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The Battle of the Dorm Dwellers 

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GREENVILLE, S.C. (ANS) -- Imagine the reality-based TV show Survivor, only set on a campus, not an island, and with an environmental twist. For three months, two eight-member teams, living separately but in almost identical college dorms at Furman University in South Carolina, will have their every move monitored. But unlike Survivor, there'll be no voting off the island, no TV cameras and no million-dollar pot of gold. Instead, their every action will be gauged for its effect on those around them. And their progress will be watched by the rest of the university campus.

The results could be interesting. For example, the semester-long project starting in September could show sharp energy-consumption differences between the average college student and those living an environmentally conservative lifestyle. At the same time, Furman professors could find ways to save thousands of dollars for the university while promoting environmental consciousness on campus.

During the summer, school officials have been retrofitting a 20-year-old, 1,100-square-foot house with recycled carpets, energy-efficient windows and fluorescent lights. In September, eight environmentally conscious freshmen will take the house over and make conservation their primary concern. Just a few feet away next door, eight other students will live in an identical structure, but without either an environmental retrofit or an eye toward conservation. In short, they'll live life much as any group of average college-age dorm dwellers.

Both dorms will have flow meters so students can monitor energy and water use. The "eco-cottage" will have regular light switches so residents will be forced to turn lights off, while the other will use timers. Timers, professors at the university have found, waste money since they condition students to never turn a light switch off.

Eco-cottage dwellers will take it upon themselves to limit their water use, while in the other dorm, water will flow as residents see fit to use it.

As the semester progresses, students will read meters and determine the cost of providing energy to each house. According to Frank Powell, a science professor at the small university, the eco-cottage could show savings of at least 50 percent over the traditional dorm by the end of the first month.

The purpose of the experiment, Powell said, is twofold. First, it will give students a firsthand idea of the need for energy conservation and what each individual must do to cut back on energy demand. Second, the semester-long project is an economic trial that will show the university how much money could be saved if buildings were designed with energy conservation in mind.

"This will be a controlled experiment that could quickly show skeptics that if you go through the hassle of a retrofit, you're looking at saving thousands of dollars over time," Powell said.

Students in both houses will log every purchase "to see if some forethought about what you buy makes a difference in the amount of Earth you use over time," Powell said.

The environmental dorm will use only recycled paper products, and each household will monitor the amount of trash it generates.

Powell predicts students in the eco-cottage will have an active social life, since their experiment is already creating a buzz. "The residents are going to be notable people on campus in the fall," Powell said. "There's going to be much greater than average traffic coming over to see what the eco- cottage is doing."

And by the fall semester in 2001, determining who gets to live in the experimental house could become a competitive process.

Powell said he expects the first reliable data to be available by early December, and that university officials will find the retrofit was well worth the money. The cost of getting the house up to environmental conservation standards was about $5,000. The money came from a grant from the Associated Colleges of the South; local businesses and utility companies also put up money to get the project under way.

The Furman project isn't the first time students have tried to make their four-year stay at a college environmentally friendly. Students at Oregon's Willamette University, a private college of 2,200 students, took over a former fraternity house in recent years and turned it into a model for environmental living.

Members of a student environmental group at Willamette went to the campus office of residential life in 1997 and successfully pitched the idea of retrofitting the abandoned house for "green" students. Willamette's Terra House includes towel racks instead of paper towel dispensers; low-flow faucets, showers and toilets; and an intensive recycling system.

In addition, the basement of the dorm was cleared out to provide storage and operating space for the college outdoor club. Once a month, all students on campus are invited to Terra House for a letter-writing session to local legislators about specific environmental issues.

Students who want to live in Terra House go through a strict application process, where they are interviewed by the dorm residents and school officials. Costs for the project are paid part by the school and part by the students' recycling efforts.

-- COPYRIGHT 2000 THE AMERICAN NEWS SERVICE

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