mitford, a third-year biology student. “Those who know us think it’s pretty cool.”

While not everyone wants to live in a place like Cuthbertson House, the students who do are interviewed by both administrators and current residents before being accepted into the house. “They have to be ready for the challenge,” says Ms. Strain. “It’s not everybody’s cup of tea.”

Mount Allison is clearly committed to the idea of a sustainable residence. Administrators plan to pump $350,000 into Cuthbertson House this summer to transform it from a drafty old house into an energy-efficient home. With the help of an external consultant’s report and university staff, the house’s current residents will determine how best to do that. By next fall, the house will have energy-efficient windows and appliances, low-flow toilets, as well as a new heating system that might run on solar or thermal energy. The plan is to also expand the house to accommodate up to eight more students. “It’s all part of the education process,” says Ms. Strain. “They’ll learn about green renovations.”

Cuthbertson House is somewhat of a testing ground for the university’s administrators. Within the next few years, they hope to build a larger sustainable residence, for 100 or more students, modelled in large part on Cuthbertson.

Before 2005, the idea for a sustainable residence at Mount Allison had long been in the works. An organization made up of students, faculty and university staff campaigned for years to create a green residence. But the project stalled for many reasons, including a lack of focus and some farfetched, overly expensive ideas, such as building a straw bale house, says Ms. Strain.

Finally, students agreed to try using an existing residence as a place where they could live in an ecologically friendly way. Initially housed in a smaller, recently renovated dormitory called Carriage House, the sustainable residence moved to its current location last fall. With the students’ ardent commitment to reducing their water and energy usage, Ms. Strain expects Cuthbertson House’s power bill will be cut by more than a third and its water bill in half from last year, when the house’s previous residents paid little attention to the thermostat.

“They take their commitment seriously,” says Ms. Strain.

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