ecological design: noun 1. Common Sense

On the surface, ecological design sounds intimidating. For some, the word ecological brings thoughts of scientists researching plants and animals out in the field, while the word design conjures up imagery of an architect planning and drawing things well out of their knowledge range.


Passive Solar Design

When ecological design is stripped of its academic sounding shell and placed into the world of practical use, it is anything but complicated.

When you build a home, do you build it without insulation? Would you neglect to install windows? These building techniques are part of ecological design, or more simply put, designing a home or living space in accordance with the local environment. There are much more elaborate and philosophical definitions, and the field can be very broad, but to me the essence eco-design lie within its practical applications.

What if I told you that you can build a home with eves that will shade the windows in summer so your home stays cool, and during the winter, when the sun is low in the sky, sunshine will flood your home and assist with heating?

What if I told you that a large stone floor or wall in your home will steady the temperature between the hot and cold extremes? It’s called thermal mass.

If you have a two story home, installing a series of sky lights you can open will help vent hot air out while pulling cool air in through windows on the north side of your home.

What if I told you that, if properly done, you can capture and clean rain water from your roof for use in your home?

Eco-design is about knowing your surrounding and working with them to make your life easier, and to make life easier on everything living around you. It is also a pathway to a healthier future, both mentally and physically.

Eco-design includes food as well, food that can be fresh, organic, and free. Permaculture means keeping things simple and easy. If you have a fence, grow something on it (beans, peas, cucumbers) and use the shaded side to grow plants needing more shade. Remember those south facing windows we talked about earlier? Some people will put up wires or string in front of them and plant beans that will provide additional shade in the summer.

Plant things as companions that will work with one another. Native Americans would grow the three sisters, corn, beans, and squash. The beans would help fix nitrogen and the corn would give the beans something to climb on. The corn and beans also helped to shade squash which spread out to keep down weeds.

Ecological design makes a lot of sense—common sense. It’s about using what is already available to us to make life easier, cheaper, and efficient, especially in a society that is wearing us down.

Most of us are living a fast paced life, often aiming to be accepted by our local culture. We build a home to look nice with lots of space to put more stuff, placing more focus on form than function when it comes to the most basic needs of providing shelter. What if we built our homes to do more than just give us shelter? What if, like Mike Reynolds, we set out to build homes that provided everything we need, a comfortable living space, water and food?

To me, that’s ecological design.


Bereans for Appalachia Mountaintop Removal Tour

Berea, Kentucky – On the weekend of March 28, 2015, nine Berea College students and two children set out from Berea eastward with the intent to view a sampling of the atrocities of Mountaintop Removal. This was going to be my first trip to see mountaintop removal up close. I knew theoretically about strip mining, valley fills, reclamation sights, and the like, but never had I been witness to such things. I felt like the greatest Sustainability and Environmental Studies hypocrite there ever was, and I wanted to take this trip to remedy those harsh feelings.

We began our journey with a drive-through of an “economically improved” subdivision built atop a former strip mine. Cookie cutter houses lined the lane that was just wide enough for the bulk of our van to slide along unhindered. Neatly cut lawns cluttered with plastic relics of childhood gave way to a barren wasteland just beyond the boundaries of the suburb, and in the near distance bald mountaintops could be seen rising above the rest as a sad tribute to their former glory. On the way out of that desolate place we realized that the road we were driving on was built on top of a valley fill. From below, the terraced slopes could easily be marked, with recent growth of small trees and bushes half-heartedly covering the landscape. For a moment I worry about the stream that must have been choked off when the “overburden” of loose rocks first came tumbling down the valley. But that stream is long gone, along with so many others.

We pass a yard sign that says, “Stop the War on Coal.” It can be easy for us to exclaim loudly and with much remorse about how people choose to live in such a way–how wrong they are to say such things. But we know, and can recognize that jobs in coal mining are steadily declining. The health issues that arise among people who have worked in mines or lived near them are severe. But when coal provides paychecks and healthcare and even subdivisions with a view, I’m sure it’s hard to look out the window and see any other way to live.

