Home sustainability: Tech students learn sustainability while living in demo house

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette Rose Turner, a resident of Michigan Technological University's Sustainability Demonstration House and a member of the Alternative Energy Enterprise Team that created the project, looks across U.S. 41 at the solar array that will soon provide power to the house.

HOUGHTON — For five Michigan Technological University students this year, their homework includes their actual home.

This is the first year for Tech’s Sustainability Demonstration Home, where the students are tracking their energy and waste, as well as carrying out projects on how to reduce energy use. 

The home dates back to 1953, when it was built for Herman “Winks” Gundlach and his family. Gundlach donated it to the university in 1992. It served as the presidential residence for Dale Stein and Curt Tompkins.  

In 2016, Michigan Tech’s Alternative Energy Enterprise Team came up with the idea to use the house to demonstrate the way older homes can be retrofit to be sustainable and energy-efficient.

The five residents were chosen from a field of 12 to 15 applicants, after submitting essays and sitting for interviews. 

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette Some of the tools of sustainable living are seen in the house's kitchen, including induction cooktops (background) and a container for kitchen scraps to be composted (foreground).

The Enterprise team designed the solar panels that will be installed this semester, put in low-flow shower heads and faucet aerators and studied the type and number of light fixtures to line up companies that could provide high-efficiency bulbs.

“This semester, we’re kind of working side by side,” said Rose Turner, a fourth-year environmental engineering student and the only of the house’s residents on the Enterprise team.

The relationship between the team and the residents can be seen in the compost bin. The team designed the bin, a three-compartment system where the materials are shifted as they decompose. The team and the tenants built it together last fall. Now tenants are putting waste in and monitoring the temperature and making sure the contents are turned and aerated.

“Since temperatures have been so cold lately, our compost actually froze,” she said. “So we’re really hoping when it’s warm today and tomorrow we can finish transferring anything and hopefully the process can start back up.”

Team members said living in the house has shown them ways, small and large, they can improve. Cooper Mineheart, a second-year mechanical engineering student, has learned what he can and can’t recycle. He’s also stopped leaving lights on.

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette The inaugural residents of Michigan Technological University's Sustainability Demonstration House. From left, Cooper Mineheart, Hannah McKinnon, Mina Kukuk, Rose Turner and Thomas Richter are seen in the house Thursday.

“I thought I was being pretty environmentally conscious in my life,” he said. “Then I got here and saw that some parts of my life I was being environmentally conscious in, but then other parts, I didn’t realize that I could improve so easily. There were things I was doing that were silly.”

While awash in vintage 50s architecture and decor, the home has been tricked out with ultramodern accessories to boost efficiency. In place of standard convection cooktops, the residents are now cooking with induction cooktops, which use magnetism to heat up the pot or pan. It saves energy — and time, Turner said. 

“We can boil water in about 30 seconds,” she said. “They’re super-efficient, and we love it.”

Team members credit their adviser, Jay Meldrum, with assisting them and also helping line up donations, including the new cooktops.

On Monday, the residents switched out 56 bulbs in the house for new CREE bulbs, which use energy so efficiently a bulb that has been on for an hour can be touched with no discomfort.

In addition to its sustainability project, the residents are also tasked with more routine upkeep as part of their required five hours per week.

“Our adviser will tell us, ‘Hey, you’ve got to repaint the garage door, it looks old,’ or ‘Hey, you guys need to power-wash the patio and the walkway, they’re grimy,'” Turner said. 

They just put up a microweather station a few days ago, measures data such as temperature and dew point. A monitoring station sits comfortably inside the house on a tabletop, next to a 1953 Michigan Tech yearbook.

The tenants will monitor the temperatures in the bedrooms to establish a baseline, using Wi-Fi sensors that take a reading every minute. After the baseline, the residents will put plastic wrap over their windows, then monitor the temperatures over the next week to compare them.

“We’ll see if there’s a correlation between warmer temperatures in the house, even though it dropped outside,” he said.

More improvements are coming. Some of the house’s power will soon come from a 8.6-kilowatt solar array stationed across the highway. 

“There was too much shading on our property to actually put the panels here, so we had to put them in the parking lot,” Turner said. 

The panels should provide about 50 percent of the power initially, Turner said. With future improvements and upgrades in efficiency, she hopes it could eventually supply all of it. 

Sitting on the basement floor are the pieces of the future aquaponic gardening system. The tenants and Enterprise team are working together on the project, which is expected to be done in two to three months.

Similar to a hydroponic system, it will include plants growing inside a bed with clay pellets. Below that will be a fish tank, where fish waste will be filtered up to the plant bed to provide nutrients. In return, the plants will filter the water, which will return to the tank.

“It’s a self-sustaining cycle,” Turner said. 

The tenants’ responsibilities also include sharing their work with the public. They host two open houses a semester. The next is expected to happen sometime in February. 

“I just think this is a great learning opportunity, learning how to work as part of a team with like-minded individuals, and then it’s also a great teaching opportunity, because we represent the community and what it could be in the future,” said Hannah McKinnon, a second-year biology student. 

Thomas Richter, a fourth-year mechanical engineering student, said his consciousness of how small changes add up will stick with him after he leaves the house.

“There’s a lot of small places where you can find improvement, and of course I think I’ll try to be more conscious with my conservation and be more efficient going forward, even if it’s just to save money,” he said.