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Bringing Environmental Values Home

Going green, being environmentally correct, saving the earth—call it what you may, the effort to live, build, and create in an environmentally conscious fashion is increasingly being brought to the fore. And while years ago it might have taken a bit of an effort to go green, today it is becoming easier in every way.

As a charter signatory of the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment in April 2007, Westminster College joined more than 170 colleges and universities across the country that pledged to work toward carbon neutrality in its operations. Today, more than 600 have signed the pledge. For the Westminster campus community, the commitment to “go green” is more than a pledge about how the college will operate. For many faculty, staff, students, trustees, and alumni, it’s a way of life.

History professor Jeff Nichols and his wife, Cheryl Henley, have their own piece of paradise near the Manti-LaSal National Forest in southeastern Utah, 250 miles from
Salt Lake City.

“We found this chunk of land at Pack Creek Ranch south of Moab in 2005,” he says. In January 2006, they began building a vacation home that is now nearly complete. At 6,000 feet elevation, the high desert location puts them on the edge of juniper forests and in the company of wild turkeys, prairie dogs, elk, bobcats, mountain lions, and the occasional bear.

Yet paradise comes with a tinge of guilt.

“I am painfully aware of how really compromised I am on this issue,” Jeff says about his new vacation home. “A second home is not an environmentally responsible thing to do.”

Although he and his wife took a great deal of effort to make their home green and sustainable, “there are lumber, concrete, and a number of things that are not as green as they might be,” Jeff says. He jokingly calls it “pale green.”

Nevertheless, many aspects put them in the forefront of green building. First, they built a straw-bale house. This method of construction dates back thousands of years and uses easily available material—straw—that provides a high insulation value, making it cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. They first read about straw-bale buildings in Sunset magazine years ago, and Cheryl bought Jeff one of the first books on this building technique. “Maybe we’ll build something like this someday,” Cheryl wrote in the book in 1999, an inscription Jeff hadn’t seen until they bought their land and he reopened the book.

Then they hired an architect and contractor who were well versed in green building. They also installed a solar array that will supply all of their electrical power, used lumber from standing beetle-killed trees they found in southwestern Colorado, and used straw from the same location. Finally, they installed a wood stove, rather than using electricity, to heat the house when they are there.

The 750-square-foot house has two bedrooms and one bathroom. Its walls are 18 inches thick with two inches of plaster on the inside and outside. Most of the construction was complete by summer 2007, but finishing the last coat of plaster took another six to eight months. “A bunch of Westminster people stacked and plastered and plastered and plastered,” Jeff says.

The plaster was actually another bit of environmentally conscious use of materials, coming directly from the hole they dug for the foundation. Because the earth had a high clay content, after mixing it with water and a little sand, it was perfect for plastering.

If Jeff had his druthers, he would have eschewed the advice of a “traditional” plumber who talked him out of an on-demand hot water heater, and he would have installed radiant floor heating. He may install a solar hot water system in the future.

Jeff dismisses the idea that using straw bales in construction can save a large amount of money. “They used to talk about it as a big savings, but walls are only about 15% of the cost of a house,” he says. “It’s the kitchen and bathroom that cost the most money.” And he admits that it is a lot of work to use straw bales in building. In addition, the plastering is very time intensive. “Plastering takes many coats—at least three before the final “color” coat, and in some problem spaces, far more. But that’s also where an owner-builder can save some money doing it himself. It is also very satisfying work—especially after it’s done!” he adds.

Despite some misgivings, Jeff and his wife are delighted with their green haven at Pack Creek.

She may be Westminster’s conscience on environmental issues, but Kerry Case, director of the college’s Environmental Center, confesses she had a dirty little secret up until a few months ago: her daily drive to and from her Ogden home was 80 miles. Granted, it was in a car that uses biodiesel fuel and gets 40 miles to a gallon, but there was no getting around the fact that her commute was not helping global warming. She estimates that she added 8,000 pounds of CO2 emissions yearly.

But she had no alternative—that is, until UTA’s FrontRunner train made its debut last April. Taking advantage of Westminster’s free transit pass valued at nearly $2,000 (and available to all employees and students who pledge to leave their cars home at least four weekdays a month), Kerry has enjoyed commuting on the double-decker train that speeds her from her Ogden home to the transport hub near the Gateway.

“The first few days were rough, but I couldn’t continue to commute by car. It’s a horrible feeling to be in gridlock,” she says.

The only tiny kink in the process is the bus that takes her from the hub to Westminster. “The bus and train schedules don’t mesh,” she says, which adds time to her commute. All told, she spends up to three and a half hours a day getting to and from work, twice as long as when driving. But she doesn’t mind. The train is WiFi equipped, and by the time she gets to work, she has already written and answered emails and feels more productive.

Not only is Kerry helping the environment, she is also saving money—$10,000 yearly by her estimate using AAA figures—and she is getting to know people she never would have known within the confines of her car during her solitary commute.

“The greatest gift I have gotten from riding the train and the bus is the opportunity I never would have had to interact with people from the community,” she says. “It gives me a sense of community and inspires a great sense of compassion in me.”

He was a business owner at nine, an employer at 15, and a competitive and sponsored skier while still in high school. What else can be said about 21-year-old Brody Leven? Well, this powerhouse Westminster junior honors student is also president of the Associated Students of Westminster College (ASWC) and a member of the Campus Sustainability Task Force. Environmental consciousness is one of his passions.

