The apartment is dirty. It isn’t overly disgusting but contains the kind of mess one would expect from a 21-year-old college student. A strange juxtaposition between lazy and hard working appears all around the Friendly Neighborhood apartment, as pizza boxes and empty beer cans lie among a bag of tools, work boots and building plans. These conflicted furnishings belong to Ben Miller, an environmental studies major from Humboldt, CA who has a dream to build sustainable, zero-impact houses.
Miller’s 6 ft. 6 in. frame towers over most of his fellow UO students, but he doesn’t use his size and athleticism to play sports; instead he builds. “I’ve been doing construction since I was about 10,” Miller says. “My dad and I first built a fence at my house and then quickly moved on to building a deck. I’ve been hooked ever since.” Ben worked for a number of local construction jobs growing up and has been involved in carpentry, flooring and dry walling homes both new and old.
When Ben came to the University of Oregon in the fall of 2010, he found a place where his passions could be realized. During one of his classes, a representative from the Center for the Advancement of Sustainable Living, or CASL, stopped by and piqued Ben’s interest. CASL is a club at the UO that was created by students in 2003. It is working towards combining natural resources and new technology to create a house that will be used to teach and demonstrate sustainable living.
The house, located at 1801 Moss St., was awarded to CASL by the University of Oregon on January 7, 2009, and experienced the groundbreaking on Earth Day 2009. Since the launch of the project, CASL has offered 6 classes per year to students for credit, including kitchen design, foundation upgrading and wall assembly. The center is being built and designed by students, and is funded by the university, and so all decisions must be approved by faculty members before anything can be done. This can lead to some problems in time management and making the center as sustainable as possible. “ It’s tough to make a learning experience completely efficient and sustainable,” Miller says, “but the effort is there and it’s clear that we’re doing a good thing.”
When he opens the front door of the renovated home, the smell of freshly cut wood drifts lazily out to mingle with the fragrances of the many flowers on the quiet, campus-area street. Bare floors and walls greet the intrepid workers, but they know the amount of effort they and other students have put in over the years. New-looking pipes and wires weave between 2x4s, and shavings lie among fresh screw-holes and saw cuts. “I always enjoy being here, especially when no one else is around,” Miller says. “It’s all really comforting: the smells, the sounds, feeling the wood as you’re working. I love it all.”
One of Ben’s fellow CASL members, Architecture Major Briton Conn, is hard at work putting up drywall around a new door. He stands up and greets Ben warmly, joking with him about how much he’s been needed on the job site today. “Ben’s a really great person to work with,” Conn says, chuckling. “I can always get him to do the real heavy lifting while I stand back and relax.” This sentiment seems universal with Miller’s fellow workers as one after another asks Miller for help putting up insulation, installing pipes and nailing up wood boards, and not a single person is turned down.
During his time working with CASL, Miller has learned to use renewable resources such as sustainably grown wood, recycled metal and insulation created from old, shredded jeans. As Miller’s college career continues, he hopes to keep learning and experience every aspect of construction so he can build sustainably in the future. “It’s amazing how natural and sustainable we can now build,” Ben said. “I’m proud that I’ll be able to take what I’ve learned here and make our world a better place. A cleaner place.”