Sustainability in Housing: A Curriculum Case Study
Parrott, Kathleen, Emmel, Joann M., Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences
Scholarship and Practice
Sustainability, which can be defined in terms of the balance and interrelationship of the built and natural environment, has become a conceptual framework for the study of housing. This article explores the influence of environmental issues on the field of housing, from the perspective of sustainable housing, and presents a case study of the development ofa college course to address these issues. The personal and professional value of the course to students is reviewed. Plans for adapting the course to reach a wider audience are discussed.
Environment is a broad-based term, much in use today. We hear about environmental issues, environmental concerns, sustainability and the environment, and caring for our environment. One definition of environment is to think of it in terms of ecological communities-the interrelationships between humans and the world around us. Included in these communities are the houses in which we five. Our houses are critical components in these ecological communities. To further our understanding of environmental issues, we can consider the interrelationship of housing-the human living environment-with the natural world. We can study housing from an environmental perspective.
In considering housing policy issues for the 21st century, Niemeyer and Prochaska-- Cue (1999) identified the conservation of natural resources and the reduction of pollution in building, maintaining, and living in housing as critical issues for housing policy. Housing and Society, the journal of the American Association of Housing Educators, recently focused on key housing issues in a special journal issue designed for inclusion in housing curricula and identified the environment as a critical topic, In that issue, Parrott (1997) suggests that an understanding of environmental concerns in housing encompasses, as follows:
1. The use of natural resources to provide and inhabit housing;
2. The impact of housing design, construction, management, maintenance, and inhabitation on the natural environment; and
3. The interrelationships of the natural and built environment to provide healthy, safe, and supportive housing (p. 47)
As the interest in the interrelationship between housing and the natural environment increases, a new concept has entered the vocabulary of the field of housing: sustainability. Sustainability suggests the achievement of balance, and a plan for long-term growth and nurturing. The impact on the environment-what is used, taken away, or altered-is equal to the rejuvenation-what is replaced, preserved, or enhanced. A sustainable perspective requires the juxtaposing of the needs of the present and future, and a goal to leave adequate resources and environmental quality for future generations (Kiebert, 1999). Thus, sustainable housing is in equilibrium with the natural environment.
Sustainability then becomes the conceptual framework for the study of housing in an environmental context. Approaching the many facets of housing from a sustainable perspective requires a radical shift in thought. Alex Wilson, editor of Environmental Building News, highlights this when he emphasizes that the historical purpose of a building was to separate humans from the environment, not to be in harmony with the environment (Wilson, 1999). Housing scholars have long used Maslow's theory of the hierarchy of human needs (Maslow, 1962) to study the needs and purposes fulfilled by housing. By using Maslow as a framework, housing is first shelter and protection and serves to give people control over the environment. Therefore, to be in balance with the natural environment, to be responsible for the impact of your shelter on the environment, changes the paradigm.
A corollary to the concept of sustainability is to understand housing from a bioregional perspective. We live within natural communities-bioregions-that are distinctive in that they are related physically and biologically. Our natural communities, similar to an ecosystem, share similarities in geography, climate, vegetation, animal life, and natural resources. A watershed-the area related to and drained by a specific body of water, such as a river-is an excellent example of a bioregion. Within these bioregions, or natural communities, there is interrelatedness. One individual, one house, one neighborhood can affect the whole community.
Unfortunately, bioregions do not typically coincide with political boundaries. Municipalities are learning new levels of cooperation as they shift to "collaborative environmental management" to manage the interrelated bioregional issues (Randolph and Rich, 1998). There are important ramifications for housing, especially in the codes and regulations controlling many aspects of our residential communities.
What does sustainable housing embody? First, consider housing as a building. A sustainable building, sometimes referred to as a "green building," makes efficient use of all resources, including energy, water, materials, and land, minimizes waste, conserves the natural environment, and creates a healthy living environment (Niemeyer, 1999). The City of Austin's (Texas) Green Builder Program promotes sustainability and is the only program in the United States to be honored by the United Nations Local Government Initiatives Honors Program at the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit. The leaders of the City of Austin program suggest that sustainability "means that the actions we take to provide for food, shelter, clothing, and other basic needs, must not jeopardize the natural systems that support all life" (City of Austin, n.d., p. 1). Barnett and Browning (1998) provide the following checklist for a sustainable building:
Makes appropriate use of the land;
Uses water, energy, lumber, and other resources efficiently;
Enhances human health;
Strengthens local economies and communities;
Conserves plants, animals, endangered species, and natural habitats;
Protects agricultural, cultural, and archeological resources;
Is nice to live in; and
Is economical to build and operate (p. 5).
