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Design and Construction of an Eco-House

Environmental Studies Course, Carleton College

Professor Gary Wagenbach gwagenba@carleton.edu and Lecturer Richard Strong rstrong@acws.carleton.edu,

Compiled by Suzanne Savanick, Science Education Resource Center, Carleton College, ssavanic@carleton.edu

This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project


Students in this course explore designs of a future Carleton College student house. This is a multi-year project where students from the social sciences, humanities / arts, and natural sciences explore parts of the design of an actual house. In the first year, students researched building envelopes. In the second year, the students focused on energy, both heating and power within the house, especially looking at the natural flows of available energy and how they may supplement the house's requirements. The next year will focus on natural ecosystem processes, including living machines. The course is co-taught by a biology professor and the Director of Facilities Management.

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Learning Goals

Students will be able to design, construct, evaluate and recommend materials for the planned Eco-house to be built on campus. Students will learn about good design and plan for construction. Students will have a greater knowledge and appreciation of living with the capacities of the climatic and eco-systems of southern Minnesota.

Context for Use

"It's not just a house, it's an educational endeavor." -Professor Gary Wagenbach

Eco-House Students Mixing Plaster

This interdisciplinary course is a collaborative multi-year project that connects to other courses and independent study projects on campus.

Collaborative course:The Environment and Technology Studies program and Carleton College's Facilities Management collaborated on this course. A biology faculty member and the Director of Facilities Management and Planning co-taught the course. Supplemental funding for the course was provide by Facilities Management, as over the years, the course will design a new building on campus.

A multi-disciplinary course: Students from many different departments and with a broad range of environmental awareness and background took part in the class.

A multi-year project:

  • The first year class studied building envelopes: The students tested insulation, earth, cordwood, and strawbale for insulative properties and conducted a life-cycle analysis of these building materials.
  • The second year's students studied natural flows of energy, both heating and power.
  • In the forthcoming year of the project, students will study natural ecosystem processes especially those that apply to the waste stream from human habitation, including living machines.

In one to two years, the ecohouse will be built on campus, utilizing the student research.

This course connects with other student projects and courses:

  • Prairie Roof Independent Study: Four students designed and built a prairie roof demonstration on the walkway between Olin and Mudd Halls on campus.
  • Food and Agriculture Class: Students wrote research papers advising the future students about agriculture and food choices for the upcoming house.
  • Biology of Diseases Class: Advised future students on the possible pathogens that they should be aware of when living in the house.

Course Size: 24 students maximum

Teaching Materials

Eco-house Syllabus 2005 (Microsoft Word 131kB Jul14 05) Eco-house Syllabus 2004 (Microsoft Word 68kB Jul14 05)

The course used SketchUp, a three-dimensional-drafting software, and Energy-10, an building energy analysis program.

Project Progress Reports.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Tips for Teaching this Type of Course:

  • Collaboration is crucial. One faculty member and the head of facilities management co-taught this course. They relied heavily on a campus machinist for the hands-on part of the class as well as outside consultants.
  • Go with the passions of the players. This course was designed because of the particular interests of the collaborators.
  • Tie the course with the particular needs of the campus. This course used a client/consultant model. The college planned to build a student house; the students are acting like the college's consultants.
  • Use trained teaching assistants for software help. The outside consultants trained teaching assistants on the software packages, Sketch Up and Energy 10. The teaching assistants were available to help students with using the software.
  • Manipulating materials is not trivial. Enough structure is needed for the project to be accomplished safety in a student's timeframe. The collaborating machinist was crucial for this effort.
  • Connecting the world of ideas to the hands-on lab is very important. Working on a real-world, hands-on project was new for the students and they responded positively.


Students were assessed on class exercises and team lab presentations. The final presentations were presented to the design/construction community.

References and Resources

Read, Brock, June 24, 2005, "Go 3-D: A Graphics Program Helps Students Design Efficient Houses" Chronical of Higher Education, Section: The Chronicle Review Volume 51, Issue 42, Page B12.

Beal, Heather, 2005, "Designing EcoHouse: a cross disciplinary design course at Carleton College examines global issues in a campus context" Architecture Minnesota, November-December p. 56-61.

See course syllabus for course readings.