Sustainable Facilities Strategies for Today's Economy

Buildings account for 40 percent of energy consumption in the United States at an annual cost of $418B, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, a statistical agency of the Department of Energy. The agency estimates that buildings produce 39 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., surpassing the transportation industry and the manufacturing sector.

Without changes in the way buildings are designed and constructed, costs will continue to rise. Total world consumption of marketed energy is projected to increase by 50 percent from 2005 to 2030, per the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

As universities and consumers take a hard look at how they can see savings and financial stability versus losses, sustainable building is making more and more economic sense.

Challenges & Commitments
Colleges and universities should embrace various challenges/commitments, such as the American College & University President’s Climate Commitment ( or the 2030 Challenge ( These organizations may have different measurements and tactics, but their missions and goals are the same. They show a public commitment to move toward addressing global warming by designing smarter and more efficient buildings.

College and university presidents who join these organizations will help stabilize and reduce their long-term energy costs, and doing so can help attract excellent students and faculty.

Sustainable Retrofits and Energy Master Plans
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, signed into law on February 17, 2009; the $410B spending bill for the current fiscal year; and the proposed 2010 budget commit significant funds to green energy and environmental initiatives, including $39B in the “State Stabilization Fund,” of which $8B can be used for modernizing school and college facilities.

A strategy for the implementation of sustainability — whether a comprehensive overhaul or minimal, staged interventions — can make a significant impact on operating costs. Whether planning or executing sustainable retrofits, crafting a master plan for energy efficiency, or drafting green guidelines for future development, colleges can reap efficiencies that will pay back in future savings, in a range of investment values.

A grassroots sustainable effort can make a significant impact on the campus as a whole. At Appalachian State University in Boone, NC, 10 students, eight faculty/staff, and Dave Robertson, the director of Student Programs, began the Plemmons Student Union Greening Committee. This student-funded initiative began with small efforts, like installing water bottle "refueling" stations and adding $4.00 aerators to each sink. For each element, the Committee posted signage describing the results of each measure. After a while, the facilities staff noticed the building’s shrinking utilities bills; this encouraged the University chancellor to initiate a campus-wide sustainable design initiative.

A large portion of the funds allocated in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act signed into law in February are directed to the development, manufacturing, and installation of new renewable energy systems.

The package includes more than $42B in energy-related investments, including loan guarantees for renewable energy projects and direct government grants for makers of wind turbines and next-generation batteries. It will also cover 30 percent of wind and solar energy investments, and contains $20B aimed at "green" jobs to make wind turbines and solar panels, as well as improve energy efficiency in schools and federal buildings. These federal initiatives represent a major shift in making sustainable technologies more universal and affordable.

In the meantime, there is a continuing movement among academic institutions to improve their environmental stewardship and focus on sustainability. For the past three years, the Sustainable Endowments Institute has issued a Sustainability Report Card that evaluates campus and endowment sustainability activities at colleges and universities with the 300 largest endowments in the U.S. and Canada. The University of Washington and the University of British Columbia are two of just 15 acknowledged as Sustainability Leaders by the Institute.

For the expansion of the Husky Union Building, the University of Washington was committed to achieving a high level of sustainable design. Students were involved from the beginning — in town-style meetings — and saw this as an opportunity to pass on a legacy of environmental stewardship to future generations of students. The selected design concept targets LEED Platinum certification. Sustainable goals include 60 percent energy reduction, 15 percent renewable energy, net zero water, sustainable foodservice, and 50 percent waste reduction, among others.

The Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS) — on the main campus of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver — is built on the concept of partnership. Multi-disciplinary and multi-sector research on sustainable technologies will include teams from the University and three academic partners: Simon Fraser University, Emily Carr University of Art + Design, and the British Columbia Institute of Technology. When it opens in 2011, the CIRS building will be a living laboratory, permitting continuous study of building performance. It will pioneer and apply new methods of community engagement regarding sustainable futures and will develop and apply partnerships with the public, private, and NGO sectors to promote commercialization of sustainable technologies and services and market transformation processes.

Building Efficiencies
There are several approaches that can be taken to phase or defer building costs through time.

If strategically coordinated with program priorities and a long-range funding plan, phased construction can spread costs through time. However, this is often not the most cost-effective approach, since total project costs will always be higher in the end, and opportunities to incorporate operational savings are usually diminished or lost when projects are phased. Also, many of the general overhead efficiencies gained in a larger, continuous construction effort are lost. Costs will be less up front, but will always be more expensive over the life of the project.

Lehman College in the Bronx, NY, is currently creating a 300,000-sq.-ft. science “campus within a campus.” The 2006 strategic plan for the project broke the development into three phases — two new buildings and the renovation of an historic 1936 building — to minimize disruption and accommodate the schedules and budget commitments of another significant construction project on campus. The first phase is currently under construction.

As an alternative to completing construction of a building in two or more phases, some institutions elect to complete the entire “core and shell” of the new building, along with a portion of its interior program space, in a single phase. The remaining, incomplete areas are left as “shell space” until additional funding is available or until programs intended to occupy the space are confirmed. This enables an efficient building process and avoids the need to mobilize exterior construction and its accompanying disruption at a later date. It also provides the advantages of flexibility when programs for the building have not been fully determined.

LEED Certification
With 1,700 buildings certified by LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) and counting, the green building rating system developed by the USGBC in 1998 has made a significant market impact. Universities account for some of the best efforts under the LEED system, including 11 LEED Platinum buildings.

Experts believe that sustainable buildings cost between two to six percent more than traditional buildings, but yield 33 percent savings on energy use. Furthermore, with contractors looking for work during a slow construction phase, the costs of structures are coming in much lower than expected. With lower construction costs more prevalent, green building features are more likely to make it into the project budget.

Perkins+Will’s master plan for Ohlone College’s Newark Center for Technology and Health Sciences in Newark, CA, was developed with ambitious sustainable objectives. The recently completed Center is the first green community college campus in the U.S., achieving a LEED Platinum certification. A 600-kW photovoltaic solar array will produce more than 80 percent of the building’s electricity consumption and reduce natural gas consumption to less than 30 percent of Title 24 requirements. Wetlands have been reclaimed as a "learning laboratory.”

The impact of the ongoing recession on universities and their capital plans will continue to unfold. Institutions may adjust and redistribute dollars intended for capital projects to operations, maintenance, or smaller projects in the upcoming fiscal year, but the longer-term impact will not become clear until the economy begins to stabilize.

Like many others, Perkins+Will anticipates fewer new building projects in the next couple of years. However, we expect to see more emphasis on campus and facility planning, renovation and retrofit, and focus on sustainable design initiatives.

David L. Damon, AIA, LEED-AP, associate principal for Perkins+Will (, has focused for the past 13 years on the design for student life, ranging from master plans to the programming, design, and construction of student centers, residence halls, learning environments, performance spaces, and athletic and recreation buildings. David’s role is strategic: coordinating the program with the design and integrating full building systems design to achieve sustainable goals.