Mark Retzlaff and Robin Fenske
Dr. E.J. Zita
Energy Awareness in On-Campus Housing Contract
3 March, 2005
The Origin and Development of the Sustainable Housing Project
Matriculating at a public liberal arts college, the authors of this project (officially titled,
“Energy Awareness in On-Campus Housing”) were exposed to a diverse range of activism. We
recognized that, owning to vast cultural support, the potential of our peer group had the capacity
to create great change. Yet, our own experience of the environment in which this activism was
set was somewhat contradictory: inefficiency, insufficiency, and injustice existed, in varying
degrees, at the institutional level. As we neared the time when we were to graduate, we
wondered if the dissenting opinions so prevalent among our peers were, in fact, realistic
aspirations. If so, why were those aspirations not reflected in the very institution in which they
A desire to demonstrate a real change in the way material exchanges take place at the
Evergreen State College motivated our work. The project was conceived as a way to demonstrate
the feasibility of increasing the sustainability of a campus institution with currently available
solutions. The project’s authors recognized that the Evergreen campus has an anomalous culture
that is disposed to environmentally conscious behavior. The temptation to create change by
exploiting this culture was tempting, but we recognized that such solutions would be difficult to
generalize and apply to a more typical population. Furthermore, the longevity of any cultural
changes would likely be compromised due to attrition.
The structural organization of Evergreen’s on-campus housing, however, is hardly
anomalous. In housing a sizable number of residents, the housing structure is responsible for
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maintaining living spaces, providing utilities, waste collection, and much more. They are
expected to operate on a break-even basis. Consequently, the housing structure reflects, in many
ways, the broader trend of residential housing structure across the region. By addressing the
structure of Evergreen’s on-campus housing, the authors hoped to find and implement solutions
that had widespread applicability and that would persist after the next generation of students
The following essay is a historical presentation of the project’s evolution and
implementation. It focuses on the theoretical foundations of the project, largely because we
believe there is much to be learned from such an analysis. In fact, the methods used in this
project demonstrate an application of what believe is an improved framework for
environmentalism. A prior essay, entitled “The Rebirth of Environmentalism: How the
Environment Became Meaningful,” presents this framework in detail, referring to the 1970s as a
benchmark for environmental success at the political level and offering suggestions to recapture
the cultural support that provided for those successes. The suggestions of that essay are reflected
in the overall project addressing on-campus housing.
Creating an Actionable Definition of Sustainability
Like the majority of environmental geneses, our project began with a systems analysis in
order to gain an understanding of the current functioning of the housing energy system. From the
outset, we understood that a complex range of values motivated the individual and institutional
behaviors we sought to change. We understood that merely demonstrating the environmental
degradation associated with their energy-using behaviors would be insufficient to create change.
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Thus, we sought a framework that could account for human, environmental, and financial
implications of energy use.
In creating this framework, we brought the vision of sustainability a step closer to
actualization. Most definitions of sustainability require that the current generation retain the
ability to meet its own needs while allowing future generations to meet theirs. In order to move
towards this vision, a framework that acknowledges the necessity of our current behaviors is
required. The effects of our behaviors go beyond environmental degradation. They make our
lives easier and make our actions more economically viable. Attempts to reduce environmentally
degrading behaviors without acknowledging the human and financial benefits of those behaviors
fail to meet the criteria of sustainability.
Thus, the first step in our project was to gain an understanding of the human, financial,
and environmental effects of the on-campus housing energy system. By understanding the
system in this way, we would be able to offer suggestions that would decrease environmental
degradation while maintaining the financial viability and human satisfaction of the energy use.
With alternative behaviors that reduced dysfunction and inefficiency of the energy system, we
believed that we had all the leverage necessary to motivate structural change. It would turn out
that in attempting to execute our plan, large gaps in our reasoning would become apparent.
In order to identify the dysfunction and inefficiency necessary to leverage structural
change, the framework we designed required that we collect data on the human, financial, and
environmental effects of energy use. We focused first on establishing a quantitative
understanding of the financial and environmental costs of energy use. This required obtaining
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raw energy use data, which we could then convert into a dollar amount and a quantity of
We were soon halted, however, due to what seemed to be a technical problem. A
centrally located broiler provides heat for both water and space heating by forcing steam to
condense in the room to be heated (in the case of space heating). The condensed steam passes
through a metering device as it returns to the boiler. When we explained to facilities that we
wanted the data for energy use in housing, they explained that the condensate return meters for
housing had been nonfunctional for some time. There were no accurate meter readings for the
largest energy uses in housing. It seemed like our project had been halted before it even began.
