Green house falls to progress 

Rollins College to tear down eco-friendly student house to make way for new science center

click to enlarge BARRY KIRSCH
  • Barry Kirsch

On a recent Tuesday, Rollins College senior Kristin Urban sent a text message to her six roommates that said: “Emergency house meeting.”

They gathered on the first floor of their alternative dorm, the Mowbray House, a roomy, two-story residence for eco-minded students and the crown jewel of the environmental movement on campus.

Urban explained that as the college preps for its $28 million renovation of the Archibald Granville Bush Science Center, set to open in fall 2013, construction realities mean space is needed for temporary science labs and classrooms. The Mowbray House is in the way. Right after graduation this year, it’s coming down.

“I think there were like five seconds of silence, and people just looked so upset. It’s a strong sense of community, and Mowbray was family,” Urban, 21, says. “When I told them the news, it was like taking away a friend.”

The living arrangement in the 2,800-square-foot structure, which overlooks Lake Virginia on the east side of campus, is fairly new. Students with the campus group Eco-Rollins took over Mowbray in 2010, and at least 15 of them have since spent semesters in the house. The typical dorm experience it is not. Residents make their own organic soap, tend flower beds, grow their own vegetables and spices. Leftover scraps of food get fed to a colony of red earthworms, which mingle inside a dirt-and-newspaper- filled garbage can near the television.

Occupants past and present say administrators made it clear when they took up residence there that the house was not a priority amid the overall construction blueprint, but they held out hope that an alternative could be found, or that the school would delay the demolition for several years. Using school funding, the students who lived there have invested their time and sweat equity into making it what it is today.

“We put so much work into it. We did a whole bunch of remodeling stuff outside. We did a lot of work into moving the gardens, putting in the planting bed. We just did the whole thing on our own,” says Theresa Chu, 23, who lived there from 2010-2011 and is now a graduate student at the University of South Florida.

Chu says she’s confident Eco-Rollins will find a new residence, but it might not have the same distinct presence as Mowbray, a freestanding, laid-back place with a welcoming vibe.

Shan Kasal, a 21-year-old junior, is finishing up his second academic year as a Mowbray resident. He expected to live there again as a senior.

“Once we got it, we figured we’d have it a bit longer than two years. Coming at the end of the year is kind of a surprise. They haven’t even talked with us about setting up a new area to live in,” says Kasal, who is majoring in biochemistry and marine biology. “The biggest thing was, I kind of felt betrayed.”

College administrators, however, have no second thoughts about razing the property, bequeathed to the school by a former student in 1958. They argue that in addition to the need for construction space, removing the wood-built home has environmental benefits.

“The Mowbray House is a very old, inefficient, not nice facility,” says Scott Bitikofer, director of facilities management at Rollins. He added that it dates back to the 1940s, has poor insulation and was never configured to be a residence hall. In an age of electric cars and wind turbines, Bitikofer wasn’t too impressed with Mowbray. He called it the worst student housing on campus.

“I hated when we put them in Mowbray House,” he says. “The subtle message there was that sustainability is like living in a tent.”

The unofficial plan for students who were going to live in the house come August, like Kasal, is to move them into the new wing of a renovated dorm, probably Strong Hall, which, Bitikofer says, has lights that automatically shut off when you leave the room and controlled air-conditioning settings, among other more earth-friendly features.

Once the house is gone, classroom portables will go in while Rollins redesigns and expands the Bush Science Center, a three-story complex built in 1968.

The renderings call for an additional 19,000 square feet, more study and community gathering spots, and several “green” additions such as rainwater cisterns and a $1 million energy recovery ventilation system. According to school figures, the number of students pursuing science and math degrees has increased by 12 percent since 2010.

Once the science center is finished, eliminating any need for portables, the school may ultimately use the open space to build new tennis courts, Bitikofer said.

For the environmentally minded at Rollins, an aspect of uncertainty clouds future housing options, accompanied by a sense that losing the house is like losing their headquarters.

Brendan O’Connor, a 29-year-old student at the college’s Hamilton Holt evening school, where he studies growth management, says the place became like a think-tank for the environmental student.

“We got so much press for it, we gave tours for different universities, and now it’s just going to be wiped away,” he says. Last year, the headline for a front-page article in the Orlando Sentinel read: “Rollins takes ‘green’ living to new level.”

Ann Francis, the college’s student-run sustainability program manager, says Mowbray “became the home, the base for everything,” adding that there will be a new nexus of environmental activity at Rollins, “but at this moment, we don’t know where yet.”

The sustainability program works with the students of the campus group Eco-Rollins, and together they have pushed for several of the school’s green initiatives since the late 1990s.

They were behind the drive, started in 1999, to put recycling bins across campus and in residence halls and offices. That led to a proposal for solar panels, and in 2006, the first set was installed. Then came the bike-sharing program in 2009. Students can check out one of about a dozen Giant model bikes for a period of three days. The school keeps track of usage. There have been around 1,200 rentals since it started.

“The last five years or so, things have accelerated,” Francis says. Asked if a change in housing would detract from those successes, she said no. “This is not going to stop, this is going to continue.”

Meanwhile, roommates at the Mowbray House are readying for the end of an admittedly short-lived era. They spent part of last week pulling up plants to transfer them to another garden on campus. Indoors, they are saying farewell to the place by painting the walls with all sorts of colorful images. Tiger. Elephant. Sunset. Starry night.

Urban, the house manager who first told everyone the news, said there may even be a paintball fight. They are still trying to figure out what to do with the worms.

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