An Emerging Campus Ecovillage Movement

The Declaration, Volume 6, Number 1: December 2002  [Spotlight]

By Yonatan Strauch

Personal Seeds
In late 1999, a fellow student at Mount Allison University (Sackville, NB, Canada) proposed that a few of us work to create a ‘sustainable residence’, a new environmentally built eco-theme house that would also serve as a center for environmental and social justice groups. Since that time, the project has taken off and become a focal point in my life. As we began to explore the idea, we discovered a number of exciting case studies we could work from.

I realized that these were not just a few isolated projects but the beginning of a grassroots movement during the Ball State ‘Greening of the Campus’ conference in 2001. There I encountered students who are living in eco-residences and meeting each other for the first time. I met one of the architects who later helped us gain official acceptance for our project at Mount Allison. I also sat in on a meeting of the North American group, HENSE (Higher Education Network for Sustainability and the Environment), at which the student/grassroots dimension of creating a well integrated campus sustainability movement appeared missing. Together these events inspired and compelled me to explore the emergence of ecological living on campus and to connect with those who are trying to create or already living or working in campus ecological living centers. Here I use the term ‘ecological living center’ for even the most modest or informal of theme houses as they all provide a space in which we can take steps towards living sustainably.

I recruited students, educators and architects to join a network of people working to create spaces for sustainable living on campus. As I sent out feelers, I discovered the existence of nearly a dozen more projects in various states of development and a good number of additional allies.

Last spring, I was able to explore this grassroots movement on the ground thanks to an undergraduate research grant from my university. With a big pack and a month-and-a-half Greyhound Ameripass, I set out to visit 12 universities around the northeast and Midwest United States. At each school I was greeted with hospitality from students hard at work to actualize ecological living on their campus. Below is a reflection on what I learned as well as my wider explorations of this movement.

Seeds of a Movement
In the summer of 1978 a group of students at Humboldt State College (Arcata, CA) renovated an old house and turned it into the Campus Center for Alternative Technology (CCAT). They were eventually able to secure university support and today the majority of Humboldt students participate in at least one weekend workshop at the CCAT. Among the technologies that serve as educational tools are passive and active solar design, a garden, and a grey water marsh, all run by three live-in co-directors.

California being the forerunner that it is, it is only in the last ten years that student sustainability centers have been popping up across the rest of North America. Many are residences with various degrees of sustainable infrastructure and a focus on lifestyle. By 1995 there were centers with their own academic program at Slippery Rock University (Slippery Rock, PA) and California Polytechnic University (Pomona, CA), and planning was underway for a Northland College (Ashland, WI) environmental residence, the McLean Environmental Living and Learning Center, which opened in the fall of 1998. Of course, significant aspects of sustainable living have been visible at eco-theme houses and some housing and food co-ops for decades, although without the direct purpose of being sustainability centers.

While ecological living centers are still rare, the last few years have seen an increasing number of student groups and professors (and the occasional institution) articulating this idea independently. From Mount Allison to Dalhousie to Waterloo to the University of North Carolina, students, professors and other allies are working together to create a house that is, ecologically and socially speaking, a home. And they are getting results! As we become aware of one another and begin to communicate, we are building a grassroots movement to bring examples of sustainable living to higher education.

The Power to Create Meaningful Change
Perhaps student eco-housing is arising independently across the continent because solutions that start at home are so often the most profound and educationally powerful. Indeed, the Latin eco, from which ecology and economy are derived, means “house” or “home.” Home is where we can enact our values, be with people close to us, laugh and share our lives. It is basically where we belong. If at the root of the ecological crisis lies a spiritual alienation from nature, then creating a sense of belonging and connectedness is a primary educational vehicle for creating genuinely sustainable campuses and societies. If you tell young people, who are growing up mostly unaware of the ecological crises we face, “you can live without toxics, huge greenhouse gas emissions, factory food, and slave labor goods, and be better off for it,” most would not believe or take notice of what you say. If you invite them to participate and show them how, they will be amazed, inspired, and transformed.

The power of community-based, ecologically sound student housing is that it integrates the technology and culture of sustainability. The resulting firsthand, tangible lessons cannot be taught by traditional environmental education. Nor can they be learned through an ecologically built science building or a thematic earth-house within a regular building (though both are great beginnings). A green building will endure, but the values enshrined in it may be forgotten. The educational value of the synergy between a community and ecological design can create powerful and enduring catalysts for change on campus.

