Go Green, Think Blue

Sustainability means different things to different people. For college administrators and planners, it likely connotes activities such as recycling, using environmentally friendly products, or students joining together to help alleviate global warming. For me, sustainability starts with one idea — think blue to be green. In other words, ask yourself: will the choices I make have a positive or negative effect on rain and its aftermath?

This simple question could revolutionize how everyone on a college campus thinks about sustainability and the entire thought process behind a campus. Remember, rain does not discriminate — it falls equally on every surface, regardless of type or size. The
Chicago metropolitan area, for example, receives about 37.5 in. of precipitation — or 1M gallons of water — per acre per year. For a 50-acre campus, that’s 50M gallons of water.

Unfortunately, most of that water becomes urban runoff; polluted rain that negatively impacts local aquifers, lakes, rivers, and streams. And it does not stop at the local level. The runoff continues to move downstream until it reaches the Gulf of Mexico, where it contributes to the Gulf of Mexico dead zone, an 8,000-sq.-mi. area in which nothing lives due to its high levels of phosphorous, nitrogen, and other pollutants.

We can all contribute to reducing runoff to the Gulf of Mexico dead zone. One way is to make campuses and other building sites more permeable through the use of bioswales, rain gardens, permeable pavers, and green roofs, all of which capture, infiltrate, and recycle a tremendous amount of rain. These and other techniques were employed with great success by Illinois’ Elmhurst College at its new West Hall, a 170-bed residence hall targeting LEED Silver certification.

The West Hall Story
When it updated its master plan, Elmhurst College made a commitment to the core values of sustainability and embarked upon a mission to develop its campus as a model of sustainable design. To that end, rainwater cycling and ecology became key priorities for all site decisions at West Hall. It features state-of-the-art rainwater systems to integrate rain into the landscape and site components that cleanse and infiltrate water similar to historical-based hydrology patterns. Rainwater management is also linked directly to students’ education. When rain falls, students will be afforded the opportunity to experience, watch, interact, collect, and learn from the design choices made. They will learn firsthand how Elmhurst College is making a direct and positive impact on the environment.

Located in the west corner of campus, West Hall was built on existing parking lots, which inadvertently had a negative impact on a tributary stream in the watershed. Without any type of stormwater attenuation, these parking lots sent all runoff and pollution into Salt Creek at a temperature, turbidity, and pollutant load not conducive to native flora and fauna.

Through the use of permeable paving, parking lot bioswales, rain gardens, cisterns, and native vegetation, the design for the residence hall infiltrates a significant amount of rain that falls on its site. Instead of conventional detention, the College built a series of Best Management Practices (BMPs) in and around the site to decentralize rain and get it back into the ground where it eventually becomes a resource for Salt Creek. By incorporating an ecology-based design motif, the College re-established a presettlement hydrology on the site, enabling professors to incorporate facets of the project into their curriculum and provide learning opportunities to students, all while nourishing Salt Creek with clean, cool water.

The College is already taking advantage of the project’s sustainable design features by incorporating them into academic programs, especially in the sciences. For example, the inclusion of monitoring ports in the permeable parking lot allows chemistry and biology students to collect effluent water samples. Using simple hand-held monitoring or collection equipment, they can gather water in the field from the various data collection points in order to measure temperature, pH, clarity, and quantity as it passes through the BMPs on the project. Biology students can collect data on re-established native landscapes, growth rates, seed dispersion patterns, and pollination techniques of the various insects visiting the site.

The school also intends to make the “green” aspects an “environmental showcase.” With the use of signage, it will emphasize to students and visitors the environmental benefits to the campus as well as the general community. Year after year, incoming students will see first-hand the principles of sustainability put into practice, and will graduate with a better appreciation for the environment and the importance of managing rain

Jay Womack, ASLA, LEED-AP,
is director of Sustainable Design for Wight & Company, a nationally recognized architecture, engineering, and construction firm based in Darien, IL. Jay’s professional background reflects his lifelong affinity for the Midwest’s natural areas, that has influenced his design philosophy to partner art, science, and ecology. In particular, Jay incorporates sustainable rainwater management into every design decision he makes.