"This Old Camp" Goes Green

by Gary Forster

Giving Kids a Natural World of Good — Second in a Series of Six Articles

 

Once upon a time, many youth camps in the United States were examples of sustainable, low-impact design and operation. Sites were seasonal, utilized only during the "sturdiest" summer season, and allowed to "rest and recuperate" throughout the balance of the year. Facilities, from simple cabins to grand dining halls, were made with local materials — logs, milled wood, and stone. Food was purchased from local farmers; there were no paper or plastic disposables (the campers took turns washing the dishes); and the food waste (which is considerable when using fresh vegetables) was fed to farm animals.

Yet in the modern camp era (since the 1950s), our efforts to be more "efficient" in the use of our sites, we have stretched our seasons, often to year round. The land no longer is allowed to rest; in fact it's tromped on during its most fragile times in late winter and spring.

The facilities that once lasted for decades with little repair are now used year round with less than perfect supervision. Repairs are often put off until major damage has occurred and completed by inexperienced or unsupervised staff with poor quality materials and inadequate tools.

I know all this because I've seen it. Heck, I've DONE it. I'm trying to learn from my mistakes — and I'm learning from the successes of others. Excuses are easy to come by. It's time we held each other responsible for finding solutions.

Do as I Say, Not as I Do

Many of us got into camping because of a love for the outdoors. Yet today, we often use our lack of funding to rationalize our abysmal environmental practices. Young staff can't get their supervisors to change because the "veterans" have seen so many things tried and failed before. And then there's always the lack of money. Always.

Green Can Pay

Well, enough excuses. If our real goal is to build character in kids, we need to be good examples. What if we just create one new level of analysis for our decision making? Let's not rush into anything quickly (Like the first time you installed "low-flow" toilets? Still paying for that mistake, aren't you?) Let's force ourselves to examine not just the immediate costs, but the life-cycle costs of our decisions. In many cases, we will find we can make environmentally sound choices, teach kids important lessons, and even save money.

Lighting

Your mom probably told you to turn off the lights when you left the room. Mom was right. So first off, we need to set a good example. Here's a case where doing the right thing also has an immediate financial payback. Then we make it easier for kids and staff by using timed light switches (twist the knob) and motion-sensor switches wherever possible. At the same time, eliminate as many inefficient light bulbs as possible. Camps are often filled with incandescent screw-in bulbs and floodlights. By replacing them with high-efficiency compact fluorescent bulbs, you can save 80 percent on electricity and replace bulbs only one-fifth as often. But do your research — pick bulbs that give a nice quality of light and buy attractive bulbs for high-profile locations.

Night security lighting is important but can ruin the ambiance of camp. Don't jump at the typical Mercury-vapor street lights. Consider high-pressure sodium lights that have a warm golden glow and focus all of their light on the ground and not in your eyes. Try solar-powered lights in locations where they get enough daylight to charge. (They work great hung from posts.) Try low-voltage "garden lighting" systems. They use less energy, the bulbs are long-lasting, and they don't require an electrician to install. (They work very well with photo-voltaic-charged 12-volt battery systems!)

Daylight is the cheapest light, yet we don't use it often enough. In addition to having to pay for the electricity for lights, you also have to put up with the excess heat in the summer. A terrific solution is installing "Solar Tubes" through the roof. They cost less than $300 each, are well insulated, and don't add a summer heat load. Yet, they brighten up even a dark back bathroom.

When you're designing a new building or replacing old windows, consult a book on solar orientation. South is the most efficient side for windows. (East and west-facing windows create too high a heat gain; north often takes the brunt of winter weather). The trick to making southern windows work year round is the appropriate overhang. When the summer sun is high in the sky, the overhang prevents the direct sunlight from entering the windows and overheating the building. During the winter, the low-angled sun comes in under the overhang and the solar gain is welcome.

