Rhodes Scholar's 'Goofy' Ideas Slashed Energy Costs at College House in Half

Washington Post

Lucas Brown, who grew up in Leesburg and is a senior at Oberlin College in Ohio, worked on a project called a SEED (Student Experiment in Ecological Design) house. He and his roommates devised unusual ways to cut energy costs while they were living in the house.

Brown, 22, was cited for his environmental activism last year when he won a Rhodes Scholarship, which he will use to study at Oxford University. In an interview with loudounextra.com reporter Charity Corkey, he talked about the SEED house and the Rhodes Scholarship, which is awarded to 32 Americans annually.

Q Tell us about the SEED house you co-founded with two other Oberlin students.

A We had been working in New Orleans together, gutting flood-damaged houses and talking about how global warming could be leading to these more devastating hurricanes, and we wanted to take control of our carbon emissions. We wanted to do something personally.

So we came back to campus and started working on designing and financing a renovation to a college-owned house. After a couple of years, we moved in, but a lot of the budget had gotten used just making sure the house met safety codes. It's very old. So, with hardly any money for green features, we had to improvise, and ended up making a lot of small, simple, quirky lifestyle changes that slashed our energy bills in half.

And because our green techniques were pretty goofy, most people in our tour groups and church workshops get excited about bringing the fun stuff home.

What were some of the techniques and features you developed to save energy?

The house is a duplex, so we have two identical sides and a good amount of friendly competition between them. We unplugged all of the kitchen appliances on one side of the house. When we unplugged the fridge on my side, I was grumpy about not having milk for morning coffee or ingredients to cook lunch. But it made us go to the other side of the duplex more often, so our community became closer, a completely unexpected and rewarding byproduct.

Last year, we kept a creepy picture of [former North Carolina senator] John Edwards above the shower to get people out of there quicker. We also have "shower clocks" filled with sand that remind us how long we've been showering. We recycle our sink water and use it to flush the toilet, and we have pet worms that compost our food. We usually try to study in the same room, so instead of using eight light bulbs, we use one.

A lot of people ask us what our house rules are, but we don't have any. Everyone has different needs, so we don't ban anyone from doing anything. Some people need longer showers, or it's important to them to get their hair dry. As one visitor commented, "You guys seem more eco-friendly than eco-fascist."

To date, who holds the record for shortest shower, and what was their time?

I think Andy Barnett, the marathon runner who lived in SEED last year, still holds the record at two minutes 15 seconds. We're talking about a full cleaning here, too -- you can't skip the shampoo and have it count. Andy is intense about everything.

How many students live in the SEED house? And are you still living there?

Eight students live there. It was a tough decision, but I decided to pass the torch and not live there this year. Those of us who founded it were worried about the transition once we graduated, and we wanted to be here on campus while the SEED house was becoming its own, independent organization.

What was your initial reaction when you found out you'd been selected as a Rhodes Scholar?

After all our interviews, the selection committee deliberated for a couple of hours while we watched football and played cards in the lounge next door. Then the chairperson invited us into the conference room, spoke briefly and read the two names.

I was totally stunned. I really didn't think I was at all qualified for a scholarship like this. I still thought they might have misspoken, but a lot of people were shaking my hand, and then there were only two of us left in the room, so it seemed to be a mistake they were sticking with.

Even now, I think I'm a little unqualified. When they published the biographies of the Rhodes Scholars, everyone had eight or 10 lines, and they really couldn't say that much about me, so one of my Loudoun friends calls me Short Paragraph. But my mom always said it's better to be lucky than good.

You've also conducted research for D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) on the city's job-training programs, helped design the Web site ilovemountains.org and lobbied Congress for environmental change. With all this experience, where do you see yourself in 10 years? What do you hope to accomplish?

I'd like to continue to work on environmental issues. Specifically, I'm interested in how we can join economic growth with environmental improvement, how we can create jobs while reducing the harm that environmental problems cause to people.

I've always been interested in helping people, and it's really the people I've met -- in New Orleans, in the coalfields of Appalachia -- that keep me motivated to work on environmental issues.

What projects will you work on when you join the other Rhodes Scholars in Oxford in October?

I'll start a master's degree in economics. That'll be my big project.

Although you have lived in Ohio for four years, you have been able to visit your home in Leesburg fairly regularly. When you move to Oxford, what will you miss about Loudoun County?

I'll miss the hills the most. When I'm driving home, I start to get excited once I get on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and the whole landscape turns into a series of rolling hills. But that's mostly an emotional response to other things I love about Loudoun -- my family and the laid-back, friendly culture.

How do you think that growing up in Loudoun -- where rural areas meet the suburbs -- has affected your viewpoint on the environment?

I'm not sure the increasing suburbs in Loudoun had too big of an impact on my environmental interest. I'm mostly interested in environmentalism for the people's lives that are at stake because of global warming, unhealthy air or polluted water.