Art of Living Climate & Energy Ohio University

OHIO Ecohouse (Part I): Living the Green Life

The solar thermal array helps the Ecohouse have warm water during winter. Photo by Joe Brehm

By Danielle Morris, For College Green

Residents of the OHIO Ecohouse are here to prove that sustainable living does not have to mean forsaking a comfortable lifestyle.

The OHIO Ecohouse, located on Dairy Lane, is a demonstration home for sustainable living and the use of affordable green technology. It has housed three different environmentally conscious Ohio University students every school year since June 2005.

“I like the fact that living here makes me very conscious about my impact sustainability-wise every single day,” said Alana Dakin, a junior studying English through the Honors Tutorial College and current Ecohouse resident.

The Ecohouse looks like any other residential house in the area, aside from two groups of solar panels in the yard. The Ecohouse is an example of a retrofitted house that has been updated to increase its efficiency.

“The house itself is gorgeous and (it is) a very nice place to live,” Dakin said.

The house earned the name “OHIO Ecohouse” after receiving a green makeover that included the addition of Energy Star appliances, increased insulation, a biomass furnace, compact fluorescent light bulbs, a 2.4 kilowatt (kW) solar electric array, an organic garden, two composting systems, six recycling bins, low-flow high-pressure showerheads, and a solar thermal hot water system.

Most students looking for off-campus housing are familiar with the terms “includes utilities” and “high-speed Internet,” but may be wondering what a “2.4 kW solar array” and a “solar thermal water system” could possibly be.

Despite the addition of systems that may be unfamiliar to the typical college student, Erin Katherine Sykes, the Program Assistant for the Office of Sustainability, said the maintenance of the Ecohouse is similar to that of any other house.

“Some specialty maintenance includes cleaning out the wood pellet stove at the end of the season and getting the chimney swept out on occasion since all of the smoke from the wood stove goes out the chimney. Residents also maintain the vermicompost (or worm compost), the compost pile, the garden, and weeding around the house since no pesticides are used there,” Sykes said.

Many of the eco-friendly additions function just as systems in other houses would, except they emit less carbon dioxide and use less energy or water.

The compact fluorescent light bulbs use one-third of the energy used by incandescent bulbs. The biomass furnace reduces the ecological footprint of the house because it emits less carbon dioxide than a gas or oil furnace would.

A rain barrel allows the residents to collect fresh water for their garden. Photo by Joe Brehm

The residents also conserve water with their Energy Star dishwasher and by collecting rainwater from the filtered gutters of the house for the garden instead of using tap water. The low-flow, high-pressure showerheads minimize the amount of water used as well.

The solar thermal water system in place at the Ecohouse is comprised of two solar panels that capture sunlight to heat the house’s water supply. However, thanks to an on demand water heater, a day without sun does not mean a shower without hot water. If the solar panels do not reach 110 degrees, the on demand water heater kicks in by using gas to heat the water instead.

“It’s fun taking a shower when the sun is shining and heating up the water via our solar thermal water heater. You can feel the difference, and it’s satisfying knowing that the sun heated the water for my shower rather than coal or gas,” said second-year environmental education graduate student Joe Brehm, a current resident of the Ecohouse.

The residents recycle everything they can to minimize the amount of materials they send to landfills. They recycle food waste by composting their left over food and then use the compost as fertilizer in their organic garden. Paper, newspaper, plastic, aluminum, steel, and cardboard are also recycled at the Ecohouse.

Residents of the Ecohouse host several open houses and conduct tours to educate the community about affordable green technology and sustainable living. These tours help teach people how to incorporate eco-friendly systems into their everyday lives.

The residents recycle everything they can to minimize the amount of materials they send to landfills. Photo by Joe Brehm

Dakin said the residents try to maintain discussions relevant to sustainability and environmental issues in a way that relates to the visitors.

“You can’t just look at the negatives of your lifestyle or it will drive you crazy. I try to live the best way that I can. Sure, there are sacrifices that we all need to make in our lives, especially in the U.S., so that we are living responsibly and not over-consuming. Making those sacrifices, however, usually improves our quality of life rather than degrading it,” Brehm said.

