‘I know I’m making a difference here.’ University of St. Thomas builds a residence hall where sustainability is key

Tommie East Hall, at the University of St. Thomas, is probably unlike any other student housing you’ve ever seen.

It’s a ‘smart building,’ with COVID-precautions and a green zone, all rolled into one.

"Their number one goal was the embracement of sustainability," says Eric Engh, Senior Vice President of Ryan Companies. "This will be a great example to see how good can you be. So it’ll be fun to watch."

The University has a lofty goal: to achieve carbon neutrality by 2035.

The St. Paul campus says it has reduced its carbon footprint by 37% in the last decade.

And Tommie East, just completed last August, appears to be leading the way with its eco-friendly design.

"It’s super-exciting," says Kaylen DeBois, a freshman who lives there. "I’ve always cared about the environment, I’ve always tried to be as sustainable as possible."

The $34-million residence hall is home to 260 students.

The look and the feel of Tommie East emphasizes a healthier environment and low impact on Mother Nature.

"Go through all those checkboxes of what it meant to construct a hall that was eco-friendly," says Aaron Macke, the University’s Associate Dean of Students. "We’re not going to just say it’s a statement, we’re not going to say it’s a value, but we’re actually going to build it, we’re going to create it, and we’re going to have you live in it, and experience it, so you can experience it yourself."

The differences between Tommie East and conventional student house are numerous, even startling, including,

  • low-flow showers and bathroom faucets to conserve water
  • large, triple-paned windows to allow in more light while conserving heat
  • electric car recharging ports
  • indoor secure bicycle storage
  • a rainwater collection system for on-campus irrigation

"The rainwater goes into these large bathtubs underneath the grass, and collects in the bathtubs," Engh explains. "Rainwater does not have to go back into a public storm sewer and go somewhere else. It stays on the site."

The carpets are made from recycled materials.

Recycling bins are everywhere.

But there’s something that takes one step further: compost bins for food waste.

"It’s really cool because we can request compost bins for our rooms, so even right in our own dorm or our room we can compost," DeBois says. "All the food we get from the dining halls, the packages we take to go are all compostable."

The awning above the windows?

They’re not for decoration.

"I love how you can drive down Cleveland Avenue and see these little awnings over our windows, and not really understand what it is," Macke says. "It’s about shading, it’s about controlling temperature in a room."

Back inside, there are temperature-controlled thermostats.

Even energy-efficient appliances in kitchens, that double as learning spaces.

"So we can bring in sessions and talk about sustainable living," Macke notes. "What does it mean in terms of energy conservation, the use of lights, our mechanical systems, our electrical system."

The building construction is so tight, that cell reception doesn’t penetrate well.

School officials are recommending students use Wi-Fi if they run into a problem.

"It’s important to think about tradeoffs when you’re thinking about being a good steward of the earth," Schauer says. "So yeah, you’re losing out on time on Instagram, but you’re helping to preserve who knows what? Some species we’ve never heard of? I’ll make that trade ten times out of ten."

And the building industry is taking notice.

The U.S. Green Building Council, an eco-friendly trade group, awarded Tommie East a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum Certification.

That’s the council’s highest environmental rating.

Tommie East is only the seventh building in its category in the world to achieve that.

"We invested in our values. We invested in something that’s important to us as an institution," Macke declares. "It replicates the value we have on sustainability. It’s a statement, and we are able to share that with our students, with our family, with our alumni."

The University says the building is financially sustainable as well.

Even though construction costs were 1-2% higher than a conventional building, St. Thomas officials say there will be $50,000 in anticipated energy cost savings a year.

Those eco-friendly features are expected to pay for themselves within a decade.

"I love the environment. I’ve always tried to be as sustainable as I can on my own," DeBois says. "But this feels tangible. I know I’m making a difference here."

St. Thomas is planning to retrofit several older residence halls starting next summer, to make them more sustainable.

But from Tommie East— a different kind of building— there are, perhaps environmental lessons that will have a lasting impact on the students living there.

"We want to start to get them to experience the things that will last with them for a lifetime," Macke says. "What does it mean to live in a green space and how can you replicate that as you leave here as a junior or a senior, as an alum of the university, and you have your own house and your space. What does it mean to live that life."