The winding expanses of roads that we traveled took us clear into Virginia. Switchbacks gradually inched us towards the tops of the crags. With a slightly woozy head and continuously popping ears, I peered out across the valley floors to see the mountains across from us. A white sheen glistened from a few of the tallest ones, courtesy of March’s late snowfall. From a distance, the hillsides looked covered in trees, gentle forests of centuries past marching down to the now cultivated valley floors. We turned a corner in the road and another portion of the mountain became visible. Below the snow-covered peaks was a depression, an obvious cutout in the mountainside. A patch of bright green startled the eyes. It was grass, a reclamation sight. Trees had been removed and they were replaced with a non-native species of groundcover. I don’t think the mountain was happy with that bright green. It was like a giant toddler had erased a huge portion of forest and colored over it with a lime green marker. It didn’t belong.

We stop at an overlook on the way up the mountain where we peered out at distant expanses of mountain-scape. The scar of a mountaintop removal site was unmistakable, courtesy of a few profit hungry energy capitalists.


A pocket in the mountains holds the town of Whitesburg, where we just came from. Other distant valleys hold similar settlements. I think back to a time when the road wouldn’t have been there. When the towns wouldn’t have been there. When we would have had to have hiked to see such a sight. Or ridden mules. Or not come at all.

Next we went somewhere where we didn’t belong. Or at least, the corporate powers that be didn’t want us to be there. We stopped off at a mountaintop removal sight that had been “reclaimed.” Reclaimed to us is a dirty word. A curse. To them it is a convenient way of saying “we don’t care about what we did.” The land was patched with scrubby bushes. A bit of grass poked through some wet, concrete-like dirt. A pond at the bottom of the hill held a reservoir of sediment, sludge, and rainwater. I picked up a little piece of coal, fallen off a retreating coal truck some time past. Or maybe little random pieces of coal are just a part of this landscape. I think about putting it in my pocket, a memento of this tremendous occasion. I drop it. It rolls among some leftover gravel from the road out of this hell hole. I’m already trespassing and I can’t even bring myself to take a piece of left behind coal. The corporate powers that be have more of a hold on my than I thought.

We take a hike to see Bad Branch Falls. The path begins by being deceptively easy. I’m not quite out of shape, but I’m not an athlete either. The path goes over a stream. Then up a hill. Then way up the hill. I think about falling. I focus on each step. As long as I know where I’m putting my foot next I’ll be okay. Focus. I look up. There’s a waterfall in front of me. Old water pours from a place far above. I can’t go closer to the water. My legs are still shaking from the exertion. I stop and think and listen. The water is telling us something. Something about ourselves. The water is where we came from, after all. What can we learn from listening?

We make our way back down from the falls. It is time to settle in for the night, so we travel to Hindman Settlement School where a dormitory has been prepared for us. Not many people are there, but the sight of historical buildings and a pretty stream is welcoming after a long day in the packed van.

I hike again that night. This time in flats and a skirt. Brambles pull at the fabric and leave snags. I go on anyway. At one point I have to scramble up the shear side of the hill, hoping the slick souls of my shoes don’t send me plummeting to my death. I’m a bit dramatic about such things. The brambles would have embraced me first. I clamber up another rock. The sun is resting atop the mountain across from us. The gentle breeze rustles Fall’s few remaining leaves in the branches high above us. We settle on a log and listen. The light fades and the valley sinks into darkness. A car pulls in the drive of the house below us. Home for the night.

We too go home, back to the dormitory.

I’ve lived in Kentucky my whole life. Kentucky is my home. Map boundaries and ridgelines may keep people apart, and they may be used as political lines of power, but my understanding of home is beginning to transcend them. I’m beginning to glimpse a life lived as if every tree and every mountaintop is home. Every breeze and every waterfall is a whisper to remember where I came from and where I’m going. Every time I look out my window or make a trek through a field I’m reminded of all I have to live for and all that needs my protection. One trip into the great mountains of Appalachia did this for me. What might it do for you?