Making Wise Choices

On the Floor
Carpet is surprisingly functional for camps. It makes falling in cabins less traumatic; it makes floors feel cleaner and warmer to bare feet on a cold morning; and greatly improves the acoustics of meeting rooms. And the price tag looks cheap on a square-foot basis (especially when you forget to add in the installation costs, and forget how much scrap there is). But cheap carpet wears out fast and looks bad even faster. Some innovative companies (www.interfaceflooring.com, as an example) have come up with a solution — large commercial carpet squares made with recycled materials and beautiful patterns like "Nature Trail" that hide wear and spills that are directly glued-down with water-born adhesives. If one tile starts to look worn-out near the door, swap it with one under a bunk. After many years of use, the carpet can be sent back to the manufacturer to be separated and completely recycled.

In the Kitchen
The camp kitchen seems like a great place to start being conservation-minded, but before we start asking our cooks to do more work, maybe we can show we care by making their life more comfortable in their too-hot kitchen. First, generate as little heat as possible. Keep ovens and warmers turned off whenever not in use. Install timers to start the warmers in the morning. Only run the dishwasher when necessary. Next, get rid of the extra heat at its source — make sure the oven hood vent is clean and operating, add a vent hood for the dishwasher. Cut in some new windows to let in cool air and create a peaceful view. Plant some trees to create shade nearby.

Using Water
Water use is high at camps (and mothers of eight-year-old shower-phobic boys wish it was even higher!). Showers, clothes washers, and toilets are the heavy users. And just as caulk is the first and best way to conserve heat, stopping leaks and drips is the first way to save water.

Replace worn faucet washers in sinks and showers, and replace worn-out fixtures with washerless units. Keep aerator screens clean in faucets, and replace them when they go missing. And buy new shower heads. Grab a five-gallon pail, and run your showers for sixty seconds to see how much they use now. The current ANSI Standard is 2.5 gallons per second for a shower head. Look for that flow rate when you buy new ones. For as little as $8 each you can have shower heads that save water, feel good, and are easy to keep clean.

Water-saving toilets got a bad name when they first came out — and for good reason. Their interior traps were poorly designed, so they often clogged. Most of that problem has been solved with the toilets available today, so don't hesitate to replace them one more time to get it right.

Clothes washers are a huge waste of water. Consider providing high-efficiency washers for all staff residences. (They save water, energy, and septic capacity all at once. I've seen more septic fields fail when a young camp couple has their first child because of the increase in clothes washing!)

With Camp Vehicles
We use too much gasoline, usually because we drive when we don't have too, and we don't plan ahead to make the best use of our vehicles when we really do need to drive. First, find some good alternatives to driving. Garden carts to transport things around camp (much better to slosh bug-juice in a garden cart than in the front seat of your camp car!). Have bicycles to loan to staff for their days off. Use golf carts to transport maintenance staff. (But avoid using them for program staff, so they have more opportunities to walk with kids to activities.) Buy camp vehicles for their fuel efficiency, not for their looks. (A Toyota Prius or a Ford Escape Hybrid has the same number of seats as a Ford Explorer, but use one-third and one-half as much gas, respectively.)

Try Composting
Yes, it's a good idea. But you need to have buy-in from everyone involved, and you have to create a system that makes it easy to do the right thing every day. Mechanically stirred composting "tubs" quickly make soil from waste, and their purchase might be sponsored or subsidized by your state environmental groups. But even low-tech compost piles can work well if you have a good source of "roughage" (sawdust and/or wood chips) and a way to turn it (front-loader on a tractor or bobcat).

What makes for a system that works? Clearly labeled, sturdy plastic waste cans with easy-to-use lids, enough room to have all three, "compost," "trash," and "recyclables" in key areas and a specific person whose responsibility it is to take them to the compost and recycling areas every day — and a place to immediately wash them out for re-use.

Got Horses? Have you created a "Manure Management Plan"? Your local county extension office will be happy to help, and you'll end up protecting your ground water and making good compost at the same time.

