Building and living green

“So why did they use two-by-six-inch studs instead of two-by-fours?” asks a student after reading a worksheet about building materials. Another student is figuring out how a ground source heat pump works, and a third has abandoned the worksheet and asks, “Where can I buy low VOC [volatile organic compounds] paint?”

These Goshen College students and others in Professor of Biology Stan Grove’s Principles of Biology class were the first to study in Rieth Village, a cluster of three environmentally friendly buildings now in use at Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center. The students were touring the facilities in anticipation of the dedication of the buildings, which took place April 8.

Rieth Village was created to house Goshen College’s expanding environmental science program and to enable students to live near the ecosystems they study at Merry Lea, the college’s 1,150-acre nature preserve. The first resident students climbed into their bunk beds in May, living on site for three-week courses in ornithology or ecology. Here are some of their reflections from living and studying in their “green” environment.

Living at Rieth Village while taking a field course allows me abundant opportunity to put my new learning into practice on my own. I can use my new ornithological skills directly when I walk out of the classroom. I can decide when to conduct research, when to observe and when to simply enjoy the living laboratory that surrounds my cottage. I can glance out into the wetlands while my class views the film “Winged Migration,” seeing in living color some of the bird-world wonders shown on the screen. I can come back to the village after hours in the field to enjoy cooking and fun with my fellow students and scientists. It’s hard to get such a good balance of independent study and community living with traditional lab courses on campus. Here is an almost idyllic setting for studying the natural world.

– Katie Meyer, a junior biology major from Fresno, Ohio
As the only peace, justice and conflict/Bible, religion and philosophy-person, I may not have caught all the biology humor, but my weeks spent living in Rieth Village were full of profound connections, and moments of sacred beauty and appreciation. Rising quietly with the sun to study the habits of the creatures we too often fail to be mindful of brought me closer to the earth we depend on, and to the Creator who brought these intricate webs of growth and wonder into being. I’ve been reminded once again of how my peace and religion studies must be grounded in a place like Merry Lea if they hope to survive. Without environmental justice, how will we ever taste social justice? How will we ever feed the hungry? Without a respect for creation and its complex interconnectedness, how will we ever learn to respect ourselves and our own places within creation? If we do not take the time to slow down, to breathe, to sit silently and simply be with the people around us, as the intimate new Rieth Village facilities encourage, how will we ever learn to know our neighbors and build strong communities?

As a school of a Historic Peace Church, it will serve Goshen College and the broader church to continue to nourish a commitment to environmental education, even for the less scientifically-inclined folks like myself!

– Nicole Bauman, a junior peace, justice and conflict studies and interdisciplinary double major from Shakespeare, Ontario

We start the day early for birding, around 6 a.m., which means the sun is still coming up and everything is dripping with dew. Our professor leads us through deep woods, an open field, or the edge of a misty wetland. A bird looks best in full sunlight, so look for him with your back towards the sun so that the sun illuminates him and doesn’t blind you, he says. It’s early and the birds are in no rush, so we aren’t either. Sometimes I look in the direction of a song or a call to spot a bird.

In the classroom, the professor makes coffee and shares some baked goods. I’m relieved that he talks to us and only writes a few words on the white board once in a while. We do write what he says, though, because there are a lot of wonderful new things to learn. What may sound like a bird’s pretty song to us may actually be a warning to another bird invading his territory, he says. I smile when he adds, “Imagine if instead of fighting at country borders, people sang at each other!”

He talks to us about birds, but I think we all realize that it’s not just about birds. It’s about all of us, living and learning together on this beautiful earth. Daily I learn about how birds live in communities and how people live in communities. I’m grateful to be in this small community that’s eager to learn about the natural world and strives to live peacefully with it.

– Fern Lehman, a junior molecular biology and environmental studies double major from Goshen

1) Each of the Rieth Village facilities has been christened with names of soils found in the surrounding fields, partly because Lee Rieth, Merry Lea’s founding donor, was a civil engineer and knew soils intimately. The largest building – 3,530 square feet – was christened Oshtemo Cottage. Its name refers to a deep, well-drained sandy loam, formed under deciduous tree cover. In earlier usage, “oshtemo” was a Native American word meaning, “head waters.” The two smaller cottages, each 2,200 square feet and designed to house students, were named Pewamo and Washtenaw, also referring to soils found nearby.

2) The inside of the cottages also have great environmental features, including energy-efficient appliances, low VOC paints and adhesives, recycled rubber and cork floor tiles, recyclable carpet tiles and ceiling slats made of local tulip poplar lumber. More than 20 percent of the building materials came from within 500 miles. The cabinets and drawers are made from the abundant agricultural fiber bi-product, Dakota Burl™, which is composed of waste sunflower seed hulls. Very little energy goes into drying the seed hulls as opposed to wood pulp, and the resulting board is one and a half times as hard as oak.

3) The 10-kilowatt wind generator on a 100-feet tower will provide up to 25 percent of the facility’s electricity. The operable windows used in the cottages are triple pane and framed with fiberglass framed windows. All of the buildings were carefully oriented in relation to the sun for maximum energy-efficiency.

4) Solar panels will heat water for sinks, showers and the laundry. Skylights will also assist in reducing the cooling load on the building. A metal roof, downspouts, biotope and cisterns allows rainwater to be collected from roofs to be used to flush toilets. This will reduce water use by over 30 percent. As well, sewage will be treated on site through specially designed wetlands.