By: Annette Dangerfield

Ecological Design Resident

Berea College Class of 2016

Reduce, Reuse, Rethink

Foopinion-why-we-need-dark-skies_69541_600x450ur years ago my family and I were living out the “normal” economic life so many Americans are accustomed to. Our lives hinged upon our income in a near perfect balance of inflow and outflow. Few things crossed our mind in the way of global impacts. We were not aware of the US’ reputation of burning 20% of the world’s energy with only 5% of the world’s population. We were unaware of rising acidity levels in the ocean and the massive oxygen deficient dead zones off of many coasts. We knew nothing of the melting permafrost and subsequent methane and carbon dioxide releases that contribute to global climate change, and we had no idea that there was a massive island of trash in the Pacific Ocean. Any efforts we made to save energy came not from a will to save the environment, but as a financial practicality.

Life changes.

In the years that would come, our lives would be turned upside down. Happiness would no longer be tied to amount of our financial income, but rather the everyday appreciation of good health, opportunities to learn, and ability to help others. But it hasn’t been an easy road. As our understanding of economics, social justice and environmental justices grew, so did our understanding of the larger picture and the future our children, indeed all children, would come to face. The dirty energy we are burning and releasing into the air, the poisonous legacy of product production and disposal, the promise of climate change and food emergencies with it, all now weigh heavily on our minds.

We are no longer ignorant of the suffering throughout our world caused by the global economy. We think of the workers making 31¢ per hour or less, and the families living downwind or downstream of factories where little regard is given to environmental. We know about the thousands who died in Union Carbide’s Bhopal disaster. We know our customs and culture is not taking future generations into mind, and we know the term it goes by—intergenerational tyranny.

Today, we live a different lifestyle. We managed to reduce our wants and to find happiness in fulfilling our simple needs. We have cut our consumptive lifestyles by two-thirds, reducing our energy use, our water use, and our waste output. We strive to become even more efficient. Those resources we continue to use are not done in vain. We are, at least, using them to work towards a better future. Will you join us?

There are so many ways you can help. First, educate yourself in the problems and the fixes. There are many great resources both here at Berea College and through the internet. Take courses. Learn about ecological design, permaculture, and social injustices. Educate others. Learn to live without and find freedom out from under debt. Sometimes the things that seem most impossible to do without can give way to new, better, and more fulfilling ways of doing things.

Keep a check on the SENS Department Facebook page for various tips and tricks, and stay tuned here for updates as well.
Nick Mullins works as an outreach coordinator for the Berea College SENS department. He and his wife Rustina are both non-traditional students attending Berea College and live with their two children on a small farm outside of Berea.

Fall Aquaponics Harvest Concludes

With the recent harvest of 120 Nile tilapia, the Aquaponics Facility wrapped up its fall (September – November) harvest schedule. During this period, 465 pounds of Nile tilapia and 200 pounds of vegetables (basil, tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, cabbage, kohlrabi, bak choi) were produced for local consumption.


Cabbage and kohlrabi harvested from the aquaponics facility for Thanksgiving dinner

Cabbage and kohlrabi harvested from the aquaponics facility for Thanksgiving dinner

The facility will overwinter about 500 tilapia and 27 channel catfish with the next fish harvest scheduled for spring. There are four age groups of tilapia, so there will be successive harvests as each cohort reaches harvest size. Vegetable production will continue through the winter with the floating raft units planted with basil, lettuce and other greens. We hope to grow some micro-greens using a technique developed by our friends at FoodChain ( in Lexington.


A satisfied customer with two of the tilapia harvested in November

A satisfied customer with two of the tilapia harvested in November

The aquaponics facility has labor positions open for summer 2015 and fall 2015. If you would like to grow good food in a sustainable fashion, give us a shout.

The Price of Convenience

By: Nick Mullins


Red Onion Mountain – Head of Georges Fork

The last of the leaves cling to the trees, waiting to be pulled down by the next front passing through with gusts of wind and cold November rain. Everything seems normal until the sound of an air horn breaks through the peace of the hollow, signaling to the strip miners above that a blast is about to occur. The longest horn blast is ended by a tremendous rumble, shaking the ground and sending dust into the air. There is a pause in equipment movement as the shift change takes place and the evening crew begins their work.