A Few Stories and a Few Lessons
I discovered on my travels an amazing group of dedicated people who were delighted to be involved with my journey of discovery and talk about other similar projects. I discovered a rich diversity of approaches addressing challenges that range from the social to the environmental. Many of the projects are in the planning/lobbying stage, some are academic or interest-based theme houses, some are student run farms, and a few apply the living-learning model. From these there are lessons to be learned in how we can successfully bring ecological living to campus. I have yet to sort these out sufficiently, so I’ll touch on them quickly as they come up, with any conclusions drawn being merely initial impressions.

It is remarkable that there is to date no collective account of these projects. This article is a very preliminary set of snapshots designed to whet the reader’s appetite to learn more and visit the developing campus ecovillage network website. What I found most valuable that I am unable to share here is the story of each project in its place.

Theme Houses
I visited several eco-theme houses, some with an academic focus and others based on personal interest. At Middlebury College’s (Middlebury, VT) Weybridge house and the University of Vermont’s (Burlington, VT) Slade house, around 20 students live in a typical residential Victorian building, working together as a food co-op buying local organic produce and serving nightly communal dinners. Both experienced legitimacy problems with their respective institutions, and both had a mix of students, most interested in living ecologically and only some with an activist approach. During my visits to these homes, I discovered a strong sense of community and an environment which students found especially nurturing and rewarding.

As at Slade, you can find a twenty year old scrap book at the Eco-house at Northland College (depicting things like the building of a greenhouse or a straw bale test building). The Eco-house, however, has been moved from a recently demolished theme house village that included spirituality, community outreach, and a women’s studies house, into the environmentally designed but short-on-character McLean Environmental Living Learning Center (ELLC). The ELLC, though progressive in its design, is a large dorm built to house around 100 students, for most of whom the place seems to offer nothing particularly special. The Ecology house at Cornell is similar to the ELLC in concept, though not technology. It was described to me as an extremely wasteful building that does not facilitate community interactions. In addition, Cornell does not always reserve it for students with ecological interests. Still, my host (now living off campus with friends) found it to be an unintimidating entry point from which to form activist communities.

Though I only saw a few co-operatives on my journey, it seems to me that many are very similar to the smaller eco-theme houses in that they constitute a stable community space and support local farms, but are not usually engaged in optimizing the ecological performance of their facilities. They differ from theme houses in that they are economically self reliant.

Off Campus
It is difficult to track off campus student efforts to live sustainably as they tend to be more informal than on campus eco-houses or co-ops, and probably many have come, gone and been forgotten. At any rate, I was privileged to see a few student groups taking the ecology of their housing into their own hands. At Northland College, some of those who ‘graduated’ from the Eco-house could not let the concept go and attempted to maintain the lifestyle and do outreach from the house they rent, now known as Bread House. An engineer friend set up a solar panel and a grey water diversion system for the Bread House occupants, but with no money for insulation the heat stays low.

At Unity College (Unity, ME), a working class college, students rough it in the woods, not only to be close to nature and reduce their footprint, but to save money. The story is different again at Oberlin College (Oberlin, OH). Two tireless students have incorporated Sustainable Communities Associates in order to purchase an old downtown building to turn it into a multi-use building with a community center as well as student and low income housing. When you don’t work within the institution, you don’t have to lobby or struggle with delays and dubious compromises, and you can be as formal or informal as you like. On the other hand, if you can win institutional support, its resources are available for the project and it can be integrated into academic life and change the character of the institution.

The New Kids on the Block
Most of what I found in my search for places to visit were projects in development, with only two of the twelve I visited being established formal projects. In a receptive environment, a new proposal can be quickly accepted and even come from the top. At the College of the Atlantic (Bar Harbor, ME), an eco-house proposal went from an idea brought up by a student returning from a natural building internship to a study group to the subject of an architecture class and into the campus master plan, all within a year. Unity College is considering various options and soliciting student involvement in planning any future residences, which many of the people I spoke to felt would incorporate the school’s existing living-learning philosophy.

CEL (Consortium for Ecological Living) at the University of Vermont is a student group that emerged out of a class of ecological designer John Todd. My CEL host, Michelle, shared stories of long, often draining (though ultimately fruitful) lobbying to get the university to integrate ecological design into its next student dorm project. I know as well as Michelle that a foot-dragging institution can sap the energy of a student group should they choose to continue engaging it. Though prospects remain unclear in the long run, UVM may also build an ecologically-designed community style house that could include some living learning programs. People I spoke to at all of these institutions expressed concerns over what the planning and design process will lead to, how green the technology will end up being, and who will control the process.

