There was nothing particularly notable about California University of Pennsylvania’s old dormitories. They were cramped, sure, but many colleges have old and cramped dorms – and those institutions manage to fill them each fall.
Not so at California. By the late 1990s, dorms were nowhere near capacity, as many younger students opted for off-campus rentals. Enrollment began to sag, and outdated dorms were a contributing factor, said Angelo Armenti Jr., who just finished his 15th year as president of the public institution.
“Demographics in this part of the world have been described as dismal,” Armenti said. “Western Pennsylvania is economically depressed, and the population is declining in most counties. In order for us to be viable and thrive, we need to attract students from farther away. We see attractive housing as one competitive advantage.”
In the seven years since the university began demolishing its six old residence halls, full-time equivalent enrollment has risen from roughly 5,100 to 7,000 students. The past several years have seen 8 to 10 percent annual growth. Armenti credits some of that surge to the five -- and soon-to-be six -- new eco-friendly dorms, all of which are slated to be at capacity.
Come fall, when the final of the six new residence halls opens, about 2,200 students will live in university housing, Armenti expects. The bed count is up, and the number of students per bathroom -- an important ratio for undergraduates these days -- is down. No student shares a bathroom facility with more than three others in the new halls and most share with one other person; a far cry from the previous double-digit norm.
Bathroom access wasn't the only motivating factor, or the most important, behind the dorm overhaul. Armenti said the new residence halls will use two-thirds the amount of energy as did the former collection, and he estimates the university will save at least $600,000 a year in energy costs. Colleges across the country are taking similar steps  to construct green buildings and make green pledges -- and they aren't shy about promoting their new projects.
California's dorms are using renewable energy in the form of a geothermal heating system. In the warmer months, when air conditioning is used, excess heat from the buildings is stored in the ground water. When winter comes, the system runs in reverse, and the heat comes from the ground and back into the buildings. Heat isn't wasted, Armenti said.
The university also has installed an energy-saving system that controls the air flow inside the buildings. Each dorm window has a magnetic switch so that when a student opens it, the air conditioning automatically shuts off.
Ian Griffiths, sustainability coordinator for the architecture and engineering firm Berners-Schober Associates, which didn't work on this project, said he is seeing geothermal become more popular for residence halls, although California's efforts still put the college in limited company of colleges taking on global warming with all dormitories.
“If you have the right characteristics, geothermal is a good way to go,” Griffiths said. "But a lot depends on the type of campus and the type of soil."
Generally, colleges whose buildings are surrounded by green space are the best candidates for geothermal. Griffiths said because installation costs can be high, the system isn't well-suited for many institutions.
California drilled 150 wells and dug 400 feet deep to install the piping for its first three new dorms. As a result, it invested about $1 million into the project. Armenti said it took less than three years for the college to receive a full payback on its geothermal investment.
No state money was used to finance the project, according to the president. Financing was coordinated by California University's Student Association, Inc. , a nonprofit corporation owned largely by the university's students. The costs of the entire project, including the fees paid to the developer, contractor and investment banking firm, came from bond proceeds.
The nonprofit ends up as the owner of the halls until the bonds are paid off, at which time California takes over ownership. The expectation, Armenti said, is for profits to come to the university gradually. Money it receives will go toward creating scholarship endowments.