Night seldom comes anymore. Looking to the ridge from our home, 4,000 watt diesel engine powered light towers burn into the sky. The night air settles down upon the valley, and with it the sound of bulldozers revving their massive engines, the clacking of their heavy steel tracks, and the incessant beeping when they go into reverse after each push of soil goes into a valley fill.

Meanwhile the water from our spring has turned orange, fed by the aquifer that has been drilled into and blasted by the coal company. They work to dissect the mountain, revealing its insides to the open air in the pursuit of coal and profits.

The coal they extract is loaded onto a coal truck, taken to a cleaning facility, and shipped by train to various destinations. Some ends up in the furnaces of power plants, generating electricity for millions of people. Some coal goes to steel mills to create the metals that build the modern conveniences of the world. The citizens who use the energy or steel created from coal, often know little of the consequences. The word “sustainable” is seldom heard except from the occasional “liberal,” as are other words such as “global climate change.”

But to me, it is an important word, one we must all learn if our children are to have a healthy future. We are making too many messes that cannot be cleaned up. So long as we continue to want our conveniences and materialistic happiness at bargain basement prices, we will continue perpetuating the industries who wish to make a profit from the extraction of resources and creation of pollutants. More mountain springs will turn acidic, more rivers will become poison, and more air will be dangerous for children to breath.

Sustainability is not only a means to solve these problems-it can be a way to find our happiness again. It means finding simplicity and reducing the stresses being placed upon us by society’s view of success. It is planting a seed and watching nature sustain us, not picking up boxes of “food” from a shelf beneath fluorescent lights. It is finding our way out of the maze of financial dependence we have become lost within.

SENS Aquaponics Fall Tilapia Harvest

Cooler fall nights indicate that it is time to close down the outdoor plant raft units at the aquaponics facility. The system will operate through the winter with the raft units inside the greenhouse. This means that we have to harvest some of our tilapia in order to keep our fish (and fish food inputs) in balance with the reduced raft area.


Kailey Burns works on decommissioning the outside plant raft units for the winter.

Kailey Burns works on decommissioning the outside plant raft units for the winter.

Sixty-seven Nile tilapia were harvested with a total weight of 139 pounds, an average weight of just over two pounds per fish. Some of the whole fish were sold on the spot, while others were de-headed, gutted and scaled for use by the SENS House residents or given to a lucky few Ecovillage residents.


From left to right, Caleb Krebs, Fred Gonzales, and Kailey Burns process some of the harvested tilapia.

From left to right, Caleb Krebs, Fred Gonzales, and Kailey Burns process some of the harvested tilapia.

The now fishless rearing tank number 1 (one of four 2000-gallon rearing tanks) will become home to our youngest group of blue tilapia when they outgrow the nursery tank in a few weeks.

tilapia harvest 012

Preservation Mania

It’s that time of year again- when you’re garden has hooked it up big time and you’re swimming in a glorious bounty of [insert prolific garden treat here].


Flowering okra; some of the last of the season

And some little voice is saying, “you better do something with all this food!”

(please seek help if you do not hear this voice)

So the edible landscape gardeners here at the SENS department have had their hands full of course- canning, jamming, pickling, juicing, drying while simultaneously sending plants off to compost heaven that have given us all that they could… and letting them know that their legacies are in the pantry.  Also not to be insensitive but wondering what shall go in their place?


Canning tomatoes and salsa!

Still in the process of organizing data- I’m sure you guys are dying to know varieties and their yields and amounts preserved. We’re working on it, I promise.


Grape harvest and resulting juice

Trying to figure out the most welcoming environment for a fall garden- I am considering writing a children’s book about crop rotation… because I think it would be really helpful… ya know- for kids who are gardening, not senior agriculture majors who should know what they are doing by now. We have a few starts to put in the ground- kale, mustards and cabbage oh my! We will be direct seeding some other stuff and certainly putting in cover crops after those heavy feeders to rebuild the soil.


We will keep you posted.

Enjoy the photos!