Residents also have the opportunity to implement new eco-friendly systems during their year of residency. Brehm has been working on making the landscape of the yard more beneficial to the environment by planting “trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants that are native to Southeast Ohio.”

“Our goal is to keep these ecological systems intact, and increasing the diversity of flora at the house is one way to do that. There will be multiple nectar sources for pollinators such as bees and butterflies, berries for the birds and other critters, and a variety of other ecological benefits from installing native plants.  Also, the plants will capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they grow, thus doing a small part of removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere,” Brehm said.

As their mission statement says, “The OHIO Ecohouse is not just a place – it is a dynamic educational experience which promotes critical thinking and tangible actions toward sustainability.”

Dakin said that there are always new projects to be started around the house. Some of the projects that have been discussed are making part of the land a prairie, starting a small orchard, setting up a grey-water system to reuse wash water, and getting a compostable toilet to eliminate wasting water by flushing a toilet.

“I think it’s essential to remember the purpose of reducing our ecological footprint here at the Ecohouse, which is to help sustain the ecological systems that we are a part of. Maybe over the course of a year, we avoided consuming the equivalent of a West Virginia ridge top that is being strip-mined. In the end it’s about keeping the forests, air, and waterways healthy– that’s it,” Brehm said.

Making (no) sacrifices

By Phil Barnes, CG Lifestyles & People

The OHIO Ecohouse seems ordinary enough at first glance. The original house was built in 1910 and seems to be showing its age a bit.  Cracks are apparent amid the brick foundation, and the front porch could use a new coat of paint.

The alternative lifestyle the Ecohouse offers might seem work-intensive and not appealing to all students, but the house’s three residents unanimously responded that “there are no sacrifices” when living in the Ecohouse.

The first hint that it is not an average Athens home is the massive amount of solar panels that occupy the majority of the lawn. Throughout summer months, the panels have the capability of producing 70 percent of the home’s electricity, though this decreases to 20 percent during the winter. This alternate energy source is just one way the Ecohouse allows students to live sustainably.

Beyond the solar array, a large portion of the yard is a garden that serves as a food source for the residents. “We try to eat from our garden whenever possible,” said Ecohouse resident, Joe Brehm. In 2009, the residents frequently enjoyed homegrown onions, lettuce, and corn.

Several old trees inhabit the yard and contribute to its sagacious appeal. Brehm was quick to point out a butternut tree, a native species that is becoming increasingly rare due to a fungus.  “One of my goals is to bring the native species back to Athens,” he said. The three occupants of the Ecohouse have been busy planting new vegetation such as magnolia bushes, pawpaw trees and a pear tree.

The compost piles allows Ecohouse residents to put their food waste to good use as soil for their garden. Photo by Joe Brehm

Aside from tasks they considered trivial, such as adding waste to the compost pile or filling the furnace with corn pellets, life at the Ecohouse is quite similar to living in an average home.  Resident Molly Shea said her current living situation is “a life of luxury with a lot of stuff.”    Food from the garden is plentiful during the growing seasons, and backup systems are available for use if any of the green utilities fail.

All three residents agree that their experience at the Ecohouse has been life-changing.  Shea aspires to adopt a more communal lifestyle after her time spent in the Ecohouse. “I want to live with a lot of people in a smaller space,” she says.

Resident Alana Dakin said her awareness of the environment has increased dramatically as a result of living in the house. Although she will not be living in the house next year, she plans to set up her own compost system and change her diet to include more local, organic foods.

Brehm said living in the house has given him the opportunity to make his life more sustainable. He has learned a great deal about the art of educating the public through tours and said someday, he hopes to use his skills to attain an environmental science career. “I consider my time spent at the Ecohouse as a stepping stone toward living more responsibly,” he said.

The Ecohouse serves as a definitive symbol of environmental education, and everyone interested in learning more should make the trip up to Dairy Lane for a tour.  More information about the specific technology used in the house can be found at http://www.ohio.edu/ecohouse.

Editor’s Note: Joe Brehm, a resident of the Ecohouse, is also College Green‘s Science Editor. However, he took no part in the editing process for this story.

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