Weinberg Students Among Those Living Green at GREEN House
By Nicole Rohr
Two years ago, an ambitious group of Northwestern students decided to take environmental sustainability issues into their own hands—or at least present a remarkable idea to the administration. The freshmen's idea was to create a dormitory on campus that would engage its residents in activities that work toward not only a greener living space, but also a more sustainable campus and a healthier world.
The result of their efforts was GREEN House, short for Group Residence for Environmental Engagement at Northwestern, located at 2251 Sheridan Road in a former fraternity house. The dormitory is home to students of all ages and majors, all of whom include an essay in their housing applications explaining why green living is important to them.
Kate Stewart, a freshman psychology major at Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and a resident in the GREEN House, was excited to contribute in any way to a greener world. Growing up in San Antonio, Texas, Stewart said that her parents encouraged a "green, crunchy granola" lifestyle in their household. Northwestern's overall environmental friendliness, GREEN House included, put the school at the top of her list during her search as a high school senior.
There are a few things that make daily life in GREEN House a little different than in other dorms. Students use low-flow toilets and set timers when they shower. Motion-detectors turn off unneeded lights in the basement and bathrooms. And even the dorm's social activities get a shot of "green" power when solar panels, donated by the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science and attached to mobile charging carts, are used to power music equipment and other electronics for outdoor events.
Yael Wolinsky, faculty advisor for GREEN House and Director of the Environmental Policy and Culture Program at Weinberg College, considers the GREEN House initiative to be a huge accomplishment for Northwestern's students and administration.
"It's not really possible to start [constructing] all new buildings, but within the environment that we have, there are two important factors," Wolinsky said. "One is that physical changes can be made and the second is behavioral. I think that in this way, GREEN House has been really important, offering a new way for students to integrate sustainability into their lives, not just as a principle, but as a way of life."
Wolinsky explained that more and more residence halls and Greek organizations now participate in campus-wide green events, making the sustainability movement almost contagious. "I think GREEN House has overall raised awareness about the issues they care about and that we all should care about, but that some people still view as secondary," she said.
GREEN House president Paige Humecki said that she lived in the dorm her freshman year and, after loving the close community there, ran for president and won the election. Humecki, a sophomore pursuing environmental engineering at McCormick, now works with GREEN House faculty advisors to champion new environmental initiatives on campus and to help expand programming to other parts of the university.
"During our first few years, it was really difficult to get people to apply. This year, I think we had more freshman than what we had space for," Humecki said. Students living in the building participate in two weekly events: Green Tea, a gathering every Wednesday where residents drink tea and listen to lectures on a range of environmental topics; and Munchies, a family-style meal every Sunday night that allows the students to socialize.
The most popular campus-wide green event is Green Cup, a month-long competition at the beginning of spring quarter that challenges each residence hall to use the least amount of water and energy. There is an actual "green cup," made of bright green recycled glass, which sits proudly on the mantle in the common area of GREEN House.
"GREEN House does a great job competing in Green Cup—obviously they've got a lot at stake as far as their reputation goes," faculty advisor Julie Cahillane said. "They've always been very progressive and strong competitors, and worked really hard with their own residents to engage them." For the past 16 years, Cahillane has been Manager of Recycling and Refuse at Northwestern. As a sustainability information go-to for administrators, faculty and students campus-wide, she recognized early on that working with GREEN House would be a fantastic way to spread the word about environmental initiatives at the school.
While the students' enthusiasm is impressive, Cahillane also explained that the passionate residents at GREEN House sometimes become frustrated with the reality of their ability to effect change. "There are so many things that students don't control, as far as how efficient the buildings are that they live in or study in or work in, and I think what they need to focus on are the things that [they] can control," she said. She often reminds students that smaller efforts, like turning off lights and using less water, make a huge impact, as well.
And these changes, however modest, could be making an impact well beyond Northwestern's campus. "It's now becoming something that people care about when they look at colleges," Humecki said.