Students put theory into practice on campus renovations
In a new environmental studies course taught last fall, students learned about green building and remodeling techniques. This summer, a group of those students is putting that knowledge into action on campus.
The course, called Green Building and Remodeling, was co-taught by Associate Professor of Chemistry and Environmental Studies Paul Jackson ’92 and Assistant Vice President for Facilities Pete Sandberg. As their final project for the course, students created a plan to renovate Swanson House, currently used as the Norwegian language honor house, to make it more environmentally sound.
Now they’re carrying out that plan, as well as several other ideas to make the St. Olaf campus more sustainable, such as constructing a labyrinth on the Hill and restoring a vegetable garden behind another honor house.
“We wanted to create an opportunity for students in the course to take their collaborative ideas to the implementation phase,” says Jackson. “It is one thing to test them on a paper and another to actually translate their knowledge into practice and to do so creatively and collaboratively.”
Sandberg was able to include a team of summer interns in the budget for the Swanson House renovations, and when he and Jackson proposed the idea to the class, the response was overwhelming.
“When we asked the class how many would be interested in exploring such an opportunity, about 90 percent of the students said yes,” says Jackson. “Out of that interest group we ended up with a group of eight for whom the logistics and interest level worked well.”
That group of students is calling themselves Rebuilding Green, and they are far from a glorified construction crew.
“Our mission is to foster a collaborative and educational relationship between the St. Olaf Facilities team and the academic community,” says Regan Keller ’14. “Our goals are to research, design, and construct intentional spaces that encourage environmentally friendly ideals and action, and to continually assess and make sustainable changes to our campus to drive our college’s proactive environmental leadership.”
Improving Swanson House
The work the group is doing on Swanson House this summer relates to the house’s basement building envelope, reconfiguring the main level common areas, and making adjustments to the hot water radiators.
“We anticipate that in the coming year, a full exterior renovation that addresses the remainder of the building envelope and incorporates hydronic and photovoltaic solar energy will occur,” says Jackson.
Additionally, the group has done work relating to water management in the entire neighborhood around the house.
“During our class work, we discovered that water issues plagued the basement at Swanson House, and the class quickly discovered that water issues were pertinent to the entire neighborhood between First Street West and St. Olaf Avenue,” Jackson says.
The class proposed the creation of a backyard swale to encourage water infiltration and keep water away from the foundation of the houses in the neighborhood, as well as a secondary swale on the Swanson House site to divert water away from the foundation and terminate in a rain garden adjacent to First Street West.
“By addressing the site issues at the outset, this sets up more effective work on the interior of the house,” says Jackson.
Creating a connection
In addition to the Swanson House renovation, the organization is constructing a labyrinth on campus west of Boe Chapel. Intended as an outdoor meditative space, the group hopes it will foster a feeling of connectedness with the environment as well as enhance students’ sense of well-being.
“We chose a spot near the chapel for practical reasons that also reflect our values,” the group says on their website. “We want to make it very clear that the labyrinth is meant to have a meditative, spiritual purpose. The entrance to the labyrinth will be accessed by a path extending from the sidewalk right outside of Boe’s side doors.”
Jackson and Sandberg hope to offer the Green Building and Remodeling course every three years, with each class developing a design to renovate a new honor house and producing a new group of interns to implement those designs as part of the Rebuilding Green team.
In addition to these projects, the group highlights other proposals that it hopes will also be implemented on campus on its website, such as converting the east entrance to campus into a roundabout and bringing the Theater Building up to more sustainable standards.
“A group of collaborative interns holds a lot of promise for assisting the college with particular projects and goals and provides the interns with the kind of work experience potential employers highly value,” Jackson says. “This kind of working and learning experience is tremendously rewarding.”
An invaluable hands-on experience
“We’ve now done a lot of things that most people our age probably can’t say that they’ve done,” says Laura Willodson ’14. “I mean, we built a labyrinth! We’ve retrofitted a house!”
The students say this hands-on experience makes working with Rebuilding Green a valuable opportunity.
“A lot of the stuff that we study at St. Olaf is very theoretical, as it should be,” says Matt Johnson ’14. “But I think the draw of this program is that it’s very practical. It’s a meeting of theory and actually putting that theory into practice, and that’s an experience that not a lot of people get to have.”
“The labyrinth is a good example of that,” he adds. “We researched the design just like we’d research any other academic project, we gathered the history of labyrinths and all that. But now we’ve actually gotten to do it, to physically construct it — and that’s really fulfilling.”
But the students also say the rewards of working on the Rebuilding Green team go beyond the merely career-furthering.
“It’s been great to learn these new skills that I think will be very useful later in life, things like figuring out how to operate in your own home, how to fix things up,” says Mark Emmons ’14. “And then, being able to leave a mark on campus — a 50-foot diameter mark like the labyrinth — that’s very cool.”