Five Reasons to Put the Environment First

Global climate change holds center stage in American media today. As leaders in the formation of future generations, institutes of higher education are eager to address the resultant environmental impacts. Board members, chancellors, and administrators who wish to make the greatest strides in reducing a campus’s ecological footprint should head back to the classroom.

Classrooms, science labs, administrative buildings, and residence halls constitute a much bigger impact on the environment than any other factor on a college campus. Scientists calculate that buildings and their embedded energy account for approximately 48 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. This far outweighs the 27 percent of greenhouse emissions generated by transportation or the 25 percent created by industry. An astounding 76 percent of all electricity generated by power plants is used to operate buildings.

We understand that scare tactics and alarming environmental statistics will not motivate every college campus to “go green” with new construction and renovation projects. Thus, we offer the following list of tangible, bottom-line reasons for higher-education institutions to join the sustainable design movement.

Top Five Reasons to Incorporate Sustainable Design Principles
1.    Sustainable design saves money. Much has been written about the additional initial materials costs of sustainable design, which is generally estimated to be between one and four percent of a new structure’s construction budget. These costs are often more than offset by upfront incentive programs offered by local utility and solid waste authorities. But the operational savings of using less energy usually pay off the additional investments in from one to five years of operation — not a hard calculation for buildings that last for decades. For its new Berkeley City College campus, the Peralta Community College District realized an upfront windfall of approximately $185,000 from such incentives. This financial bonus more than covered the soft costs of applying for LEED Certification.

2.    Environmental responsibility is linked to increased productivity and classroom performance. Studies show remarkable productivity gains from daylit classrooms and improved indoor environments. Heschong Mahone Group, Inc., completed a daylighting study in Fresno, CA, that identified a 21 percent improvement in student learning rates from those in classrooms with the least amount of daylight compared to those with the most. The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has estimated potential annual savings and productivity gains in the U.S. of between $6B and $14B from reduced respiratory disease and $10B and $30B from reduced sick building syndrome symptoms through the provision of better indoor environments. Colleges can tout their green buildings to attract the best employee candidates and recruit new students who value the contributions of healthy indoor environments to learning.

3.    New efficient HVAC systems reduce impacts of unreliable power grids and fluctuating energy market costs. As the United States heads towards greater energy production uncertainty due to climate change, strong local logistical systems for materials procurement and energy generation can complement national resources. For instance, colleges that employ geothermal, solar, or other on-site energy generation and storage systems for their heating and cooling requirements benefit from redundant options. Buildings that are designed to employ natural ventilation can reduce the size of HVAC systems required. These efficient design strategies translate into a college campus that is more energy independent and reaps the benefits of its own reliable, clean energy sources.

4.    Stewardship of the environment is taught in sustainable buildings. Sustainable design raises everyone’s consciousness about protecting the fragility of the earth’s ecosystem. Green learning environments illustrate a new set of values that teach our college students to be stewards of the planet.

5.    Going green gets you ink. Changing public opinion about global climate change means that more Americans want to read about ways to protect the environment. Buildings that are designed with sustainable elements garner positive media coverage both locally and nationally. Subsequently, colleges can employ these valuable media endorsements in their recruiting efforts.

Today’s architects are well versed in sustainable design. They are eager to provide you with the specific information you need to help your institution incorporate environmentally responsible design in your next construction project.

Bill Blessing and Mike Matson are higher education architects at Ratcliff, an architecture, interiors, and planning firm. To learn more about Ratcliff’s strategic operational and facility solutions, visit