To summarize, a "green" or sustainable building conserves resources, prevents pollution, and is a healthy living environment. However, housing, as a field of study, encompasses more than the building, or even the neighborhood or community that is the setting of the actual building. The broad definition of housing includes the people that live in the building and their psychosocial needs and interactions that contribute to the concept of home. Therefore, sustainable housing is more than just the design, development, and construction of a sustainable building. It is a sustainable home to be managed, maintained, adapted, and inhabited in balance with the environment.
THE STUDY OF SUSTAINABLE HOUSING
Although the field of housing has its own unique identity, it has a long tradition of association with the family and consumer sciences profession. The home is both a setting for family life and an influence upon it. The home is also a major resource commitment for families. Therefore, the growing influence of environmental concerns and the increasing need for sustainable housing is clearly an issue for families and consumers. Most environmental problems relate to excessive demand for energy and resource-intensive consumer products, increasing use of disposable products, and a priority on convenience (Parrott, 1997). Many of these consumer products are used within, or as part of, the home, and the environmental cost is high to manufacture, transport, market, use, and dispose of consumer products. Thus, it becomes imperative that an understanding of sustainable housing and knowledge of environmental issues be included in family and consumer sciences curricula.
There are many different ways to study sustainability and environmental concerns, and the content can vary widely. For family and consumer scientists, environmental concerns focus on the provision of a healthy, safe, and supportive living environment that is sustainable within the natural environment. A study of environmental issues should prepare a student to:
Develop a greater awareness of the importance of environmental issues in the field of housing;
Define specific issues affecting the interrelationship of the natural and built environments;
Explain examples of the impact of housing design, construction, management, maintenance, and inhabitation on the natural environment;
Define the concept of sustainability and explain its application to the development of housing;
Identify examples of personal housing behavior and choices that are supportive of, or detrimental to, sustainability in housing; and
Express a commitment, as a future professional, to consideration of sustainability and environmental protection (Parrott, 1997, pp. 47-48).
Developing a College Course on Environmental Issues in Housing
Using sustainability as a conceptual framework, a three-credit advanced undergraduate course was developed, "Housing: Energy and the Environment." The course was originally targeted to undergraduates in residential property management but is open to students in related areas, including interior design, resource management, building construction, and real estate. In addition, the course is offered for graduate credit for housing students. The course evolved from a need for the housing curriculum to address growing concern about the environment and replaced a course on residential energy management first developed in response to the 1970s energy crisis.
The objectives of "Housing: Energy and the Environment," as written in the course proposal, identify that the students will be able to:
1. Compare and contrast single and multifamily housing with respect to the
a. Interrelationships of housing, site, energy, and the environment; and
b. Relationship between lifestyle, energy consumption, and the environment.
2. Explain how concerns about waste, air quality, toxic materials, and water quality have influenced the design, construction, and management of housing.
3. Explain the influence of history, status, and use of alternative energy sources on the future energy situation.
4. Relate the application of basic heat transfer principles to analyze the energy efficiency of residential structures.
5. Identify various innovative energy efficient and environmentally sustainable housing alternatives.
Course Content and Learning Activities
"Housing: Energy and the Environment" offers a unique opportunity to integrate energy management, indoor air quality, water quality, waste management, and related topics as a continuum of issues directly related to all aspects of housing, with a special emphasis on multifamily housing. Further, from the perspective of students entering the residential property management field, topics are investigated from both a consumer/resident and a management/business viewpoint. The family and consumer sciences' perspective on environmental issues tends to focus on family well-being, management of personal resources, and development of an environmentally friendly lifestyle. The property management industry is clearly concerned about environmental issues (Marshall, 1999), but, of necessity, tends to focus on the regulatory issues and economic aspects. Thus, a conflict may arise. For example, a personal philosophy might suggest recycling as an environmentally sustainable behavior. From an economic perspective, however, an investigation of waste disposal and recycling might suggest implementing and maintaining a recycling program is cost prohibitive. Yet, the community may mandate a recycling program. The student and future property manager must consider how to resolve these conflicting priorities.