The discovery was disparaging at first. We had planned on demonstrating the
(environmental, financial, and human) savings available by increasing energy efficiency and
using that as our leverage to create a more sustainable energy system. Based on that
demonstration, we would suggest a small investment in the structure of housing that would save
money and the environment while continuing to meet the needs of residents.
For example, we noticed that the thermostats that controlled the air temperature offered
very little control. By replacing the thermostats with models that had a digital readout and had
the ability to automatically lower the air temperature at night, we figured we could obtain
significant savings in financial cost (not to mention environmental) that, in the long term, would
offset the initial cost of purchasing and installing the thermostats.
But the fact that the savings would go unnoticed by the structure was an enormous
roadblock. Our project relied on a structure that stood to benefit from our proposed change. The
fact that no system of metering existed to measure energy use showed us that the structure had
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little interest in the amount of energy it was using. A feedback loop was obviously missing. The
system would not be leveraged by increasing efficiency and functionality of energy use.
A Decision of Direction
After the discovery of the missing feedback loop, we paused and examined the situation.
Two options for proceeding emerged. One, we could manipulate the system in order to establish
the missing feedback loop. This would require establishing a systemic incentive for reducing
energy use. For example, we could implement a billing system that made housing pay utilities
fees depending on the quantity of its energy use. Such a system would require restoring the
functionality of the energy meters and establishing a fee schedule. The initial costs of such a
program seemed so high as to be ridiculous compared to the benefits of incremental reductions in
As we looked at the situation, another solution emerged. The discovery of a missing
feedback loop seemed to reveal a new level of complexity within the energy system. Although
our accounting system recognized how to account for resistances to change, it did not provide
motivation for change. Our original plan made sense in that it could provide a more efficient
accounting system. However, it did not provide the motivation to overcome the inertia of the
current system. In order to create this initial force for change, we needed to understand the
motivation of the system. Knowing this, a proposal that benefits the community while reducing
energy use can be implemented.
A Revised Approach to Sustainability
With a new understanding of creating change, we renewed our efforts. This time,
however, we framed our objectives not only in terms of energy efficiency, but also in terms of
the overall functionality of the housing system. While a systems understanding was necessary in
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order to address the current needs of the system, the motivation of the system was required to
overcome the inertia of the system. Beginning from a perspective of understanding and mutual
benefit seemed to be a perspective of much more potential than the traditional method. (Please
see our essay discussing this theme within the environmental movement at large, “The Rebirth of
Environmentalism: How the Environment Became Meaningful.”
A New Look at Evergreen Housing
With our new understanding, we stand ready to take a fresh look at housing. Our spring
work on the project will begin from a perspective of motivating the system, though we will retain
our understanding of the physical inefficiencies of energy use. The later consideration, however,
becomes less important as it is unlikely that we will be using it as a motivating factor having
already acknowledged the disinterest of the current system with that data.
The important question now is, “What do the different components of the energy system
want?” A simple understanding is available with little analysis. We have broken the system into
Residents: The base level of the system, residents’ behaviors regarding energy use are
likely motivated by the ease of living brought by the energy use. At the same time,
students desire to limit the environmental degradation resultant from their use, but are not
very likely to make significant lifestyle changes to address these issues.
Housing: The level of organization that is responsible for financial viability, housing is
likely motivated by short-term accounting. In order to do this, they must retain a certain
level of capacity and satisfaction among residents.
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Facilities: Facilities is responsible for maintaining service of heating, electricity, water,
and living spaces. Depending on the terms of their budget, they may or may not be
motivated to move towards more efficient systems.
College Administration: The College oversees both housing and facilities, making sure
both maintain an acceptable quality of operation. Additionally, the administration is
influence by the public image that is reflected by the operations of housing.
How to Move Forward
With an understanding of the motivations of the different components of the housing
energy system (which will be solidified through interviews), an exploration of possible
improvements can be made. We plan on examining other college housing structures that have a
more efficient energy system. By comparing those systems with Evergreen’s, we can determine
solutions that are both effective (make non-negligible changes in efficiency) and feasible (can be
implemented based on current motivations of the energy system). By working directly with the
system, we can refine our understanding of the motivations of the system as we get closer to a
mutually beneficial solution.
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