Heating

If you talk about saving money from energy efficiency, most people think about saving money on heat, and that means more insulation, right? That's usually not the most important thing you can do. Heat loss comes from several sources. For most camp buildings, here (in order) are the areas of biggest loss, and what you can do about it:

  1. Temperature differential from inside to outside
    Remedy: set-back thermostats that automatically turn the heat down at night and when a building isn't in use. Heard the one about "we keep it high because it takes more heat to bring the temperature back up than we'd save by turning it down?" Junk science. Heat is heat, and if the furnace isn't running as much, you're saving energy.
  2. Air infiltration (wind blowing through cracks)
    Remedy: Caulk every crack. Weatherstrip every window and door. Install automatic door closers.
  3. Convection and radiation out through the ceiling (poor ceiling insulation)
    Remedy: add some more fiberglass or cellulose. It's cheap and easy in attics (but be careful to keep a ventilation space under your roof).
  4. Single-pane windows
    Remedy: vinyl replacement windows will never need painting, and if they have "low e" glass and good weather-stripping, you save energy.
  5. Inefficient furnace and leaky un-insulated ducts
    Remedy: clean and seal or replace the ducts, and service or replace the furnace.
  6. Poorly insulated walls
    Remedy: do it right the first time, because it's so expensive to tear walls apart to add it later. And NEVER insulate a wall without a plastic vapor barrier on the warm side of the wall (up north that means right behind the interior paneling or drywall).
  7. Un-insulated foundation walls and floors
    Remedy: real tough to do after the fact. Make sure it's done right on new buildings, with 2 inches of foam under any concrete floor.

Buildings

When you repair old buildings or build new ones, the mantra "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" could be a good goal statement. With proper planning, some of your most high impact decisions will be how to get rid of your demolition materials and construction scraps. Careful separation of waste can yield lumber that can be used again — saving the purchase price, the delivery price, the trash-hauling cost, landfill space, and the life of another tree! That makes getting the proper tools for removing nails a good investment!

Old sheetrock can be sent off site to be recycled or even ground up to enrich your own compost and soil. Metal can be recycled. Toxic materials can be carefully disposed of.

When it comes to specifying new materials, think "green" and "big picture." Sure, vinyl floors are inexpensive at first. But where did that vinyl come from and how much will it cost you to maintain it (cleaners, wax, stripper, hours of labor) and finally dispose of it. Consider using real linoleum (an agricultural byproduct) or ceramic tile made from glazed and fired clay. Ceramic tile requires only sweeping and mopping, won't shrink like vinyl tile if it's not waxed and buffed, will last for decades, and can be crushed into stone if it's ever removed.

If you make sure you have a two-foot or larger roof overhang all around your buildings, your siding and paint and windows and doors will all last decades longer. Composite decking (made with recycled plastic and wood fibers) can last for decades without needing the yearly treatment of wood preservatives that even pressure-treated lumber requires. Cement-fiber siding (like "Hardi-Plank") holds paint for twice as long as wood, is fireproof, dent-proof, contains no glues like plywood or OSB, and doesn't require the cutting of old-growth forests .

The Past is Prologue . . . (and this is an epilogue!)

There's a lot of good that you can do around a camp, but you can multiply it hundreds of times over if your campers, parents, and guests could go home understanding how they, too, could change their habits at home. That's where interpretation comes in. I chose that word because it shows the subtle difference between respectful education and a demeaning lecture. Which do you think would have the better long-term impact on campers? Removing all meat from your camp menu and telling your campers "because eating meat is bad," or hiring vegetarian staff and providing them with very attractive vegetarian options, so that kids not only ask to try them, but intently listen when the counselor says the reason they don't eat meat has to do with their healthy lifestyle, their hope for more respectful treatment of animals, and a desire to tread more softly on the planet by using just a fraction of the resources that eating meat consumes.

How about a camp mission statement that you share with all your guests, that includes environmental responsibility — perhaps, small logo-coordinated plaques in all bathrooms that describe your efforts to conserve water, paper, heat, and light? Describe how these things work, and where you can get the resources to do it at home. I visited the Sleeping Lady Conference Center east of Seattle, Washington. In each room there is a sign that proudly lists the seventeen eco-friendly decisions the center made in design and operation. Suddenly things I originally thought puzzling made sense, and I set out tso see examples of every one (including the sod roof on the pool filter room and the organic garden and greenhouse). I'd been invited to get involved, and I felt better for it.

In addition to being a camp director since 1975, Gary Forster has a degree in architecture from Kent State University, and has worked with camps all around the country to design new camp facilities, and fix up "This Old Camp." He's currently the camping specialist with the YMCA of the USA. Contact him at gary.forster@ymca.net.

Originally published in the 2005 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.

 

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