Elmhurst College In Depth

Green Living in West Hall

The College's new residence hall, a state-of-the-art example of sustainable design, was officially dedicated on homecoming weekend.

Elmhurst’s newest residence hall is also its greenest building yet.

West Hall, which opened its doors to 170 students in August, is the College’s latest environmental initiative, one that puts the principles of sustainable design to work in the day-to-day lives of students. A few of the building’s green features include: energy-saving, motion-sensitive lighting; a network of massive underground cisterns that store storm water for use when needed instead of dispersing it through storm sewers; 42 rooftop solar panels that reduce water-heating costs; and a surrounding garden of water-stingy native prairie plants.  

The College’s efforts earned the endorsement of the U.S. Green Building Council, which awarded West Hall a gold rating in its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system. The building is one of the first of its kind in Illinois to achieve that status.

West Hall has also earned the approval of the students who live there. They like the spacious suites and the new furnishings, of course. But the focus on environmental responsibility appeals to them, too. They sort recyclables at trash chutes on each floor, learn about green living from hall staffers, and, like students in the College’s other residence halls, elect a sustainability representative to serve in student government. Even going to the bathroom in West Hall offers them the chance to conserve natural resources. Their dual-flush toilets, with separate settings for solid and liquid waste, allows students to control the amount of water used in each flush.

“Living here, you see that there are some simple things you can do every day that can make a difference,” said senior Brian Vanco.

“I hope that West Hall moves our students to ask how sustainable practices can become habits not just in West Hall, but around our campus and beyond,” said Elmhurst President S. Alan Ray.

The new, U-shaped building sits just to the west of Hammerschmidt Memorial Chapel, on a site formerly occupied by a parking lot. New parking areas were added next to the residence hall, and even these are focused on sustainability. They feature permeable pavers that let rainwater percolate down into the soil, replenishing the water table. According to Bruce Mather, the College’s executive director of facilities management, as much of the building materials as possible came from within a 500-mile radius, to reduce the use of fuel resources involved in transportation. The brick on the building’s face, for example, comes from Indiana. Other green features: focused lighting that reduces the amount of light pollution leaking into the surroundings; low-flow shower heads; roof tiles, carpeting and foundation concrete made from recycled materials; and wood harvested according to the standards of the Forest Stewardship Council.

“From the earliest stages of our planning, every process and every material we used was evaluated in terms of making the campus more environmentally friendly,” says Mather. “It was a new kind of process for us, and what we learned on West Hall, we’ll be applying to other projects on campus.”

Support for various aspects of the project came from, among other agencies, the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity and the DuPage County Stormwater Management Division.

West Hall is only the most recent in a series of green initiatives by the College. Indeed, long before sustainability became a watchword, the College’s frugal founders tried to practice a limited self-sufficiency. They sent students to work in the farm fields that then surrounded the new school; the produce harvested there turned up on tables in the dining hall. The connection with the environment has continued to be a theme throughout Elmhurst’s history. A more heralded and recent environmental effort was the launching in 1966 of the College Arboretum. Begun as a response to the number of original campus trees lost to disease, the arboretum has helped make Elmhurst’s 38-acre campus an aesthetic showplace and a kind of ecological learning laboratory. Today, nearly 700 varieties of trees and shrubs grace the campus, including some exotic and rarely seen specimens.

Most recently, the College has worked with Wight and Company, the design and construction firm that has overseen much of the College’s recent construction, to extend sustainable design practices across the campus. Older campus buildings have received energy-efficient lighting upgrades, thanks to a grant from the Clean Energy Foundation. And the College’s Green Cleaning program mandates the use of minimally polluting cleaning products in campus buildings.

Nowhere is the College’s commitment to sustainability more dramatically visible than in and around West Hall, where the native prairie plantings have already begun take root. The building’s opening, says director of residence life Christine Smith, has sparked the interest of students already passionate about the environment and helped educate many more about the importance of sustainability.

“We are engaging students and they are excited about the steps the college is taking toward sustainability,” says Smith.  “I think they’re eager to be partners in this process.”

Photo by Roark Johnson

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