Soil lead levels on the Berea College campus

SENS professor and environmental chemist Paul Smithson and his research students have been sampling surface soils around campus buildings, and measuring their lead content. Lead levels are generally low, but some older buildings that were at one time painted with lead-based paint have fairly high lead levels in the soil near the foundations. Estimates of hazard levels vary, but anything over 400 parts per million is cause for some concern. It is encouraging that only a few campus samples exceeded this level.

SENS Aquaponics Harvest in Full Gear

During the past two weeks, Aquaponics Managers Caleb Krebs and Kailey Burns have harvested 94 pounds of hydroponically-grown tomatoes, basil and peppers from the SENS Aquaponics Facility. A combination of aquaculture and hydroponics, the Aquaponics Facility raises several varieties of tilapia and channel catfish along with a dozen types of vegetables and herbs.

Water from the fish tanks flows through plant raft units where the fish waste provides nutrients for the plants while the plants help to clean the water for return to the fish tanks. This recirculating aquaponics system provides great efficiency in the use of water and nutrients for the production of high-quality protein and vegetables in a compact system suitable for urban agriculture.

Caleb and Kailey with their harvest

Caleb and Kailey with their harvest

We currently have about 700 fish ranging from two-ounce fingerlings to three-pounders. The system operates properly by balancing the amount of fish (and therefore fish waste and nutrients) with the area of plant production. As we shut down our outside raft units for the winter, we will need to reduce our fish populations proportionately.

We will be holding our first fall fish harvest Saturday September 13. We offer to members of the Berea community whole fish, one to two plus pounds each, harvested that morning, chill-killed, and available for pick-up between 9am and 11am. The price is $3/pound live weight.  Fish must be pre-ordered with payment at time of pick up based on the weight of your fish. Bring a cooler or other container to carry your fish with some ice (provided).

To order fish, contact, 985-3593. Orders must be received by noon Friday September 12.

Better in Berea

Here at Berea College we’re getting back into the swing of things as the Fall Semester gets underway. I can’t speak for everyone, but this is one of my busiest semesters yet. But you can hardly go to Berea without being busy. There are classes and homework and labor and sports and volunteering and hanging out with friends and going to events and and and… Cue deep breathing. But at the heart of it all, and at the heart of each student that goes to Berea College, is a desire to be better; a yearning born of less-than-ideal situations growing up and continually exasperated by too few funds. But here at Berea, there’s no lack of opportunities, even if we can’t engage all of them.

One of those opportunities is making new friends. You say, yes of course it is. I say, maybe it’s a little more important than you might think. Here at the SENS House we’re learning a lot about community by living like a community. We share resources, time, energies, we talk to each other about our days, we ask for help on things when we need it. It’s not always a perfect situation. It rarely ever is. But just being in proximity to someone and sharing those experiences of everyday living and truly engaging with other human beings is a challenging but rewarding thing. And it’s a kind of social capital, one that we often forget to cash in on. Having those kinds of connections mean much more than having money in the bank, though. It means you have people to help you out when you need it, people that you can care for when they need it, and people to share your passions with; and when many people’s passions are in alignment that’s a beautiful thing, one that we often think of as cooperation.

I once heard that there are many neighborhoods but not many communities. My challenge to you is to think about where you spend the most time (i.e., your neighborhood), whether it be in the classroom, or your residential halls, apartments, or homes, and consider ways to make that space into a community. Also, consider ways that you can be a part of the greater community. Berea College offers many ways to engage in activities that provide benefits to people other than yourself, (i.e., volunteering) and the city of Berea is making great strides in providing more ways for community members to have active involvement in the way things are done. And, if you accept these challenges, you might find that accomplishing them is easier than you think. Make a new friend in your dorm and head out to First Friday Berea together. Go to a Sustainable Berea Monthly Meeting with people from one of your classes. Visit a new church and learn about the people there. Hike the Pinnacle with some friends and make it into a service project by picking up the trash other people have left behind. Get involved with Berea’s Fairness movement. Find out where you belong and make a place for yourself there, because when hard times hit you’re going to need the kind of support that only comes from a community.