Warren Wilson Works for Green

Steve Farrell (left) and Jason Lackey. PHOTO: Haley Hudson

The Sierra Club, The Daily Green, the National Wildlife Foundation, and the Princeton Review all agree: Warren Wilson College (WWC)—the 1,000-student private liberal arts college in Asheville, North Carolina—is one of the greenest colleges in America. It has a 300-acre working farm and a 600-acre maintained forest. Its EcoDorm, completed in 2003, was the first LEED-EB Platinum building on a college campus anywhere, and its newer buildings, including Orr Cottage and Village dorms, continue this constructive tradition. We sat down with Jason Lackey, design and construction supervisor, and Steve Farrell, campus architect, who spoke together about WWC’s plans for a sustainable future.

gb&d: What makes Warren Wilson different from other environmentally conscious colleges?

Warren Wilson College: The main appeal at WWC, a ‘working college,’ is what we call the Triad. Students come to receive a four-year liberal arts degree, but they also participate in separate service and work programs. Every student works 15 hours a week on one of our 112 campus crews; electrical, landscaping, plumbing, HVAC, dining, heavy duty, the farm, or one of our carpentry crews. Also, before the students graduate, they are required to complete a community engagement commitment. Academics are at the front of all of this, and it’s the students who are the biggest proponents of this Triad program.

gb&d: Does this approach encourage student participation beyond the bare minimum?

WWC: It’s actually the students who are pushing us by setting the tone and moving toward a resilient culture to save as much energy, material, and water as possible. We built the first LEED-certified college dorm in North Carolina, and it was the students who insisted on this project. But beyond that, the students helped us build the dorm. We recently did an ESCO [audit] on campus, and when the team came in for the appraisal, they saw that unlike the other institutions they audit, our students had already picked all of the low-hanging fruit: Light bulbs had been changed, lights had been turned off, doors had been made to fit, windows had been closed. The students are obsessed with conservation.

gb&d: What are the benefits of educating in this way?

WWC: Many of our students already have minds for sustainability, which is why they come to WWC, but once they’re here, they can turn that energy toward pursuing degrees targeted at environmental change, and they can experience all of that on campus. Also, because the students are working and volunteering, when they graduate, they not only have a degree, but they have experience as well. Someone can major in environmental studies, use his or her service hours in our insulation program, which installs new insulation in the homes of low-income families, and he or she can also work on our electrical crew. Once these students graduate, they will ideally have the ability to solve new problems in the modern professional world. Someone once said of our school that we don’t grow vegetables, we grow citizens.

All wood for the EcoDorm came from the college grounds, either reused or timber-milled and finished on campus. The school only harvested as much on-site wood as was deemed appropriate to not upset the ecosystem.

gb&d: How does this integrated style of education play into campus landscape and design?

WWC: WWC is located on some of the most beautiful real estate in the world. We work diligently to keep the small charm of a private institution while maintaining our expectation of being a leader in green building and sustainable practices. Green building and sustainability were things we practiced far before they became marketable terms, and this is clear with our buildings like EcoDorm, which was the first dorm to receive LEED-EB Platinum, a certification which we received retroactively. The students in that building set their own targets and sign contracts stating what is and is not acceptable in the building, from an energy perspective. There is a red light in the mechanical room, and if it goes on, it means that the building is exceeding the students’ self-imposed Btu per square foot, and they do what they can to keep the light off. The dorm also has a composting toilet and the building itself is surrounded by an organic, edible landscape that the students living in the dorm must tend.

gb&d: Can you tell us about some upcoming projects at WWC?

WWC: We have a new classroom building that is in the pre-design phase while we’re trying to figure out what to do with it from a sustainable and resilient culture standpoint. We’ve also got our eye on a utility-scale photovoltaic array; we’re figuring out if this would be appropriate for us. We’re also focusing on energy-use intensity. Because WWC has such a large farm, our usage is rather high, and we’re working to keep pushing that down. We accept the top-down challenges presented by LEED and the Living Building Challenge—and their market transformations are profound—but we also want to challenge the larger community to find ways to meet these challenges from the bottom up. Every situation is unique and needs local response in order to be effective.