Tiny House, Big Questions

Authors: Joseph Nichols, Garrett Nelson, Matthew Placide,

Quinn Gonzales, Griffin McComb


What makes Santa Clara University different? For me, as I took my first tour of the campus, it was the school’s drive towards sustainability, for I continuously heard and saw how environmentally friendly the campus was. Everywhere I looked there were examples of the University’s commitment towards sustainability. Fountains were turned off in response to the critical California drought; there was a tent outside of the library, informing students about the importance of energy conservation;  and compost and recycling bins at almost every corner.  However, the symbol of Santa Clara University’s drive for sustainability is its efforts put forth to building tiny houses. The tour guide informed us of the abundance of awards Refract house has won and went into further detail about its innovative features, such as its solar panels, salt water batteries (which are rechargeable and completely recyclable), dry-flush toilets, wet bathrooms, structural insulated panels, and energy rated appliances, and the meticulous consideration that went into every single detail of the house. Additionally, she lauded the achievement of rEvolve house, the newest champion of the SMUD Tiny House Competition. Wow, what an inspiring effort. (Joseph Nichols)

“The entire purpose of living in a tiny house is to increase your efficiency every way possible. The tiny house we built was a 28ft by 8.5ft area, but it was fully self-sustaining and off the grid.”– Marcus Grassi

Santa Clara University has a long history of environmental awareness. It began with the university’s use of recycled material to rebuild the library, and it endures to this day, with the school’s public displays of its commitment to building a greener campus. In 2007, Santa Clara University’s president signed a climate commitment, requiring SCU to integrate sustainability into the school’s curriculum and reach climate neutrality, aiming to produce zero net greenhouse gas emissions by 2015. The university has a growing Center for Sustainability, which pushes the students, staff, and university as a whole to participate in active sustainability- resulting in an EPA College & University Green Power Challenge Championship in 2016. Santa Clara University’s resolute commitment to fostering a culture of sustainability is seen throughout the campus, as the Malley Fitness Center walls are covered in flyers informing students about the gym’s lowered ecological footprint, and Benson’s walls are coated by posters pleading students to save water and energy. (Joseph Nichols)

What I didn’t know on that tour was that I would someday call Santa Clara home, but more specifically, CyPhi residence hall, a dorm devoted to Sustainability and the Arts. Indeed, CyPhi, more commonly known as Swig, features an entire floor dedicated to Sustainability and the improvement of our environment as well as participating in energy conservation contests and installing motion sense lighting. However, I was disappointed in the dearth of truly sustainable features that CyPhi implements. As an incoming freshman, I was excited to see how environmentally friendly and innovative Swig was, for the advancements of the tiny houses made me think that the school’s housing would be overwhelmingly ecological as well. The school has marketed it’s tiny house so aggressively and meticulously, I certainly thought that Swig would feature at least some of the environmentally friendly innovations that the tiny houses boasted, but I was wrong. Although the tiny house is meant to symbolize Santa Clara University’s efforts towards sustainability, Santa Clara University inadequately implements these initiatives in residence halls, while continuing to advertise environmentally friendly practices, perpetuating false advertising. (Joseph Nichols)

Upon first look at the Refract house, it is easy to assume Santa Clara University has an intense focus on sustainability. It is easy to assume Santa Clara University strives to be sustainable in all aspects of their school, especially in regards to living accommodations. It is even easier to assume Santa Clara University holds themselves to the highest standards of sustainability, as the Refract house has the highest standards, that’s why it won. The University is so proud of the Refract house, and one would assume it is because it demonstrates the University’s drive to sustainability. The Refract house won awards for its dedication to complete sustainability, a house where one can live with no long lasting or negative impact on the environment (Cilento). Although this is a logical line of thinking, it is not necessarily true. Santa Clara University’s Center for Sustainability states their mission as “[advancing] academic and public understanding of the ways in which social justice and sustainability intersect by integrating principles of social, environmental, and economic sustainability into campus operations, academic, and student life, and outreach programs” (“About the Center”). Their web page fails to define the sustainability they mention in their mission statement because they specifically intend to keep their definition broad. The International Institute for Sustainable Development defines sustainability as meeting the needs of the present without compromising any potential development of the future (“Sustainable Development”). Santa Clara University intentionally does not offer a specific definition of sustainability, which allows them to advertise themselves as “sustainable” without having to live up to any explicit standard.

