There is no conversation more boring than the one where everybody agrees.
Volume 73 | Issue 3
May 2005

Campus Sustainability and Green Building: Design that makes sense for today and tomorrow

John Rossi & Josh DeFlorio

A century ago, with the world population under 700 million, the earth was considered by many to be infinitely resilient and endowed with boundless resources (McDonough & Braungart, 2002). Today, however, a series of high-profile ecological crises and declines, affecting nearly 7 billion people, have definitively shattered this Industrial Age misconception and forced us to reassess our trend of unchecked growth.

The statistics are staggering: In the United States, buildings account for an estimated 40 percent of our total energy consumption and 40 percent of our landfill waste (Mayor Menino’s Green Building Task Force, 2004). Americans use more than 5 billion gallons of purified water each day to flush toilets while less fortunate nations struggle to supply enough clean water for drinking (USGBC, 2003). Many carpets, paints, and sealants—a host of the most typical, seemingly mundane building and furnishing products—contain potentially harmful components: volatile organic compounds (VOCs), heavy metals, and other recognized carcinogens. And from 1982–92, prime farmland was subsumed by sprawl at the astounding rate of more than 1,000 acres every day (Kelly, 2004). Our environmental history has been, and in many aspects continues to be, altogether less than auspicious.

An emerging segment of the building industry, from owners to architects, engineers, and contractors, have recognized and embraced our shared responsibility to limit, eventually eliminate, and ultimately begin to reverse the harmful byproducts of physical growth. In many ways, colleges and universities are integral to, and often at the forefront of, this burgeoning effort to promote and achieve a more sustainable world. Colleges and universities, institutions often explicitly devoted to the search for truth and the betterment of humankind, are ideologically well situated to serve as a model for environmentally sustainable growth and operations. Traditional-age university students today are often empowered with idealistic beliefs and optimism about their place in the world (Howe & Strauss, 2003). Some students can be predisposed to a high level of environmental awareness (Wojtowicz, 1995), and it might follow that they would gravitate toward institutions that outwardly convey sound environmental practices through their physical campus and their course offerings. Sustainability is not simply a way of life, but can play an important role in the assessment of a campus by prospective students, parents, teachers, and faculty.

For instance, the University of Florida (2002), in converting a historic gymnasium to its Center for Women’s Study and Gender Research and citing the precedent of other institutions, recently determined that green building could create value as a “marketing tool for both research and student recruitment campaigns” (p. 19). In response, university officials resolved to emphasize their position as leaders in campus sustainability as a complement to student recruitment efforts. A factor in this decision was the recognition that many prospective students view sustainability as a direct signifier of progressive, “cutting edge educational and research programs with consequent increases in external funding” (University of Florida, 2002, p. 19).

As prospective students are confronted with an ever-greater range of choices, green campuses can be seen as yet another sought-after educational and lifestyle amenity. The University of Florida (2002) attached proper importance to sustainability and green building as likely contributors to an “improved quality of campus and community life” (p. 19). Most students, whether they actively care about sustainability, will implicitly recognize the qualitative improvements attendant with good sustainable design and planning. Attention to siting, light and air, and the affects of indoor finishes on human health, for example, may not be foremost on students’ minds as they tour the campus, but the combined affect, whether positive or negative, will inevitably contribute to their overall impression of campus.

Finally, the University of Florida (2002) also saw sustainability as an “integral tool for achieving world-class prominence” (p. 19). Just as prominence in academics or athletics can entice students (and parents) to choose one school over another, prominence through exemplary stewardship of the natural environment may begin to tip the scales in the near future. Given this potential shift in values and priorities, the University of Florida, along with dozens of peer institutions, has used sustainable features in campus building projects. All irrigation needs will be satisfied with filtered stormwater to avoid wasting potable water. Additionally, the existing parking lot will be replaced with a garden of drought-resistant native and adaptive plants, reducing stress on the irrigation system and significantly reducing the urban heat island effect.

