Seeing What’s Sustainable

Composting toilets, fields of prairie grass on the roof and cob wall art greeted my daughter and her friends for an Activity Day field trip to the campus that houses several companies with goals of researching, developing and promoting sustainable living through renewable energy and high efficiency housing.

The composting toilet and worm composting brought the young titter of embarrassment from the group, but they all took a sniff of the bathroom where deposits are made and then covered with sawdust and could prove that it doesn’t smell.

One of the young boys in the group said, “I’ve got to use the bathroom, Mom.”

She quickly grabbed his hand, pulled him in the opposite direction and said, “We’ll use the first one.”

The companies on campus include a nonprofit, Happy Dancing Turtle, a for-profit, Hunt Utilities Group, and RREAL, Rural Renewable Energy Alliance. The offices themselves are an experiment in different earth-friendly products and materials. Our tour guide, Quinn, showed how the main office is made of straw bales and covered with cob. Cob is a stucco-like material that is made from basic ingredients: clay, sand, straw and water. They use cob to cover the straw bales, decorate the walls and even to build bathtubs and sinks.

Quinn is one of the artisans who paints the cob, often using a natural milk-based paint called casein. In the back room of some offices, one might expect to find old storage boxes, but they produce cob right on site and made their back room look more like a stable with stalls of straw and sand, water troughs and giant mixers.

In another building on campus with 76 solar panels, we visited the greenhouse where 10 miles of black tubing bring warm air from other parts of campus and deliver it to the floor of the greenhouse. There, Quinn also explained the layers of roofing material (which are identical to our roof garden layers) that lie underneath the dirt and prairie grass on top of the building.

The kids were bored by some of the more complicated processes like the intricate technical monitoring of the moisture and temperatures in the buildings and looking at an actual solar panel. But they held on through the heat and walk until the time to make paper from their used paper.

I admit that I hang back from fully embracing the green movement. It seems funny to label some of the things I am already doing like planting a garden, preserving my own food, using smart building and energy products in and on our house as sustainable living.

With that perspective, though, I realize that my children through educational opportunities like these will grow up with less reluctance and may adopt some of the more unusual practices. Let’s just say, though, that there are limits and if I find a composting toilet at their house when I go to visit my grandkids years in the future, I’ll stay somewhere else.


  1. Ryan
    Aug 18, 2008

    You know, it’s interesting you mention the composting toilet, because yesterday a water line broke here at the apartments where I live, and we had no running water. We did have drinking water stored, but no shower and *gasp* no toilet flushing. A composting toilet could have come in very handy at this moment.

    Thankfully, family lives in the building next door, so we used their bathroom.

    Admittedly though toilets are a big water waster and not generally “green.” Their dependence on high volumes of water is pretty volatile as far as green sustainability is concerned.

  2. ph
    Aug 18, 2008

    We enjoyed designing the large “Mani” building and other buildings on campus. You can see more here: and here:

  3. jle
    Aug 21, 2008

    Yeah, I don’t think I could ever do a composting toilet. YUCK!!! However, if there are those who want to do that let them have at it. I try to do some things to go green. We have a very small garden, we conserve energy as much as possible, we have new faucets that conserve water as well as our toilets, our children bathe together (when possible) we recycle. There are many things that can be done, but still that toilet…that grosses me out!
    We went to this website to get our water conservation products…take a look.

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