The future of the Gibbs House is uncertain due to concerns over the need for repairs and renovations to the the structure combined with a declining budget for the Office of Sustainability. More than 600 people have signed a petition to address these concerns and save the Gibbs House Fellowship.
The Gibbs House and the surrounding agricultural area, now known as the Gibbs Permaculture Research & Demonstration Site, has been a prominent landmark on Western Michigan University’s campus since 1959 when the farm and house became the property of the University. The House was originally built in 1853 and is located near the Engineering College across from Asylum Lake.
The house has been home to the Gibbs House Fellowship for the last 18 years, which provides students the opportunity to live and work in the Gibbs House as a paid student-researcher. The house has been described as a “living laboratory” where WMU students can conduct projects and research centered around sustainable design. The tenants are tasked with the goal of caring for the house and creating and maintaining a cooperative and sustainable living community.
The Gibbs House Fellowship has been operated by the Office for Sustainability at WMU for the past nine years. However, the house is facing several issues that threaten its future viability and value.
“The overall budget of the Office for Sustainability has been declining over the years due to declining WMU enrollment,” said Jeff Spoelstra, the director of the Office for Sustainability at WMU.
“Collaborators who operate the Student Sustainability Grant Program recently agreed to increase the funding available for the Grant Program in order to meet increasing student demand for grants. The Office for Sustainability has had to reduce funding from other programs in order to increase funding for the Grant Program,” Spoelstra said.
Without much of a budget, individual research projects, which used to be a primary feature of the Gibbs House Fellowship, had to be discontinued.
In addition to the budget problem, the house is aging fast and in serious need of repair. Without major changes to the programming and structure, the fellowship and the house could both be lost.
The Gibbs House will likely not be open this upcoming school year so it can be cleaned, repaired, and reassessed. While the house is closed, The Office for Sustainability is planning on completing an inspection and assessment of the house for planning purposes. A team from the Office for Sustainability will tend to the 1-acre forest on-site through the growing season.
“We will continue to garden on the site and donate food to the WMU Invisible Needs Project, and we will provide student and volunteer engagement opportunities along the way,” said Spoelstra in response to the temporary closure of the house.
Although the outlook of the Gibbs House may seem bleak for now, not all hope is lost for this historical and cultural landmark. “We are just beginning to reach out to new and historic collaborators around WMU who we believe will take interest in supporting programming and upkeep of the house and site… We will explore fundraising opportunities and would love to ultimately endow the site, house, and programming. Other ideas will certainly emerge,” Spoelstra explained. Spoelstra added that some supporters of the house believe that increasing the rent and the number of tenants in the future will help the house’s cause.
A group of current and past team members from the Office of Sustainability have taken the issue into their own hands and created a petition on change.org to save the Gibbs House Fellowship. The group’s goal is to reinstate the Gibbs House for Environmental Research and Education by placing an emphasis on student-led research and restructure the program with sustainability in mind.
The petition proposes that four students and one sustainability coordinator live in the house full-time and for the house to demonstrate it can be economically self-sustaining.
“I am proud of their ask, which is to pull together supporters and design a sustainable long-term plan that is supported by the Office for Sustainability and other key WMU units,” said Spoelstra.
The group stays busy by writing and collecting testimonials, connecting with students and alumni, and reaching out to the community for support. Spoelstra is confident the testimonials of supporters will highlight the deep care for people and the planet the Gibbs House represents.
According to a memo put forth by Andrew McCabe, a junior engineering student and 2018-2019 Gibbs House fellow, over 600 people have signed the petition and announced their support of the fellowship.
“It is the end of this fellowship that will be a great loss to this university as well as to Kalamazoo as a whole,” said McCabe.
“The Gibbs House is a part of WMU’s history and legacy,” said Spoelstra. “As a whole, the site is already an outdoor classroom. Biodiversity is high and many species are marked with educational signs. The maturing food forest is delivering food now. The production and research areas are available for growing, regenerating tired soils, making and using compost, and conducting action research projects. The site is managed using integrated pest management practices.”
Although it may look a little messy or unorganized from the outside, Spoelstra and the entire Office for Sustainability believe it is important to understand how much life and healthy soil the area supports.
“Thousands of visitors, volunteers, and tour groups have invested time and love into the site over the years… The Gibbs House Community is strong,” said Spoelstra, who is very optimistic on the future of the house and the fellowship. The house expects to start accepting applications for the 2020-2021 school year in the spring of 2020 if improvements are able to be made.
The petition to save the Gibbs House Fellowship can be found at: https://www.change.org/p/wmu-administration-save-the-gibbs-house-fellowship.