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Green Building Conference Enlivens Catawba Students

April 18, 2005

Category: Environmental Science, Students


They’ll never look at buildings the same again.
Catawba students Jay Johnson and Daniel Robertson hardly kept their eyes on the road when they drove back recently from a Green Building Conference in Atlanta. Their attention focused on the colors of roofs and the orientation of homes on lots. They talked about using insulation made from soybeans and recycling storm water for watering plants.

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Johnson, a junior Environmental Studies major from Lakeland, Fla., and Daniel Robertson, a freshman Environmental Science major from Little Rock, Ark., are walking encyclopedias about green building design and new urbanism concepts. They are also serious advocates of constructing sustainable homes and commercial facilities.
 
The conference piqued their interest because both hope to study architecture and community planning when they graduate from Catawba. This was a road trip that would build on the knowledge they had already gained from their Catawba classes. Dr. John Wear, director of the Catawba Center for the Environment, was so impressed with their initiative that he granted them a modest stipend for the trip.

In Atlanta, Johnson and Robertson mingled with architects, developers and real estate brokers from all over the United States. They heard nationally known architect Peter Pfeiffer speak on green building concepts and strategies. They participated with professionals in an exercise to design a section of a community north of Atlanta.

And they are on fire. “The classes we’ve taken at Catawba have exposed us to a lot of the ideas that new urbanism and smart growth advocates are embracing,” Johnson says. “We were actually able to keep up with the majority of what the architects and developers were saying, and we offered a lot of feedback during the design exercise.”
Johnson notes that 710 people attended the meeting – the largest National Association of Homebuilders Green Building Conference to date. “It is good that the NAHB has devised standards that incorporate green design to be implemented in local communities,” he says. “They have recognized the need and demand for simple solutions to a major issue (sustainability) that every person must face in the world we live in today.

“It was really encouraging to know that other people and other architects are catching on to this new concept.”

Recycling Storm Water
Johnson was particularly interested in learning more about recycling water by capturing rainwater from a roof. “Instead of letting it go into the ground, you collect it in a big cistern and filter it,” he says. Then the filtered water is typically used for things like pools and appliances or irrigation.

He notes that the Catawba Center for the Environment facility collects rainwater for irrigation and watering plants around the building. “Storm water recycling is mainly being used in commercial buildings,” he says. “It’s still a relatively new concept for houses.”

Robertson was impressed with the energy efficiency of a new foam insulation made from soybeans. “It’s the best one you can get,” he says, better than environmentally friendly cellulose, which is made from recycled newspapers.

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The concept of zero-energy homes also captivated Robertson. These homes collect the sun’s energy through photovoltaic solar panels. “The home actually acts as a power plant during the day when the sun is out,” he says. “It produces energy and runs the electric meter backwards. Then when the sun goes down, the home uses energy from the power plant. The idea is to achieve a zero net energy so you’re producing as much energy as you’re using.”

He learned that a community in Texas implemented incentives 20 years ago to encourage the use of energy-efficient products and solar panels when they learned that their power plant was not going to be able to generate enough electricity for the projected growth of the community. “They still haven’t had to build a new power plant,” Robertson says. “They have just made everything a lot more efficient.”

A home’s placement on a lot can have a big effect on energy use, Johnson says: “You can have low-eco windows and overhangs and all the right concepts, but if the house faces west, it cancels out all the design principles because the sun is heating up the house the majority of the day.”

Designing with Architects
Johnson found the design exercise most helpful. The idea was to create a walkable community that included local mom-and-pop business within walking distance of homes. Robertson points out that these neighborhoods are designed much like those before World War II when interconnecting streets laid out on a grid pattern allowed multiple entrances and exits from a neighborhood – unlike many subdivisions today which feature cul-de-sacs.

 “We were in a group with architects and Realtors and they were taking our ideas just as seriously as they were the developers’,” Johnson says. “It felt good to know that the material we are learning at Catawba is stuff that’s going on in the real world.”
Johnson is involved in the Campus Greening Initiative on the Catawba campus. “I hope that Catawba will be one of the colleges that set the example,” he says. “If we can set the standard and support more initiatives for green design, then other people will see the example and follow.”

Robertson and Johnson are keenly aware that the world’s resources are finite and will not be able to support the growth in population if people continue on the present course. “My personal opinion is that you’re not going to be able to stop growth,” Johnson says. “You have to find a way to live more sustainably so your impact on the environment is not as great.”

 Robertson sees his advocacy of green design as a way to help fix some of the energy and air pollution problems the country faces. “To me, making our homes more energy efficient and reducing our energy consumption are the most logical ways to help out the environment as a whole,” he says.