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Grinnell College works toward a greener planet


The Grinnell College Environmental Education Center was the first building in Iowa to receive the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) gold rated designation for its sustainable features. Green design  include low-flow, dual flush toilets; architecture; and a wind turbine that supplies 90 percent of the center’s electricity. The building is located at the college’s Conard Environmental Research Area (CERA),  1 miles southwest of campus.

With the recent approval of an energy and climate bill by the House of Representatives, renewable energy and “green” initiatives have become the new buzzwords. Large energy users will have to look at ways to use renewable energy sources in the future if the Senate eventually passes the bill. Some users are already way ahead of the ball, including Grinnell College.

Grinnell College has been implementing renewable energy and environmentally sound practices over the past several years.

“We have been paying attention to our energy and water use, air quality, use of local materials and how much waste we create at the college,” said Chris Bair, Grinnell College environmental and safety coordinator.

“We have made building changes and behavior changes over the years.” Grinnell College has worked vigorously to update old buildings and adopted a policy that all new buildings must be a certified “green” building.


The Grinnell College Environmental Education Center, located at the Conard Environmental Research Area (CERA), was the first building in Iowa to receive the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) goldrated designation by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). In order to become LEED certified, the USGBC verifies that a building or community was designed and built using strategies aimed at improving performance across all the metrics that matter most, including: energy savings, water efficiency, carbon dioxide emissions reduction, improved indoor environmental quality and stewardship of resources and sensitivity to their impacts.

The education center is incorporated with several resource-saving strategies from its architecture to renewable energy sources.

The architecture helps to not only save energy costs, but also helps to heat and cool the building throughout the years.

“The building uses a lot of daylighting,” said Bair. “It is designed and situated to help keep some of the sunlight out during the summer months and allow more in during the winter months. We also have a geothermal heating and cooling system.”

To help keep energy costs down, the classrooms in the building have daylight sensors. The sensors detect how much light is in a room and can automatically turn on and off certain lights when needed.

Bair said although the building has cut energy use, electricity is still needed.

“Our energy consumption is considerably less, but we still need some form of energy to keep things running,” said Bair.

Bair said the building is green on that end. Rather than using traditional coal and non-renewable energy, engineers and architects chose to harness a natural, renewable source: the wind. A wind turbine sits next to the education center, which provides almost 90 percent of the building’s energy.

Another natural resource is used in conservation efforts. Bair said the sinks and toilets at the education center use collected rainwater. The toilets are also low-flow and dual flush.

“They have two flow rates which helps save water,” he said. Even the materials used to construct the building helped the environment.

“We tried to use as much local materials as we could,” said Bair. “That did two things, cut costs and the use of fossil fuel because the materials didn’t have to travel as far.”


Bair said there have been several initiatives around campus to improve the environment and energy consumption. Several of the older buildings on campus have been updated to help conserve energy. Changes range from lighting and new insulation to centralized heating and cooling systems.

“In all the buildings, we take every opportunity to make it as green as possible,” said Bair.

Several of the initiatives not only help the environment, but also help the local economy and residents.

According to Bair, dining services tries to use as much local produce as possible when preparing food.

“The food is more nutritious, it cuts back on fossil fuel use and it helps support our local growers,” said Bair.

Whatever is left over is also put to good use. During the school year, up to a ton and a half of food waste can be produced each week, said Bair. Instead of sending the waste to a local landfill, all the food is composted. The compost is then sent off to a local farm for use.

Students, faculty and staff are encouraged to recycle as much possible. The college is a part of the city’s recycling program. At the end of the year, students can “recycle” any clothing, furniture and non-perishable food they had from the school year. Old clothing and bedding is given to

Goodwill, food items are sent to MICA and any thing else is used for a flea market held during orientation.

“If it’s still in good condition, why throw it away when it can be used again,” said Bair.

Even small steps, like disposable flatware, make an impact on the environment. At the annual graduation picnic this May, everything used was either biodegradable or could be used in compost.

“The trashbags, cups, plates and utensils could all be recycled or were biodegradable,” said Bair. “These small scale steps can really make a big difference.”


“We can do a lot environmentally from a facilities standpoint, but a lot of the effort has to come from student action,” said Bair.

And Grinnell College students have taken it upon themselves to learn more about environmentally-friendly living.

This past year, Grinnell College opened a new position for students to be dorm environmental coordinators. Students in the paid position are required to educate their peers about environmental issues. Coordinators hold study breaks to discuss the issues and to take any suggestions students might have.

The college also has several environmental groups and organizations on campus whose goals are to educate and create green initiatives in the area. One such group is made up of 12 to 14 students who live in one of the college-owned houses. The group of students lived this past year in what they called the ECOHouse.

“The idea was totally studentdriven,” said Bair. “The students made changes to the house and changes in their behaviour to try to live green. The ECOHouse is like a testing ground for the campus because we can see how things work on a smaller scale and then apply it to larger buildings.” Recent Grinnell College graduate Eric Nost lived in the house this past year and was one of the students who thought of the idea.

“The idea first came up in fall 2007 when a student wrote a proposal to start something like the ECOHouse, but he never turned it in,” said Nost. “Later in the fall, a group of environmental club students were looking around for something to sink their teeth into and we knew other colleges had done something similar.”

By spring 2008, the students had written a proposal and presented the idea to the school and were given the go ahead.

The students worked to update and improve the house. Nost said they insulated the attic and exposed pipes, installed low-flow toilets, put aerators in all the water fixtures, replaced lightbulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs and caulked the windows. The students even made changes to the yard by planting a garden in the back and planting a prairie in the front.

“The prairie grass is low maintenance so you don’t have to mow it as often, it helps rebuild the soil and helps lessen water runoff,” said Nost.

Students had to adjust their everyday habits as well. Grinnell College senior and former ECOHouse resident Caitlin

Vaughan said the changes took some getting used to.

The residents turned down the water temperature in the house and took shorter showers; cooked food from scratch to reduce waste; carpooled to reduce the use of vehicles; and kept the thermostat down during the winter.

“You eventually get used to it, even in the winter. Instead of turning up the heat, we would just put on another sweater or throw on another blanket,” said Vaughan.

Nost said one of the most important things that occurred in the ECOHouse was the installation of a monitoring system. The system monitors how much energy, water and natural gas is used on a daily basis within the house.

“It’s really big because we can turn the data into a visual thing for people to see,” he said.

Vaughan said turning the data into something visual is still a work in progress though.

“Next year’s residents will need to find a way to look at the data and integrate it to help their lifestyle,” she said. “When people see how much energy they use, they can cut back.”

Overall, the students in ECOHouse saved the college about $1,500. “It did cost a lot of money to make all the physical changes, but it will eventually pay itself off in the long run,” said Nost. “Hopefully people will know small changes do make a difference after they see what’s happened at ECOHouse. I really think ECOHouse will be a good space in the years to come for people interested in the environment to connect for a greener world.”


UPDATED July 8, 2009 9:15 AM

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