By: Charlotte Spears ’24 (she/her), Staff Writer
The red brick house at the corner of Main St. and Delburg St. is home to seven Davidson students with a different lifestyle from the rest of the school. With cold showers, composting, recycling, and group dinners, the Sustainability Co-Operative is an alternative living space where students implement sustainable social, economic, and environmental practices.
Olivia Ng ‘21 currently lives in the Sustainability Co-Operative, also called the “Coop,” and believes the purpose of the house is multi-faceted.
“When people think about sustainability, they think about saving the trees and the frogs, but sustainability is a lot more than that,” Ng said. “So we try to incorporate all aspects of sustainability into our community.”
Members make conscious efforts to limit consumption, minimize waste, compost in the community garden, hang dry laundry, and be as energy efficient as possible, all while encouraging similar practices in the community, according to Ng.
The mission of the Coop is “to act in a way that not only engages the ten students living in the house, but also students, faculty, and staff on campus, town and city folks, neighboring schools, and more to tackle issues of environmental, social and economic sustainability,” according to the Davidson Office of Sustainability. This year, during the pandemic, only seven members live in the house.
In a typical year, the Coop will host guest speakers, professors, students, and community members for dinners and events. Now, just the seven members cook and attend the weekly dinners. Each week, a different student prepares a vegan or vegetarian meal from locally sourced foods and limits the waste by cooking exact portions.
“I feel like I really make a difference,” Ng said. “It’s not just the things I buy or the way I do things now. The biggest impact [of living at the Coop] was shifting my mindset and way of looking at the world, because before, I would buy something off of Amazon, and I wouldn’t really think about the cost of it. But now, I am thinking about where was this shipped from, how much did it cost to make, were people paid fairly, what emissions and social impacts occurred, and who is going to have to deal with my trash.”
For those living at the Coop, the changed mindset lasts beyond the year in the house. Chloe Pitkoff ‘21 was a member last spring and created a piece of artwork inspired by her time there portraying her and her roommates at one of their community dinners.
“I was really interested in depicting this experience. For myself, as a journal and also just to sort of capture it,” said Pitkoff.
Similar to Ng, Pitkoff enjoyed her time at the Coop.
“You are in this much smaller house, and it feels very homey,” Pitkoff said. “There are wood floors, and you have these ridiculous kitchens with tons of stuff there that people have left over however many years. There’s common rooms and a big dining room with a big table made by Coop members a decade ago.
For Pitkoff, living at the Coop has increased her awareness of sustainable practices.
“Living in this community had this extra standard, and we held each other to it, it definitely changed my outlook and increased my awareness,” Pitkoff said. “I loved going to different events on campus that had food. I would bring it back to the Coop or make sure it got to someone else so it wouldn’t get wasted.”
The living space has been on campus since 2007. First-years Katie Epstein ‘10 and Micheal Spangler ‘10 started the “Eco-House,” which later changed its name to the Coop, in what used to be the office of the Dean Rusk Program with help from Environmental Science Professor Dr. Annie Merrill.
“They wanted an option for a more intentional community,” Dr. Merrill remembered. “I had lived at a Co-Op in college, and I got a lot out of it, so I explained it to them, and they said ‘Okay, where do we go from here?’.”
During the first semester of the Eco-House, Dr. Merrill did an independent study with four of the first group of members about forming the house.
“In that study we did a lot of that work,” Dr. Merrill said. “They each had a semester-long research project. They were very interested in food and local foods as much as possible. That has always been a cornerstone. Energy use and energy management has always been important depending on who lives there, like they won’t run the air conditioning in the fall, like in August when people first get there.”
During the first few years at the house, students were “setting the tone for the house and also figuring out the day to day logistics of having a group of people lying together in this space,” according to Dr. Merrill. “They decided a lot of things by consensus. They figured out structures for the house in terms of cooking, in terms of what kind of sustainability they wanted to uphold, group norms, and how to handle conflict.”
Over the years, Coop members have adopted various practices depending on the goals of the members.
“There was one group that was trying to bring attention to issues of water globally, and so for a whole week, they only used a gallon of water a day, which is based on a statistic of what a lot of people in the world have a day,” Dr. Merrill said. “They each had a gallon bucket, and to simulate what it was like for a lot of people who didn’t have running water, they would walk every day from the Coop to Baker Sports Complex where they would fill up their gallon bucket and walk it back to the Coop. They are going past the Union and telling people about it. So, they bring attention to sustainability.”
In order to live at the Coop, students apply through WildcatSync with the Residence Life Office. The application is open through February 25th, and about ten students are selected every year to participate.
According to Pitkoff, aside from sustainable practices, members believe the most important aspect of the house is “building this sense of community and we hold ourselves to that.”