Sustainable Housing in an Age of Austerity?
By James Lloyd
Ohio University’s Pursues Limited Goals in Dormitory Redevelopment
The spring 2012 Palmer Fest riot and fire in Athens, Ohio, was an unfortunate consequence of Ohio University housing more than half its students off campus. The large student presence in neighborhoods is a perennial issue in Athens as fests, noise, and litter have hardened attitudes amongst Athens residents. Dormitories, on the other hand, are vastly more sustainable than typical off campus housing given the density and walkability inherent to on-campus living. Ohio University is about to spend a staggering amount of money, approximately 363 million dollars according to the Housing Master Plan, to raze and redevelop New South Green without actually increasing the number of beds on campus. Given that sustainability has become a major priority for the university and the fact that the New South redevelopment is the largest housing project at Ohio University since the early ‘70s, we investigated to determine how sustainable the university’s housing policy really is.
Over the next three years Ohio University will embark on its first multi-dormitory construction project in 40 years with the first beds projected to come online in 2015, according to Christine Sheets, Director of Residential Housing. According to the Housing Master Plan, Ohio University will tear down 15 “mod-style” dormitories on New South Green, replacing them with 4 much larger dormitories. This project will maintain approximately 8000 beds on campus and therefore not increase the number of beds on campus. Rather, Sheets stated that the university’s priority is to retain its parietal rule that undergraduates to live on campus for their first two years.
The university will finance this development by issuing approximately 236 million dollars in public debt; Sheets stated that this is the same way that the university financed Adams Hall, the purchase of Bromley Hall, and the original construction of New South. According to Sheets, the rationale for this razing of New South was that the mod-style dormitories were not built to a high standard in the first place and are now massive maintenance sinks. “Of the four million dollars I spend on all three greens, probably more than 50% of the dollar amount was going into [New South],” stated Sheets in a May 9 interview.
Beyond the basic construction quality issues, New South suffers from problems related to design and history: the dorms are quite small by Ohio University standards, making them much less energy inefficient than larger structures; and much needed maintenance has been deferred. As Kyle Triplett, Student Senate President and former member of the Residential Housing Advisory Committee, said, “[New South is] very inefficient. They are some of the smallest number residence halls on campus … they had the highest percentage of deferred maintenance.” These problems have been compounded by the fact that their “mod-style” construction is unpopular with the student body, according to Triplett. Ohio University administrators see the suite style room, on the other hand, as the wave of the future in residential housing. Currently the housing mix on campus is 10% suite, 90% traditional. According to Sheets, with the New South redevelopment, the university will move to 35% suite, 65% traditional, a major improvement in housing. Professor Joseph McLaughlin, Chair of Faculty Senate and a former member of the Residential Housing Advisor Committee, described the shift to suites as motivated by a desire to shift the university to a more competitive housing mix when compared to its peer institutions. In Professor McLaughlin’s words this means, “Designing living and learning environments that are about now and not 40 years ago.”
According to Sheets and in accordance with the Sustainability Plan, the four new dorms will be built to LEED Silver standards at a minimum, if not LEED Gold. Triplett, in reference to this work as part of the Residential Housing Advisory Committee, said, “Bare minimum we wanted to be LEED Silver and anything above that would be something we’d be very happy to do.” Furthermore, the dorms themselves will be much larger and fewer in number, resulting in structural gains in efficiency; several large structures are generally more energy efficient than many small structures, all things being equal. However, according to the Housing Master Plan and Sheets there will be no structural change in how the university houses its students; increasing the number of students on campus was not seen as an option during the planning process. Rather, the high maintenance cost of New South drove the decision to raze them.
Other ideas, such as renovating the Ridges and using them for housing, have also not been seriously considered. According to Triplett, “what’s attractive about [the Ridges] is that it’s above the flood plain … the negative is that it’s further away for a freshman or sophomore trying to get to class.” Triplett stated that the cost of renovating the buildings would be prohibitively expensive for re-purposing as dorms.
The environmental implications of the New South redevelopment are clear; while the university will see improved finances and increased energy efficiency per on campus student, the impact of off-campus housing on the environment and the community will continue. Sheets emphasized that OU has tried to change student behavior via an outreach program. As the spring 2012 Palmer Fest indicated, such efforts have had mixed results. This impact is not limited to fests and noise complaints; as neighborhoods transition to students, families choose to live in automobile-based subdivisions in the hills around Athens, increasing the load on Athens County infrastructure, gasoline usage, and carbon dioxide emissions.
It is easy to blame problems on the university administration, but the interview with Sheets revealed the limits within which the university and Residential Housing are operating: the university does not subsidize housing out of the general fund; this means that revenues from room charges must cover the costs of building and maintaining the housing stock on campus.
With the redevelopment plan currently in place, Residential Housing will be carrying the maximum amount of debt that it can, according to Sheets. This means that there is no additional capital available to fund the construction of additional dormitories. Furthermore, as support for the university from the State of Ohio diminishes every year, the likelihood of capital coming from outside Residential Housing decreases. It is hardly surprising that under these circumstances the university would choose to consolidate its current program rather than expand its liabilities.
Though the redevelopment of New South can be (legitimately) criticized for its failure to make structural change by bringing more students on campus, it represents the best the institution can do under the circumstances. Austerity-oriented state budgets leave no room for dormitory construction, and subsidies from the general fund may be a pipe dream. The decision to build the dormitories to minimum LEED Silver standards is to be praised; Associate Professor McLaughlin specifically cited the inclusion of LEED certification as a very positive paradigm shift in the Ohio University facilities management. Under the circumstances, keeping 8,000 students on campus represents a victory of sorts – the project is the biggest improvement OU could realistically make in the current austerity regime.