Developing a Campus Sustainability Plan

More and more colleges and universities are instituting sustainability policies due to the desire to save money, pressure from students and alumni, and simple concern for the environment. Making the commitment to “go green” is the easy part. It is the development and implementation of a sustainability plan that requires research, teamwork, and some tough decisions.

What makes developing a sustainability plan so difficult is the disparate number of tangible and intangible elements that need to be considered, including energy use, campus mass transit, water use, recycling, indoor air quality, on-site alternative energy, stormwater mitigation, and trayless dining, just to name a few. This broad range of operational and infrastructure issues impacts every member of the campus community and must be assessed not only in terms of technical and financial requirements, but also with regard to any repercussions on lifestyle and behavior of the students, staff, faculty, administration, and vendors, since buy-in from all these groups is necessary for the plan to be successful.

Though many considerations for a sustainability plan will be campus-specific, related to location, climate, institution size, etc., there are certain big-picture items that will help form the basis of any plan.

Efficiency Versus the “Big Gesture”
Once an institution makes the commitment to “go green,” it is common for the campus community to expect wind turbines and solar arrays to spring up overnight. While it is tempting to pursue new, high-visibility projects for maximum impact and PR value, it is important to address first the “low-hanging fruit” in your existing buildings, since this will provide the fastest return on investment with the least upfront cost. Simple efficiency upgrades such as replacing incandescent lamping with compact fluorescents, installing daylight and occupancy sensors, changing out standard toilet and sink fixtures for low-flow models, and installing tamper-proof programmable thermostats can save more than 20 percent in annual operating costs. Since these projects can often be carried out by in-house facilities staff as part of regularly scheduled maintenance, the initial capital cost can typically be recouped within one to three years compared with a payback period of 10+ years for new photovoltaic or wind installations. Once the buildings are as efficient as possible, an alternative energy source, such as solar, can be properly sized for the reduced load, resulting in a smaller, less expensive array. Efficiency may not be glamorous, but it is financially sound and sets the stage for the higher-profile projects.

To LEED or Not to LEED
Having LEED-certified buildings has become a sustainability badge of honor, yet many colleges and universities still seem unsure of exactly what they are getting beyond a plaque. LEED certification is often pursued with the primary goal of lowering energy costs, but since rating points can be obtained from other areas, such as material selection, water efficiency, indoor air quality, and site selection, it is possible to achieve LEED Gold certification with as little as five percent or as much as 40 percent of the points coming from the energy section. This is typical of most building rating systems, so if LEED or another system is mandated under the sustainability plan it is important to clarify certification goals so all stakeholders have a clear understanding of expectations and the point areas to be prioritized.

Another option pursued by many schools is to develop their own new-build and renovation guidelines based on one or more of the existing rating systems and informed by the specific needs of the campus. This is more work for the college, but it allows the guidelines to be reviewed and modified as sustainability efforts evolve and priorities change. It also avoids the administrative costs related to the established rating systems, which typically average $1,500 per point for a LEED project (or about $50,000 for a LEED Silver certification).

Don’t Forget the Intangibles
While sustainable efforts with a direct, trackable economic benefit are usually the focus of a sustainability plan, it is also important to consider green options that pay back in ways other than money. Increasing indoor air quality and providing natural lighting and views have been shown to make workers healthier and happier, resulting in reduced absenteeism and an increase in productivity. Buying local produce and increasing campus mass transit help the environment by reducing vehicle emissions and also improve town-and-gown relations by supporting local businesses and removing student cars from the roads.

A workable Campus Sustainability Plan is critical to advancing the green agenda. The issues discussed here represent only a sampling of the points that need to be addressed. Ultimately, each school must take a good honest look at itself and develop a holistic plan that reflects the unique vision and ethos that reinforces what makes the institution great.

Chris Waltz, AIA, LEED-AP, leads the education group at Steffian Bradley Architects, an international architecture, interiors, and planning firm. He can be reached at [email protected] or 860/627-1922.