The House That Sustainability Built

UO architecture students aren’t just taking classes and making floor plans, they’re using their degree-earning time to rebuild a house — with a special focus on the marriage of design and sustainability. The Center for the Advancement of Sustainable Living (CASL, sounds like “castle”), at 1801 Moss St., is re-creating and adding onto the house where it’s based, while inviting the local residents inside to brainstorm about their own projects.

CASL sprang from the thesis project of architecture student Jo Rogers, who designed a low-impact house that used technology and had a modern-living feel. In December 2008, the UO and CASL student leaders signed a memorandum of understanding for the house at 1801 Moss St., and CASL has been building ever since.

“When we got the house it was pretty dilapidated,” says UO architecture graduate student Shannon Arms. The house needed a new foundation, new subfloor and new roof. Now those trappings are complete, plus insulation and windows. “It’s almost a brand-new house,” she says. When students finish retrofitting the existing house, which will be a common living area, they plan to complete a three-bedroom addition in which three CASL student co-directors will reside. CASL will then become even more of a demonstration and education center for sustainable living, with tours, workshops and speakers.

The German design standard behind the CASL house is called a “passive house,” which Arms says could be compared to LEED for houses. It’s centered around making the house as airtight as possible. “There’s a measurement system where you pump the house full of air and you measure how much air actually leaks out. When you go inside and close the door, it’s super quiet, and it takes about three people to heat it up pretty quickly,” she says. “They call passive houses ‘hair dryer houses’ because in theory, you’re supposed to be able to turn on a hair dryer and heat it in the wintertime, which is kind of amazing.”

The CASL house’s pride and joy, the members say, are its windows, which are triple-paned and open in two fashions, one of which is just a few inches. This allows for ventilation without security worries. Without a discount for being an educational nonprofit, they would have cost the group $14,700. The house’s walls are about 14 inches thick, Arms says, with insulation made of recycled blue jeans. “It’s way less irritable for your skin,” she says. “I’ve taken naps on it before. The only harm that it causes is that you sort of look like you were hugging Cookie Monster a little too tightly afterward. It’s completely nontoxic and safe and it has a great insulating capacity. People get really excited about that because they think, ‘Oh, I could have my kids help me with this,’ and it’s relatively affordable.”

In addition to its major design elements, the CASL house makes small sustainability improvements more accessible to the average Eugenean, such as taping the floor at its seams so energy doesn’t leak. They’re designing a rainwater catchment system to be visually appealing and constructible in a single weekend, along with a how-to guide they can pass out. “And if they have questions,” Arms says, “they know that they can come back to us and ask us.”

CASL tries to propagate the idea of living sustainably in two ways, Arms says, by designing and reconstructing the house as students and by connecting to the community. The group is partway through a lecture series, which is open to the public, on green interior design. “We had a woman from a firm up in Portland come down and talk about how love and joy of places is tied to sustainability,” Arms says. “It’s not sustainable if you don’t love it. I think that really resonated with a lot of people in CASL.”

The message resonated with CASL’s Nathaniel Rotta, an MBA student whose career goal is sustainable development for the mass market. “For me it’s just being able to show people that a sustainable house isn’t a box,” he says. “It’s being able to prove that it can be done and it can be appealing to everyone.”

Undergraduate architecture student Halley Anderson says that for her, CASL is a special experience because it provides the opportunity to construct something physically, in addition to the environmental imperative. “I think it’s really important to keep pushing what’s possible in terms of sustainable living,” she says, “and showing that to students who can carry that throughout studies and beyond.”

Eventually, the group plans to add, as an educational element, monitoring systems that show how well the walls perform in trapping energy. “We’re going to get a little dashboard, so we can show little kids that when they go breathe on the wall, there’s moisture that moves across it,” Arms says. “Your breath has water in it!”

Work on the CASL house is still under way, but Arms says that community members should stop by as the project continues. “It’s taken about four years to get to this point, just because it’s a student project and we fundraise as we go. I think that right now, fundraising is our biggest challenge.”

To learn more about CASL or make a donation, see

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