UM FLAT house is the beginning of what University of Montana students hope will become an ecovillage dedicated to sustainable living. It’s an innovative project, akin to the Living City Block project afoot in Denver.

First envisioned 4 years ago in 2007, the house run by the University of Montana Forum for Living with Appropriate Technology involves students in greening college housing on 5th and 6th Streets East in Missoula. Despite the university’s long-range plans to demolish those blocks and replace them with new buildings, the students are putting up solar panels, renovating buildings, monitoring their energy use, and planting a permaculture garden. All the while, they are gaining experience relevant to their major in environmental studies.

It seems like a win-win situation to me. If the university doesn’t rebuild those blocks, then the increased energy efficiency of UM FLAT will save it money in the long term. If it does, it has still saved some money, done what it does best—teach students—and given students a free place to live in exchange for donating their skills to this project.

The first student to live at UM FLAT, Derek, moved in sometime in January 2009 after nearly two years of planning. He no longer lives there. Six students live in this house and the blue house in the back, including co-directors Micah Sewell and Kate Sheridan. Todd interviewed Kate on video while I took these pictures.

In this post I conduct a tour of the property, giving you a taste of what’s going on at UM FLAT. We didn’t spend much time inside the house, although we were intrigued by the small energy monitor that gives real-time data on energy use. Kate said drying clothes makes energy use spike, which explains the clothesline in the garden.

That gate on the left in the picture above leads to this permaculture garden, first planted in May 2009. A permaculture garden is laid out to mimic natural shapes, so its beds curve or swell or come to a point as the site dictates. Also, permaculture gardens are not tilled; compost is laid on top of last year’s garden to imitate the process of leaves or pine needles falling to the ground, slowly decomposing, and enriching the soil.

As you can see, the lettuce (on the right) is bolting, but the kale (in the middle behind the lettuce), Kate’s favorite vegetable, was in fine form. In this view we’re looking toward the extensive compost bins. If only the compost pile in my old house in Broomfield had been this nice!UM FLAT, Beth Partin's photos, compostAnd if we turn around here and look back the way we came, here’s what it looks like:permaculture garden, UM FLATThe garden has an extensive drip irrigation system.Beth Partin's photos, permaculture garden UM FLATAnd if you follow the paths past the clothesline in the picture below, you’ll find the other house on the property and the renovated garage, which Kate said they hope to turn into a classroom.I know it probably seems like I’m trying to get every possible garden picture into this post, but perhaps it’s because I miss my old garden in Broomfield. The garden was very impressive, but so was the garage. UM FLAT, Beth Partin's photos, sustainable livingIf you go to the Garage Renovation page on the UM FLAT site, you’ll find lots of pictures and more details than I can include here. Students from the School of Architecture and the School of Technology’s carpentry program helped redesign and rebuild the garage. One thing I learned from that page was that the shingles you see here are actually the original shingles, but they’ve been removed, turned around, put back on, and refinished. I think that’s cool.

Currently, the residents and other students are working to complete the interior. On one side of the garage, a straw-bale wall was built, and now it’s being covered with cob (a mixture of clay, sand, straw, water and earth).cob walls, straw-bale insulationThe opposite wall was insulated with 4 inches of cellulose (shredded paper mixed with fire retardant); another 18 inches of cellulose went underneath the roof. cellulose insulation, UM FLATThe combination of superinsulation and highly efficient windows and doors helps maintain a comfortable temperature in the garage, and most of the materials are easy to obtain. The students hope to use this building to demonstrate to Missoulians that their homes and offices can be renovated to a high standard of energy efficiency.

As we exited the garage, Kate told us about the process of getting funding for the solar panels on the main house. The small panel in the garden on the right was the demonstration panel they built before getting the grants. The panels were installed this spring.UM FLAT solar panels, solar technology, Beth Partin's photosAt the end of the interview, we walked back to the main house to pack up our gear. The front room is cozy, with the pellet stove that keeps everyone warm in the winter (off the left side of the photo), and the shelves that one of the residents built to hold the copies of National Geographic he found on Craigslist. Whatever happens to the ecovillage project at the University of Montana, and the neighborhood in which it began, I hope that the idea of making entire blocks sustainable will be expanded to entire neighborhoods and cities. Everyone who lives in the UM FLAT house or participates in one of its sustainability projects learns skills that can be taught to friends and family and coworkers. It’s a great way to spread knowledge of sustainable living with appropriate technology.

Check out the UM FLAT website.

Living City Block’s website has a summary of why it’s good to retrofit existing buildings and how such retrofits might be done to scale.

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  1. […] I’m pleased to present to you the first video from the “12 Cities, 1 Year” series.  The narrator and host of the video is Kate Sheridan, who is co-director of the project.  She’s also one of the residents.  For more information on the UM FLAT, see Beth’s article about it, with photos. […]

  2. […] be interviewed at the UM FLAT house. She told us about the students who contribute their skills to live sustainably at UM FLAT; this old blog post has a lot of pictures from that house, garage, and garden, and Todd recently finished editing a UM […]