The Work Colleges
Supportive environments for such projects could be found at the ‘work colleges,’ at which students must all work for the school in order to graduate. Because they have a greater role in the institution, students are more likely to be welcomed into governance, and their labor can contribute directly to projects. The most developed project is at Berea College (Berea, KY), a full scholarship school for low income students, with abolitionist roots. Though Berea only introduced the concept of sustainability in 1998 as a strategic priority, they are about to build an ‘ecovillage’ housing complex (which is needed anyway) for single parents, which includes a childcare school and a demonstration house proposed by the Sustainability and Environmental Studies program (SENS) and partly designed in a SENS class.

At Sterling College (Craftsbury Common, VT), an environmentally focused school (though not yet in terms of design) of only 100 students, half the school turned out to see a student-directed study presentation on a proposed green-dorm. The Ecodorm at Warren Wilson College (Asheville, NC) was designed with students, who participated in weekly meetings with the architects for an entire year. The dorm, which will come on line in January, will include a food co-operative and as of yet undetermined educational activities. It is, however, the last of eight new dorms and the only one designed from an environmental perspective. This is despite Warren Wilson’s being an environmental studies school. Even the most supportive environments have a long way to go.

The Academic Dimension
Sustainable living centers, whether in concept or in existence, offer an opportunity to focus on learning how we can live on campus through the greatest ‘untapped’ resource in higher education – class time. Outside of class, there is rarely enough time for students to build a sustainable future. Every project I have come across integrates academic to some extent. From personal experience I can say this is not only useful but exceptionally educational. At Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania, a state school, the entire Masters Program in Sustainable Systems is run out of the Mackoskey Center, an education and research facility that supports environmental and science-oriented academic programs. Students must undertake a hands-on project in the streams of ‘built environment’, ‘sustainable agriculture’, and ‘ecosystems management’. Twelve students exchange tuition for work-time devoted to Center educational activities, and two even live at the Center. Past projects include building a straw bale barn, a living machine, and an interpretive trail.

At Cornell University (Ithaca, NY), Ecovillage at Ithaca is building partnerships with professors to become involved in academic activities, and engineering students, working with a leading expert, have used a directed study course to propose solar electrification of a new residence building. At Mount Allison University, we have run out of ideas for directed studies and are now using a ‘planning process’ class to move the design phase along. Oberlin’s Ecological Design Innovation Center is planning to take full advantage of this as it develops the George Jones Farm, which will include a student housing co-op and space for educational activities. The Farm is intended to introduce agricultural innovations to local farmers, educate the wider community about organic farming, and serve as a training and research facility for Oberlin College students.

While I have not explored student farms as much as other forms of ecological living centers, they too can form a synergy between design and community. Aside from the work colleges that already offer students the opportunity to work on organic farms, students are attempting to create farms they can learn on and eat from. In addition to the Jones Farm at Oberlin, there are similar efforts at Middlebury College and Cornell University.

The Network
Though the concept of an ecological living center is powerful, it remains a hard sell for typically conservative university administrations. Successfully lobbying for a project can be a long and intensive process. Building alliances, compiling case studies, and making presentations take a lot of time and can sometimes be overwhelming, no matter how dedicated students are. Off campus efforts require a different but no less rigorous effort. That is why a new network is being formed to help students and their allies push, strengthen, and celebrate these initiatives. There is, after all, no reason why some variation on this theme should not be present on every campus.

The Campus Ecovillage Network would support the emergence and growth of sustainable student life on the college campuses of North America, with a focus on home and student housing. It could aim to (1) inspire and empower students to create community-based and ecologically-sound housing; (2) strengthen projects in development by linking them to other such project in North America and to resources and people; and (3) strengthen existing projects through providing avenues of communication and opportunities for cooperation.

So far a significant number of students, academics, architects and designers involved in these projects have taken an interest in some form of network to nurture this fledgling movement. A website will be up soon at, where you can find resources and more in-depth information on these projects. I believe that in the coming years we will see more of these initiatives take hold and even more new ones spring up. We should all be grateful to those who are blazing the trail and have built up the critical mass necessary to bring sufficient attention to the awesome value of living sustainably on campus.

Yonatan Strauch is an undergraduate student at Mount Allison University in Sackville, NB, Canada. You can contact Yonatan at with any questions or comments, or to get involved.

Resources and case studies:

Global Ecovillage Network:

Ecovillage Education Program:

Humboldt State College Campus Center for Appropriate Technology:

California State Polytechnic University Center for Regenerative Studies:

Prescott College Mercury House:

Northland College McLean Environmental Living and Learning Center:

Berea College Ecovillage:

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