Illustration by Sofia Reeves

LC housing plans must consider environmental impacts

As an educational institution Lewis & Clark has a number of significant responsibilities and obligations. It has a responsibility to its students and faculty to create a safe and effective learning environment. It has a responsibility to provide student housing that is safe, affordable and ecologically sustainable. Most of all, LC has an obligation, both as an institution and a collective body, to act in the interests of the environment and life on Earth as a whole. The recent Facilities Master Plan, and the course of action it recommends for future campus housing development, has lost sight of these principles. If this plan is to go forward as currently laid out, it will be necessary for the LC community as a whole to remind those in charge of where their responsibilities lie. 

In 2019, LC released a Facilities Master Plan produced by the campus design firm Sasaki, which describes the long term strategy for campus development. This report is available online, but the highlights are as follows. First, LC has accrued $250 million in deferred campus maintenance, which is necessary building maintenance that LC is legally allowed to put off to a later date as per building codes. Second, both the Stewart-Odell-Akin and Hartzfeld housing complexes are slated for demolition and replacement. 

Both of these concepts are immediate environmental and economic red flags for a number of reasons. Contrary to what any developer might tell you, the process of constructing a new building will always be ecologically brutal, as well as expensive. When a new building is built, every piece of wood must be cut out of a living forest, every brick heated in an energy intensive furnace, every piece of plywood made with petrochemical glue extracted from oil. Even in cases where “environmentally friendly” building practices are employed, significant energy use and ecological disruption are still required. At a very basic level, the act of building requires razing an environment and paying a large crew of workers to rebuild it, with vehicles and tools that themselves release carbon and particulate emissions into the atmosphere. 

So why is a supposedly eco-friendly school like LC embarking on such a process? One might assume that buildings need to be replaced because they are falling down. If this were true it would in itself be an ecological catastrophe on the part of the LC’s  administration. Failing to maintain the campus by deferring maintenance is in itself an ecological failure which should be condemned by the student body. A basic expectation of any student should be that the housing costs they pay be used to maintain the buildings they live in. 

Unfortunately, the truth may be even worse. The language used to describe the condemned buildings in the master plan is “not worth significant further investment” which suggests that LC may simply want to demolish the older buildings in favor of new ones that look better on brochures. If the buildings are at all salvageable, it is absolutely necessary that they be ‘reused’ instead of thrown away. An ecological and cost-friendly solution would be to retrofit the buildings in question up to present day safety, energy, and living standards. I say this with particular attention to Hartzfeld, a low lying concrete and brick structure surrounded by trees. A building that would, with proper refitting, almost certainly maintain better energy efficiency than the wooden apartment block that would be raised to replace it. 

Finally, if buildings do actually need to be replaced, LC must do so in a responsible manner. Existing buildings need to be replaced with new environmentally friendly ones of durable construction. If LC cannot prove that their new buildings will be sustainable in the long term, and if they cannot prove that they will not simply let the buildings go to waste once again through corner-cutting and deferred maintenance, they have no business erecting new structures at all. 

When it comes to housing, the primary concern must be students and the environment. Students deserve affordable, functional housing, not housing that exists to draw in new students at exorbitant costs. Students deserve housing that is ecologically friendly, so that they are not made complicit with the brutalization and destruction of ecosystems, whether directly through new construction or indirectly through energy and resource misuse. Lastly, LC has a responsibility to life on earth and the environment: An obligation to do its part in combating the accelerating ecological crisis. 

If LC cannot, or chooses not to meet these necessary requirements, it will in turn become the obligation of the LC student body and community to uphold their own responsibility to the college as an institution and to the environment as a whole. This means canvassing, pressuring, petitioning, agitating, organizing and demonstrating. When it comes to the environment, all available means of resistance, defense and activism must be placed on the table. 

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