Institutions that hesitate to make the commitment to sustainability—or who fail to properly market that commitment—may soon find that they have not succeeded in matching the perceived progress of their peers. Just as today a major institution can be considered deficient if it omits women’s or African-American studies from the academic curriculum—virtually nonexistent programs 50 years ago—the institution of tomorrow may find itself similarly disadvantaged if sustainability is not a visible part of campus culture. College unions, as the crossroads of campus life, are ideal candidates for not only the implementation of sustainable building features, but also for the central exhibition of an institution’s campus-wide environmental initiatives.

In reality, many institutions of higher learning have discovered that practicing sustainability can be fraught with fundamental complications. Most basically, many institutions have yet to establish a common definition of what sustainability means on their campus, create a framework for sustainable decision-making and prioritization, or formalize a campus-wide commitment to its implementation. As a result, questions often arise that cast the necessity, the cost, and the practice of sustainability into serious doubt.

A shared definition or general conception of sustainability is the essential cornerstone for meaningful discussion. The common temptation is to assign sustainability a relatively narrow domain. Energy efficiency, for instance, is a familiar and prized component of sustainability, but the terms are not synonymous. Intergenerational fairness—ensuring that our descendents enjoy the same opportunities and resources we take for granted today—is a phrase sometimes paired with sustainability that evokes the true broadness of the concept. For most of human history this was the norm—humankind, save in its largest agglomerations, typically lacked the capacity to deprive the next generation of farmland, timber, clean water, or clean air.

This concept is not the result of enlightened modern thought. A central belief of the Iroquois Confederacy stresses that we must consider future generations in all that we do, for the decisions we make and the actions we take today will still be felt seven generations from now. The Iroquois Constitution (n.d.) expressly instructs one to “look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground—the unborn of the future Nation” (A6 57). Today, this requires the conscientious management of our individual and collective consumption (of nonrenewable resources, land, and energy), and waste to avoid disadvantaging those who follow us.

For an architect, planner, or other building professional, sustainable practice translates to design that makes sense for today and tomorrow: Sustainable architecture is the ultimate form of user-friendly design. Designing a building, whether new construction or renovation, that admirably and cost-effectively fulfills its purpose today while respecting the world of tomorrow requires uncommon sensitivity—and rare expertise. To address this challenge, many design and construction firms have placed a strong emphasis on educating staff in the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) system. While the LEED initiative is hardly the first systematic effort to address sustainability in the building industry, it is the first to significantly expand the definition of green building (beyond energy efficiency and renewable energy) and achieve broad recognition in the United States.

LEED, while not flawless, presents a valuable framework of carefully chosen guidelines for sustainability. The institution, architect, and consultants set goals based on building program, design intent, budget, and—especially for academic institutions—desired social message, and then choose among 69 possible credits to attain a specific level of certification. The point system allows for flexibility in design approach and asset allocation while still enforcing a recognized standard of sustainability. The underlying wisdom of LEED can be implemented, in part or in whole, for any building project, whether it is formally registered, but making sustainable design integral in the early planning process is important to reap the greatest long-term benefits without significant added cost.

An institution of higher learning is ideally an incubator of innovation, unafraid to address persistent challenges with untried logic, and dedicated to the dissemination of knowledge. While a college must demonstrate reasonable fiscal prudence, risks, whether in the creation of a new or expanded department or in the form of new infrastructure and building upgrades, cannot be assessed solely on their financial merits. A university can occasionally invest in innovation without the guarantee of immediate financial reward.

Nonetheless, understanding the cost implications of green building is an essential aspect of obtaining project approval at any institution. Green building affects cost to some degree in every project phase. First cost, a project’s initial capital outlay, is the most commonly assessed dimension of project cost. Davis Langdon (2004), an international cost research group, determined that, based on a comparison of 138 projects, “There was no indication that the LEED-seeking (green) projects tended to be any more expensive than the non-LEED” (p. 19). Even as the group makes that determination, however, it acknowledges that the first costs of green building can be affected (and inflated) by location, the expertise and availability of local contractors, the climate, and, perhaps most importantly, the values and intents of the project team. Given the potential deviations of each of these factors, in addition to program, level of finish, and other features without direct relation to the sustainability directive, it becomes clear that an institution’s facilities department, architects, or engineers must take on the responsibility of advising all team members on issues of cost related to sustainability. Sustainability should not preclude growth or prosperity, but rather manage these factors by increasing efficiency, limiting excess, and reducing our environmental impact.

