The House That Rollins Students Built

By Jack Roth

Mowbray House. Photo by Laura J. Cole

“The goal is to engage the entire Rollins community and eventually create an organic corridor on campus. Hopefully, this house helps manifest other projects and acts as a stepping stone to a fully sustainable campus.” —Ann Francis ’01HH, EcoRollins Advisor

A sustainable “living lab,” Mowbray House stands as a testament to what can happen when students, faculty, and staff join forces to generate positive change.

A worm farm. An organic soap-making station. A medicinal plant garden. And a group of college students working to change the world. That’s Mowbray House—a non-conventional, ecologically friendly, fully sustainable “living lab” located on the Rollins campus. The five-bedroom, three-and-a-half bath, 2,800-square-foot residence houses seven and engages dozens more in its maintenance.

From the moment you enter the front door, it’s clear that this is no ordinary environment. In the corner of the entrance hallway stands an ominous-looking, stark black worm “hostel.” While it might make most people cringe, it represents a significant piece of the sustainability puzzle. “We feed red earthworms just about all of our food waste, and even our junk mail and dryer lint,” explained Theresa Chu ’11, president of Eco-Rollins and house manager. “They chew on it for awhile, and when they’re finished digesting, the microbes in the worm castings help break down nutrients in the soil, which creates ultra-nutritional, plant-friendly organic debris.”

Chu breaks down the organic soap-making process with equal enthusiasm. “We decided to try and make everything organic, so we sacrificed part of the kitchen to be able to make our own soap. We use olive oil, lye, beeswax, and a variety of natural essential oils to create different scents. It’s not a quick process, but the final product is free of toxins, chemicals, and animal products.”

It’s obvious that Chu and her roommates take seriously their roles as environmental ambassadors to the entire Rollins community. Leading by example, they feel confident that they can raise awareness and empower others to make choices that lower their environmental impact through both lifestyle changes and community action.

When Mowbray House became vacant last spring, it caught the attention of Eco-Rollins, a student organization whose goal is to educate and motivate in regard to environmental stewardship. Their proposal to develop the property into a testing ground for sustainable living was accepted and, in coordination with members of the College’s Sustainability Program, they set out to transform Mowbray House into a model for conservation and preservation. Students spent last summer removing and recycling the cement driveway and metal fencing surrounding the backyard, creating organic gardens, and adding native plants to the property. They installed rain-collection barrels to collect irrigation water, replaced the home’s incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent lamps, and painted the building’s interior with a fresh coat of VOC-free paint.

As news about the sustainable house spread, the number of volunteers grew. “The goal is to engage the entire Rollins community and eventually create an organic corridor on campus,” said Ann Francis ’01, advisor to EcoRollins and manager of Rollins’ Sustainability Program. “Hopefully, this house helps manifest other projects and acts as a stepping stone to a fully sustainable campus.”

What’s happening today at Mowbray House took root decades ago when the first Earth Day, in 1970, sparked environmental awareness. Since then, there has been a steady increase in environmental initiatives at colleges and universities, including environmental courses and faculty development, green buildings and policies, student sustainability programs, and collaborations with local communities. At Rollins, community service is woven into the College’s overall curriculum and culture, and Mowbray House now serves as a microcosm of environmental stewardship.

“The house provides a blueprint that students can use to create their own sustainable environments,” said Francis, who graduated from Rollins with an environmental studies degree. “By showing young adults how to be responsible citizens, you create an impetus for change,” she said. “In this particular case, you hope they graduate with the impression that being environmentally conscious matters, because if they do, they will dedicate themselves to making a difference.”

For biochemistry major Megan Frederick ’12, living at Mowbray House is a productive way to engage in a worthwhile cause. “This has been an awakening for me,” she said. “I’ve always cared about conservation, but I wasn’t fully aware of what it took to do it right. I’ll leave here a more informed individual. I get it now, and I want to work toward solutions and encourage others to take steps to reduce their carbon footprint.”

Robert Kennedy, Jr. Photo by Jill Gable

In November, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. visited the Mowbray Sustainability House, spent time with Rollins’ sustainability coordinators, and signed an “I want clean energy now!” sign that now hangs inside the house.