Opinion: Sustaining Memories: Reflections on a Successful Failure

Published on May 11, 2012 at 8:00 pm

By HEATHER THIBDEAU
Class of 2012

Traditionally, commencement provides an opportunity for everyone – graduates, faculty, friends and family – to reflect on the memories the last four years has provided. The tendency is to focus on achievements and positive outcomes, despite the difficulties and arduous efforts put in to make those achievements possible. In time, the all-nighters, disagreements, and stressful periods will morph into one negative frame of film, while the vibrant memories of laughter, newfound and lifelong friendships, and connections, passions, knowledge, and self-actualization of our future careers will dock firmly around our minds.

However, what of short-lived achievements? Those moments when hard work is not acknowledged and treated as if it never existed? One of my biggest pet peeves is squandered or unfulfilled potential, which for some translates to failure. We all know that failure happens, even after a period of significant growth. That is what recently happened with an ambitious project unique to this graduating class because it has existed as long as we have attended this college: the Saint Rose Sustainability House.

McCormack Hall, also formally known as the Sustainability House, was located at 380 Western Avenue. (Photo: Ian Benjamin)

The Sustainability House began in the spring of 2009 as an idea proposed by the Environmental Club. The vision was to create an on-campus house that lived a sustainable lifestyle and inspired other students to lead a similar lifestyle based on various service projects and informational programs. Furthermore, it seemed the next logical step to the College’s commitment to preserving and protecting the environment, as the then newly constructed Massry Center for the Arts became a permanent fixture in the College’s environmental awareness (due to its Gold certification by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design); in addition, President Sullivan had recently signed the President’s Climate Control commitment to eliminate Saint Rose’s carbon footprint. Therefore, the Environmental Club’s idea—in which I and several other graduating seniors were involved in—was to create a house that inspired others to make small, personal changes that created a big community impact. Fourteen students lived in an on campus Victorian-era home that was given a green makeover and members agreed to be more cognizant of their energy use. Known around campus as the “dark” house because we always kept the lights off whenever possible, residents also decided to forgo the use of their personal refrigerators in favor of utilizing the standard kitchen refrigerator. Furthermore, we also did simple things like unplug unused appliances, composted, used hand towels in the bathrooms (yes, they were washed regularly) and dried our clothes on drying racks.

Did all of these efforts have a noticeable impact on our energy usage? Yes. Admittedly, research suggests that unplugging an appliance, such as a toaster, while not in use saves roughly $1.96 a day, or $50 a year—which naturally varies according to the type and age of the toaster, etc. Thus, the fact that our toaster was rarely plugged in had a minimal overall impact. However, the habit of recognizing and reducing wasteful habits was the true lesson learned. It was that drive, along with our united commitment to improving the campus by conducting community service projects to clean up and restore Albany that made our house successful. In the three years the Sustainability House existed, our highest energy usage was in December of 2009 when the entire house used 1,400 kilowatts per hour. For comparison, another campus dorm (with fifteen residents compared to our fourteen) used over 3,000 kilowatts of electricity in one month during April-May of 2010. Hence, it was the accumulation of these simple changes that made a big difference.

However, even though the Sustainability House was fully backed and encouraged by the College’s faculty and staff, the critical piece missing was the support of the Saint Rose student body. Despite frequent efforts to educate and enlighten the student body about the existence of our house, there were only a handful of applications this year. In other words, next year our house will return to being a regular energy-sucking campus dorm. Moreover, it is highly likely that the new residents will have had no idea about what the house used to be or the efforts we made to help the campus reduce its energy consumption. While I cannot speak for everyone, several of the current residents have expressed frustration and sadness. However, we are not surprised that this occurred, as all Saint Rose clubs and organizations have experienced a significant decline in participation from students; it is not unreasonable then, that this apathy became a cause of the house’s dissolution. What’s more is that living in the Sustainability House was not a difficult or time consuming task: everyone was fairly open and accepting of each other, no one was secretly taking notes on who left their lights on each night, and we were the only house that was allowed to exist without a Resident Assistant—and had no major disciplinary or personal issues or violations. We held ourselves as student leaders with a mission to prove, and given many freedoms and opportunities to let our experiment succeed, but now that the results are in and the independent student variable has vanished, those privileges and opportunities will likely not be seen again. As a house, we had hoped to spread sustainability to all campus dorms, but in three years it seems we were unable to keep even one fourteen-occupant house alive.

Was the Sustainability House a failure? Or was it a flower that had only just begun to bloom before being shredded by a lawn mower? Clearly, since the house no longer exists in the same capacity, it is a failure, but at the very least I maintain the hope that one day the project will be revived and the student body will realize the tremendous impact it had—as well as what it could have become.
Farewell Saint Rose, and farewell Sustainability House. Both will be fondly remembered, yet the reality will remain that due to the loss of the Sustainability House, neither achieved their true potential.