The assessment must not end with first costs, however. In a market where local architects and engineers are inexperienced with green projects, an increase in fee might serve to limit their exposure to unknown project dimensions or allow for consultations/partnerships with more experienced members of the profession. In this instance, the institution subsidizes the accumulation of intellectual capital within its service area, an action fully in accordance with the overarching mission of many colleges and universities.

Of key importance to all green building projects, whether an initial premium is attached, is the potential reduction of operating costs. Paladino & Company (2004), a green building consulting firm, estimates building operations and maintenance costs to comprise 6 percent of a business’s costs over a 30-year span—construction costs make up only 2 percent over the same period, with personnel costs, at 92 percent, rounding out the picture. Given that ratio, an institution must carefully consider the significant reduction of energy, water, and sewage costs that often result from even the most basic green building initiatives. As a fairly static entity that often occupies the facilities it owns, a college or university is in an ideal position to perform a detailed lifecycle costing analysis to estimate long-term savings—and then monitor the actual figures to provide data for future generations. A college union can take a major role in enhancing the visibility of this effort, and union professionals, armed with the knowledge gained from this exercise, can be well positioned to act as ambassadors for sustainability—whether to the campus itself, the surrounding community, or peer institutions.

Often the cost of a missed opportunity is far greater than the cost of sustainable development. Dartmouth College’s Kemeny/Haldeman Centers (mathematics building) and McLaughlin Cluster (residence halls) are LEED Silver registered. Walls are super-insulated using spray foam to eliminate the need for perimeter heating. Radiant heating and cooling emanates from both floor and ceiling, cutting energy consumption by an estimated 40 percent. Additionally, low-flow toilets, aerated faucets and showerheads, and waterless urinals help reduce potable water use by nearly 30 percent. These features are not only environmentally sound; they will likely pay for themselves many times over during the life of the buildings by saving the institution thousands of dollars per year. If planners had only considered the first costs, they would have missed the opportunity of these savings.

The front line of sustainability begins with the creative reuse of existing buildings. The embodied energy and materials value of an existing building are quantifiable and can be analyzed on the basis of construction replacement and true material costs. Even if the materials cannot be reused in construction of the new union facility, it might be possible to donate them to local building materials cooperatives. In the case of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies, more than 90 percent of construction and demolition waste from a historic gymnasium is being diverted from landfills through reuse, recycling, and donation to cooperatives. The majority of exterior and structural elements, however, will be reused, an important consideration given how often have we see sound, century-old buildings torn down to be replaced with new construction intended for obsolescence in 20 or 30 years. Existing, often historic, buildings can be treasures to a campus, places where a community’s traditions and important beliefs are held together. Stewardship of the physical campus and the entire communal heritage it represents should be figured into an institution’s attitude toward sustainability. Again, to an institution of any permanence, a long-term view of costing will often support both the reuse of an existing facility and the incorporation of sustainable features into the redesign.

Ultimately, the college union, as a place where all members of the campus community can congregate informally, provides a unique opportunity to engage the students, staff, and faculty on the subject of sustainability. Students especially, when properly empowered and guided, can constitute “an extremely effective catalyst for institutional transformation” (Sharp, 2001, p. 11). Unions not only provide space for visioning sessions and charrettes, but can in themselves be one of a campus’s most visible demonstrations of environmental awareness. Incorporating sustainable features into the union, both structurally and operationally, can be important in effecting a general shift of mindset—bringing green logic into decisions made at all levels, from custodial workers to the university president, from students to faculty. A thoughtful, conscientious approach to our daily decisions can yield substantial long-term change, and a college union can be an important factor in reinforcing this approach, ultimately helping to create a cohesive, intellectually vigorous, and sustainable campus community.


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Howe, N., & Strauss, W. (2003). Millennials go to college. USA: American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers and LifeCourse Associates.
Iroquois Constitution. (n.d.). Retrieved April 20, 2005, from the University of Oklahoma Law Center: http://www.law.ou.edu/iroquois.html.
Kelly, C. (2004, August 5). Green goals: “LEED” to calls to enhance building rating system. Michigan Land Use Institute. Retrieved April 19, 2005, from http://www.mlui.org/print.asp?fileid=16735.
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