Green Living

By Marisa Thomas ’22, October 17, 2019
Chestnut Living Lab assesses the potential impact of eco-friendly residence hall renovations.

In the Garden Apartment occupied by Ithaca College students Emily Gronquist ’22 and Alyssa Greaney ’22, not everything is what it seems. At first glance, you wouldn’t know the studio-style residence was outfitted with eco-friendly furnishings. That is, at least until your eyes were drawn to the giant white tower whose glowing white LED lights illuminate the rest of the apartment.

This alien device hints at what makes the seemingly ordinary room extraordinary. Little green plants sprout from the sides of the tower, a hydroponic garden. The sound of rushing water floods your ears as the machine hydrates the plants and feeds the vegetable sprouts.

The tower is just one part of the Chestnut Living Lab, a cross-campus project and experiment in environmentally friendly college living. Funded in part through a presidential seed grant, the project renovated a two-person studio in the Garden Apartments with energy-efficient lights, low-flow showerheads, and sustainably made furniture and flooring.

“If I didn’t know this was a different apartment — if someone didn’t tell me [about the renovations] — I wouldn’t know,” Gronquist said. “If anything it looks better.”

A showerhead

Submeters in the renovated and un-renovated rooms monitor water and energy usage. (Photo by Marisa Thomas ’22/Ithaca College)

Campus sustainability coordinator Rebecca Evans and associate professor of environmental studies and sciences Paula Turkon spearheaded the project to assess the potential financial and natural resource savings of environmentally friendly renovations if they were implemented in residence halls across campus.

“I think that this project will help — I hope — to show that those two things don’t have to be separate from each other,” Turkon said.

Over the course of the academic year, Evans and Turkon are working with a group of four students to collect data comparing the lab with an un-renovated studio apartment. While Gronquist and Greaney are living in the Chestnut Living Lab for the year, Liam Wurtz ’22 and Kit Atanasoff ’20 live in the control room.  Both rooms are equipped with energy and water meters, and the students use apps like CURB, which monitors electricity, to track their resource usage on an iPad.  

With Turkon serving as their advisor, the students will receive independent study credit for their work. At the end of the project, the students will be able to extrapolate the data collected to represent the potential impact that the renovations could have if implemented on a larger scale.

In addition to examining the impact of technological changes, the study is also tracking the impact of behavioral changes, such as taking shorter showers and keeping the refrigerator closed when cooking. All those involved hope that it shows others at the college that adopting more sustainable practices doesn’t have to be difficult.

“We hope it does catalyze some changes on campus,” Evans said.

Evans organized the renovations to the lab over the summer. “Luckily, we have a really awesome facilities team that helped a lot with that,” she said.

The flooring in the Chestnut Living Lab is modular carpet and vinyl tile from Interface, a carbon-neutral company which uses only sustainable materials and offsets all embodied carbon and shipping emissions. The new furniture, made from recycled milk crates and recycled steel, is from EcoLogic, a Greenguard-certified company. The lighting throughout the apartment was updated to LED.

And then there’s the hydroponic tower garden, the big white pillar standing next to the couch. Equipped with LED grow lights, it can support up to 20 plants at a time. Gronquist and Greaney are growing organic herbs, lettuce and other vegetables. They plan to make pesto and side salads when the plants are ready to harvest.

“We really wanted to grow plants we could eat to create a closed-circle system,” Gronquist said.