Although Santa Clara University has made efforts to practice sustainability on campus, the university has shown that it is not a priority by delaying their commitment to producing zero net greenhouse gas emissions from 2015 to 2020. As a result of not implementing any initiatives from the rEvolve project into residence halls, Santa Clara University failed in reaching its goal, yet continues to use the tiny house competition as its staple for sustainability. To keep up the school’s image, the university has done several things related to sustainability in order to stay relevant in that discussion, such as signing the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, “which required the University to establish a focused plan to achieve climate neutrality and broader plans to integrate sustainability into our education (teaching and research), outreach to others, and stewardship of natural resources” (University). In addition, Santa Clara University created the Center for Sustainability, formerly known a the Office of Sustainability, to maintain their reputation of “being” sustainable through advertisement. Their mantra is to “host events and programs, implement initiatives, and feature stories that relate to helping the University achieve climate neutrality, practice responsible consumerism, develop a culture of sustainability and use the campus as a living laboratory” (University). In other words, they let everyone know that Santa Clara University is sustainable through Eco-Fashion & Art Shows, yet forget to mention what Santa Clara University is actively doing to practice sustainability. As expected, a constant image used throughout their advertisement is the rEvolve house. (Matthew Placide)

We believe Santa Clara University has taken part in multiple sustainable initiatives, but they could partake in much more, especially in the residence halls. We believe the residence halls should incorporate some of the sustainable aspects of rEvolve house in order to reduce energy usage and the overall carbon footprint of the University. If Santa Clara University publicly boasts about their sustainability, we believe they should make the residence halls more sustainable. During an interview with Cam Burke, a resident of Swig, he stated, “I do think that Santa Clara is sustainable, especially compared to schools out East, but they also have plenty of room for improvement” (Burke). Santa Clara University does have a lot of room for improvement, especially in the residence halls. If Santa Clara University is going to boast about their sustainability practices on their website and dedicate Swig’s theme to sustainability, then they should at least incorporate some sustainable ideas that were used in the tiny house. (Garrett Nelson).

The CyPhi residence hall is by far the biggest residence hall on campus, housing over 430 people; but the surprising part is the fact that most of the people living in CyPhi are completely oblivious that Swig’s theme sustainability. This only supports that fact that Santa Clara University uses sustainability as a marketing tool. The results from a survey taken by residents living in CyPhi show that exactly 44% of the people living in Swig are completely oblivious to the fact that Swig’s theme is sustainability and the Arts (Nelson). This means that Santa Clara University doesn’t emphasize its sustainability practices nearly enough as they should. Rather it uses the concept of sustainability to promote and advertise itself as an eco-friendly campus. (Garrett Nelson)

Within the CyPhi residence hall, there is an entire floor dedicated to sustainability, this floor is referred to SLURP, which stands for Sustainable Living Undergraduate Research Project. The seventh floor is dedicated to being environmentally sustainable and has offered optional sustainability classes to the residents of that floor. Directly on Santa Clara University’s website, it claims, “SLURP residents engage in applied research designed to promote a culture of sustainability throughout the university and receive academic credit for their work” (“History”).

During the personal interview with Cam Burke, one of the residents of seventh floor, he stated, “Even though I live on seventh floor Swig, I have not made any attempt to consciously think about sustainability or improve my personal sustainability practices” (Burke). He was also asked what SLURP stands for, the theme of his own floor, to which he replied “I don’t really know” (Burke). This shows how Santa Clara University uses sustainability as an advertising method but doesn’t actually get students involved in sustainable practices. Santa Clara University is a perpetrator of false advertising as proven with the erroneous claims on their website and a personal interview with one of the residents of SLURP. (Garrett Nelson)

After years of promoting sustainable actions around campus, Santa Clara University was given the golden opportunity to “practice what they preach”. In early 2016, it was announced that the university would be remodeling one of their oldest dorms— Dunne. All of the bathrooms would be totally renovated and the rooms would be given upgrades. In other words, this was Santa Clara University’s excuse to rip out everything and start anew. Like many who had been on the tour of campus and had heard about the Refract house, students expected to see advancements in the utilities in the newly renovated dorm. This was the opportunity for the university to implement dry-flush toilets, motion sensor lights, and other water and energy saving appliances, like those in the Refract house. But did they implement any of the ideas they flaunt every day when tours pass the Refract house? No, the newly renovated Dunne is just a higher quality building, with lower sustainability standards. If they were serious about their promise to introduce sustainable options similar to those in the Refract house, they would have grabbed this opportunity to install these types of devices. (Quinn Gonzales)

Construction outside of Swig and Dunne (McLaughlin).

