A Living Experiment: How One Boarding School Strives for Greener Living

Linda Tischler covers Choate‘s new Kohler Environmental Living Center in a Fast Company article titled, “Prep Schools Lead The Way On Sustainable Living.”

A gift from alumnus Herbert V. Kohler, the $20 million center will house 15-20 juniors who will be divided into teams that will compete in their efforts to live in a net zero manner- “that is, they can’t consume more energy than the building produces.”(FC)

The Center generates power through its “325-kilowatt photovoltaic array, a roof-mounted solar water-heating system, a geothermal heat pump, a water-recycling system, and waste vegetable oil.”(FC)

Stationary bicycles might also be installed so that students can generate electricity/charge batteries while exercising.

“the facility will be equipped with a sophisticated energy-management system. That, in itself, is not unusual, but this one will not only be highly visible but responsive too. Students can monitor the building dashboard, get information on the center’s energy online, or watch it fluctuate on their smartphones. If one team is surging ahead, the other could, conceivably, choose en masse not to shower (showers, Wyatt says, can consume 75% of a building’s hot-water supply). Or they could lower the thermostats. Who knows how far a group of motivated teenagers will go to win? “(FC)

Kohler Center director Howard Ernst told Tischler, “There’s simply nothing like it.”

Ernst also explains that well being is part of the Center’s equation. Tischler, with Ernst, again:

“Ernst says the center’s live-in advisers will monitor the students and make sure the place doesn’t turn into a sort of chilly Lord of the Flies. Besides, he says, extreme deprivation isn’t the point. ‘We won’t measure the success of the experiment on energy output alone,’ he says. ‘Satisfaction with the experience is equally important. If we have to shower every other week to meet our goals, that’s not success.’

In other words, to create a truly sustainable energy-efficient environment, it has to account for not just electricity consumption but a measure of happiness as well. And Choate plans to monitor that too. ‘We’ll be asking, If the students are happy, are they using more or less energy?’ Ernst says. ‘Is there a relationship between energy use and satisfaction, and what is the direction of that relationship? In that sense, the students will be both the independent and dependent variables in the experiment.'”(FC)

Like me, Ernst has seen plenty of LEED and environmentally friendly buildings but the Kohler Environmental Living Center seems to be the first with a residential component at its core and students as the experiments independent and self determining variables.

(I must say, the Kohler Center’s demands and requirements of students seem quite similar to the ways that Midland School students live and work. Midland students just do it in a more rural, less architecturally fancy setting.)

There’s a certain power in living and working together- sharing assumptions and working toward a common goal. Although, I’m interested in seeing how the net zero goal works out, I’m most interested in the human piece- how smoothly decisions can be made, how competing interests are resolved, and how far individuals are willing to set aside personal wants and comforts for the greater good (in this case the experiment’s success).

So many of us are all for everything for which Kohler Environmental Living Center stands until the sacrifice must be ours.

Additional resources:

Boarding schools in CT
LEED certification

Brian Fisher

A product of both private and public education, Brian Fisher served as a teacher, coach, dorm parent, and administrator at three different boarding schools. Brian also fills the role of Director of Development at Wolfeboro, The Summer Boarding School, in NH along with being a partner at AdmissionsQuest.

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