A flow of course topics was designed to present the concepts and integrate the content. Sustainability, bioregionalism, and a global perspective on environmental issues are used to introduce the overall course and provide context. Next, the broad picture of energy supply, production, and fuel choices is introduced. The focus of the course then shifts more specifically to housing issues with the introduction of mechanical systems for heating and cooling, ventilation, and moisture control. The topic of indoor air quality is introduced to build on an understanding of ventilation and serves as a bridge to other environmental topics, including waste management, water quality, hazardous and toxic products, and lead. The course then focuses on principles and techniques of energy efficient and sustainable housing construction and materials, including alternative structures. The semester ends with a summary that integrates the various aspects of the course within the framework of sustainable housing.
A single text appropriate to the course has not yet been identified. Several paperback books as well as numerous Internet sites (primarily government agencies and environmental organizations) were used for reading assignments. Course references are chosen to reflect the most current information as well as diverse perspectives. New reference materials will need to be chosen frequently to reflect the changing nature of course content.
Learning activities in the course foster course objectives and encourage critical thinking about the content and issues of the course. Most students begin this course with a limited background in environmental issues and a great uncertainty about its relevance. The faculty identified a need to engage students with an active, "real-world" approach as well as a variety of classroom teaching methods. Three written assignments require students to find current news articles on the course content and prepare short written critiques. A shopping survey assignment requires students to evaluate different products related to energy efficiency and environmental hazards in the home. For the final project, teams of students act as consultants to evaluate the energy management and environmental hazards in a multifamily property. A short consultant's report and poster presentation are outcomes of this project. Knowledge assessment takes place through three exams.
"Housing: Energy and the Environment" was first taught in Spring 1999. In addition to the standard university teaching evaluations, a questionnaire was used to assess the impact of the course on the student's attitudes and behavior, and their perception of the relevance of the course (response rate: 93%, 40 students out of the 43 enrolled). The response to the course was encouraging. The course clearly influenced the students' knowledge and awareness of environmental concerns.
The majority of students (91%) agreed that the course helped them to see a direct link between energy use and the environment. This was an important concept, because the business perspective tends to see energy use as an economic issue. In addition, 81% of the students agreed that the course influenced them to be more sensitive to energy and environmental issues. Further, 73% indicated that they planned to make lifestyle changes because of the course. Recycling more products, using less electricity, and conserving water were the most common behavior changes cited. When students were asked about the personal and professional benefits of the course, however, the economic benefits of saving energy were clearly the priority (see Table 1).
The students also made valuable suggestions for improving the course. There was interest in more closely linking energy topics to the bigger picture of environmental concerns and integrating the sequence of course content. They asked for more information on product choices from an environmental perspective, economics and cost-savings, and environmental health issues. Finally, despite the effort of the faculty to use a variety of teaching methodologies, students asked for even more interactive teaching and learning activities.
The course was offered again in Spring 2001. In response to student evaluations, more interactive teaching techniques were added, including a tour of a solar home, a quiz game on lead hazards, and an audit of campus buildings. The written critiques and shopping assignments were incorporated into a weekly journal that also included interviews, web searches, and personal reflections.
Although a few student evaluations asked to tie course content more specifically to the property management industry, the faculty made a deliberate decision to take a broader perspective. International perspectives on energy and the environment have been expanded in the course content. The course has been submitted for approval as part of the University Core Curriculum in the area of Global Issues, which will increase the diversity of course enrollment. By doing so, it is hoped students from other fields will have the opportunity to examine the environmental issues of sustainable housing and gain from the integration of the family/consumer and business/management perspectives that is unique to the course. Students in such housing-related fields as interior design, architecture, building construction management, and urban planning could incorporate the course content into their professional development, leading to a beneficial impact on our future homes and communities.
Our communities, nation, and world are becoming increasingly sensitive to sustainability as a critical issue of the 21st century. The study of sustainable housing is an important context for our understanding. "Understanding the interdependence of human and natural environments is paramount to understanding sustainability" (City of Austin, n.d., p. 1). We need to raise awareness as to the importance of these issues, and our next generation of professionals must be sensitized to these issues. One means of doing this is through courses, such as the one described here, that promote professional skills in the context of developing a personal commitment to a better world.
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KATHLEEN PARROTT, Ph.D.
JOANN M. EMMEL, Ph.D.
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Sustainability in Housing: A Curriculum Case Study. Contributors: Parrott, Kathleen - Author, Emmel, Joann M. - Author. Journal title: Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences. Volume: 93. Issue: 5 Publication date: January 1, 2001. Page number: 31+. © American Association of Family & Consumer Sciences Apr 2008. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.