In addition to failing to upgrade the facilities inside the Dunne building, the university dropped the ball again when they attempted to add to the hall. The plan was to build a study space on each floor that attaches via a sky bridge. The rooms were going to double as a place to study and hangout and was to be built out of glass to provide natural lighting and a warm atmosphere. Ultimately, this plan fell apart. They began to prepare the area for building, ripping up the grass and tearing out walkways and paths. Before the construction started, however, it was realized the funding for this new study place was short. The university had torn up land with no ability to actually build on it. How sustainable is it to tear apart perfectly good space only to build the same thing in its place?

Similarly to the remodeling of Dunne, the new Law School building was designed and built after 2009. But in the September 2014 issue of The Advocate, Santa Clara University’s law newspaper, it was claimed that “the overall design plan and general structural considerations of the building garnered mixed responses from faculty and staff, ranging from concerns about sustainability and possible LEED certification.” Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, is a rating system created by the United States Green Building Council, or USGBC, to determine the environmental performance of a building.

The LEED certification for Santa Clara University’s new law building is in question. (Solomon Cordwell Buenz)

If the new law building can’t even be deemed “environmentally friendly” then how can Santa Clara University boast that they are excelling in sustainability? (New SCU Law Proposals) Even trained professionals of the law can smell something fishy regarding the new Law School structure. (Quinn Gonzales)

Though the Refract house acts as Santa Clara’s conduit for their sustainability efforts, the house paints a false picture of the environmentally friendly attempts the university has made. When prospective students see lights powered by rechargeable batteries, current students see the lights on in the study room that has been vacant all night. When they see the water conserving faucets, we see the leaky shower head that hasn’t been fixed in weeks, despite daily visits from the maintenance crews while they clean the bathrooms. When they see solar panels lining the Refract roof, we see the bare roofs of the largest buildings on campus. To put in simple terms, Santa Clara University is simply not practicing what they preach. This problem not only occurs on our small piece of the world, it is a recurrent issue across campuses worldwide. But one university, in particular, has been a leader in sustainability: Santa Clara’s neighbor, University of California, Davis. UC Davis has been wholeheartedly committed to sustainability for the last decade; in 2002, due to student requests, they started the process of revising the university’s Policy on Sustainable Practices.

Installation of solar panels at UC Davis.

The University of California, Davis, has not only been successful in creating goals for its campus, it has excelled in meeting those goals. For example, they set the goal to reduce emissions to the 2000 level by 2014, and met this goal five years early, in 2009. Instead of patting themselves on the back for achieving their goal early, they then bumped up their timeline, aiming to reduce emissions by 15% by 2014. (UC Davis: Our Commitment) They have done an impressive job of not only setting goals, but meeting them. They met this goal early not by putting up signs throughout campus starting to “Remember to turn off your lights” or to “Save energy!” but my being active in the process. Between 2006 and 2008, the university built 35 new infrastructure projects, saving 8.5 million kilowatt-hours annually, with an estimated $3 million in cost savings per year. (UC Davis: Energy) UC Davis is an example of a campus that is passionate about sustainability and acts on the concerns of their student body. The Santa Clara University administration should follow the example UC Davis has set so they can truly practice what they preach. (Quinn Gonzales)

Works Cited

“About the Center.” About the Center – Sustainability at SCU. Santa Clara University. Web.

Burke, Cameron. Personal Interview. April 16, 2017.

Cilento, Karen. “Refract House, Solar Decathlon / Team California, SCU + CCA.” ArchDaily. 09 July 2009. Web. 25 Apr. 2017.

Grassi, Marcus. Personal Interview. April 10, 2017.

“History.” Center for Sustainability. Santa Clara University, 2017. Web. 10 Apr. 2017.

McLaughlin, Meghan. “Kennedy Mall to Receive Facelift.” The Santa Clara. Santa Clara University, 13 Apr. 2017. Web. 26 Apr. 2017.

Nelson, Garrett. “Cyphi Sustainability Survey”. Survey. April 20, 2017.

“New SCU Law Proposals” The Advocate, 9 Sept. 2014, vol. 45, iss. 1, Web. 21 Apr. 2017.

“Sustainable Development.” Topic. International Institute for Sustainable Development. Web. 26 Apr. 2017.

“Sustainable 2Nd Century | UC Davis: Energy”. Sustainability.ucdavis.edu. N.p., 2017. Web. 19 Apr. 2017.

University, Santa Clara. “History.” History – About the Center – Sustainability at SCU – Santa Clara University. Web. 25 Apr. 2017.

University, Santa Clara. “Sustainability at SCU.” Sustainability at SCU – Santa Clara University. Web. 25 Apr. 2017.


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