When Brody first arrived at Westminster, he “started to notice that universities have such a big impact on their surroundings.” Using an idea conceived by a previous ASWC president and before becoming president himself, Brody decided to work on a program to provide bikes to students for short commutes into Sugar House, rather than having them use their cars. He studied biking models from other cities, but found that none quite fit Westminster. So he proceeded to develop one unique to the college. On Earth Day 2008, Westminster Wheels was unveiled.

Supported with a grant from Chevron and using helmets and other safety devices provided by Contender Bicycles, Westminster Wheels started with five specially designed lavender bikes that are available through the concierge desk in the Shaw Student Center. Brody wanted the program to be easy: you sign a waiver, get a helmet and bike lock, and that’s it—you have free use of a bike for 24 hours. To help reduce the college’s carbon footprint, he hopes that students will encourage each other to use bikes instead of vehicles for short local trips.
These single-gear bikes are custom designed for Westminster. They have a low wheelbase and are safe, user-friendly, and easy to maintain. Safety features include extra-fat tires that are puncture resistant, sealed bearings so that pedals don’t lock, big comfy seats, cruiser-style handlebars, bells, and no cabling for gears and brakes.

The program seems to be working. Brody says he often sees one of the distinctive bikes around Sugar House. Five new bikes will be added to the fleet in spring 2009. And there has been “amazing feedback.” Brody has been interviewed by nearly every TV station and newspaper in the area. “It makes me feel really good about where I live—they really do get it,” he says.

According to Westminster trustee Jim Clark, the economic crisis of 2008–2009 may actually lead to positive changes for the environment. With the major US automakers asking for a government handout, Clark believes this could in turn lead to mandatory development of more fuel-efficient cars, stronger emissions standards, smaller cars, and perhaps even new fuels that will be very helpful to the environment.
“I also think the new administration has an opportunity to use the financial crisis we are in to enhance environmental sustainability and create less dependence on fossil fuels,” he says.

This former interim dean of the Bill and Vieve Gore School of Business has long been involved with conservation. When he arrived in Utah from northern California in 1994 as an American Stores executive, Clark became involved with Envision Utah, a first-ever attempt at planning for growth on the Wasatch Front.

“The process was incredible—all the stakeholders were at the table,” Clark says. “Everybody came together with convincing data that we were going to grow substantially and that citizens felt that their quality of life was threatened as a result.” These visionaries questioned the best way to deal with the projected growth of the region, while still maintaining the quality of life. That led them to think regionally, rather than just by municipality, truly a new way of looking at these issues.

Clark believes this planning eventually led to UTA’s Trax and FrontRunner, among many other positive changes in our community. Now on the board of Envision Utah, Clark has also been an active leader in other community organizations. He served as chair for the Coalition for Utah’s Future and for the Nature Conservancy of Utah, where he is also a board member. He is especially supportive of the Conservancy’s Dugout Ranch Climate Change Initiative, which is dedicated to climate change research and used as a model to understand global warming.

Clark is also excited about what Westminster is doing for the environment. “I’m impressed by all that is going on here,” he says. “This includes the new Meldrum Science Center, things that students are doing to learn about and understand our environment, and the superb efforts of Westminster professors.” In fact, he was so impressed with the Westminster Wheels program when it was presented at a Board of Trustees’ meeting that he committed to buying five more bikes.

Clark is especially interested in Professor Bonnie Baxter’s work with Westminster’s Great Salt Lake Institute and the partnerships she is forming with other organizations interested in sustaining the Great Salt Lake as an important resource. “Collaboration is really important in trying to resolve large-scale environmental issues,” he says. “I take every opportunity to encourage folks at Westminster to connect with outside organizations—to think outside of our own box and to join with others to solve problems.”

As part of his role as a Westminster trustee, Clark chairs the Student Learning Committee and is the board’s lead in advancing the President’s Innovation Network (PIN), a venture fund for innovative initiatives. In fact, PIN funds helped establish Westminster’s Environmental Center.

Michael Bégué might not agree with the old proverb, “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.” You see, this former baker and brewer does just that—figuratively, that is. Bégué, a 1989 Westminster alumnus, is a well-known artist who uses recycled and reclaimed wood and metal to make works of art and pieces of furniture that are sold through galleries and his own showroom in downtown Salt Lake City (

In 1990, Bégué started using scrap metal that he found in Park City, where he was working as a brewer. He liked the “cool shapes” of the rusty metal and sold his first work—a mobile—for $80. It helped that the material was cheap, but he also believed that “it was a horror to let it go to waste.” Now his sculptures grace pocket parks in Park City. Bégué hasn’t limited himself to sculpture, however. A glance at his website shows that he also makes furniture, tools, and light sculpture, in addition to painting abstract works of art.

At Westminster, Bégué’s work can be seen in the Kim T. Adamson Alumni House, where a coffee table, sofa table, and yearbook stand show the artistry of working in reclaimed wood. The coffee table, for example, was made from a pallet of mahogany he found next to a building. All in all, he has worked with 78 species of wood.

“The local pioneers planted such a wide variety of trees here,” he says. He receives email alerts when trees are being cut down, making it easy for him to add to his stock.

Next on the horizon for Bégué is a number of pieces commissioned for the Meldrum Science Center, scheduled to open in spring 2010. These include a timeline bench for the atrium and all six inlaid display boxes. Every piece will be built from the 7,500 board feet of wood harvested from the site. The wood is from a London Plane tree, also known as sycamore, and a Norway maple. The sycamore, he says, is “exceptionally beautiful,” and the grain of the maple is the most “ridiculously curly I’ve ever seen—we really lucked out.”