Sustainability Is Here to Stay

The wave of constructing green sustainable buildings is upon us. For someone who has advocated the principles of sustainability for years, it is gratifying to see so much activity across the country that will produce wonderful sustainable buildings. These buildings will not only honor the constraints of our environment, but will produce long-term operating budget savings for the entities that have been forward-looking enough to specify the need for a green building.

The Combined Goal

In 2001, the Los Angeles Community College District (LACCD) asked the district’s voters to approve a bond issue that would end more than a 30-year drought in construction and a growing deferred maintenance backlog for the district’s nine colleges. The voters approved not only the initial bond proposal of $1.245 billion to make an investment in affordable higher education, but approved a second bond issue of another billion dollars in early 2003 to create a combined construction, renovation and restoration program of $2.2 billion.

The opportunity presented by this bond issue did not escape the notice of the environmental community in Southern California. Working closely with the district’s Board of Trustees, environmental advocates educated and cajoled administrators, faculty and staff to explain the importance of a sustainable building program. The message was simple: Not only would a sustainable building program have long-term benefits for the district and its students, but it would also serve as an educational laboratory that could move sustainability into the mainstream.

After all, the purpose of higher education is to research, innovate and educate. In this case, the initiative involved educating more than 150,000 students a year in the largest community college district in the world. The educational process would involve participating in the design of the sustainable buildings; the buildings themselves, when complete, as examples of sustainable choices; and the development of an integrated curriculum component devoted to sustainability.

The Results

The result is that LACCD is currently undertaking the largest sustainable building program in the United States. The more than 500 projects include renovations, upgrades, modernizations and, most exciting of all, more than 40 new“green” buildings, representing the best in environmentally sensitive building techniques. Utilizing $2.2 billion in voter-approved funds, the district is executing an extensive building program to address much-needed campus improvements and transform its nine community colleges into state-of-the-art educational resources for students and the community.

Recognizing that a $2.2 billion program has the power to change the marketplace, the Board of Trustees created a requirement that each design team, of which we currently have 140 working, would include a certified Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) professional. (Developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, LEED is a voluntary standards and certification program that defines high-performance green buildings.) When the program began, there were perhaps a dozen of these individuals in all of Southern California. Today, there are nearly 400 certified LEED professionals in the Los Angeles area.

Exploring Green Energy

Energy use and supply is a significant component of the bond program. Living in sunny but energy-short California leads one to naturally think of alternate energy sources, such as photovoltaic and solar heating solutions. Recognizing again the opportunity presented by this program, the Board of Trustees set a goal to self-produce 25 percent of the district’s energy needs, with at least 10-percent utilization of photovoltaic cells. This policy has given license to explore a broad range of energy technologies, including fuel cells, wind power, anaerobic digestion and geothermal concepts.

Interestingly, myths remain about the wisdom of building green. A recent survey sponsored by Turner Construction Company, the nation’s largest green builder, reported continuing doubt about the costs of building green. The reality is that the huge volume of construction that is making the green choice, as our program did, has changed the marketplace. Green products are readily available at comparable prices. We have found that it is just a matter of making the right choice at the beginning and finding design professionals who will support sustainable goals. The LACCD program is a showcase for what is possible, but it is clear that higher education building programs across the country are getting the message loud and clear.

Larry Eisenberg is the executive director for Facilities, Planning and Development for the Los Angeles Community College District. He can be reached at 213/891-2366.