Sustainability and Managing Student Expectations

Whether building student lifestyle housing, a university classroom, a wellness center, or a performing arts theatre, there are practical sustainable/green solutions that won’t break the bank — and could save you and your community resources and money.
It starts with a practical, holistic approach to everything — how teams are put together, the collaboration of all the minds and skill sets, and the way the project gets designed and built. Everything stems from this new view of going green. If done right, this practical and holistic approach will save time, resources (people, materials, and environment), and expenses. If you’re a student, it’s now a way of life. You’ve come to expect it. However, if you’re the one managing the facilities and the budgets, you’re trying to make good, informed decisions that will give you ROI.
Your chosen architectural/design firm should be a strategic business partner with each of its higher education clients, and should look for practical solutions that make good business sense and are fiscally responsible in order to meet the growing demands that universities and colleges are facing.
Following are some green ideas that could be taken at face value as ideas that aren’t new. The question then should be, “Then why aren’t these being done?”
  • Building orientation (solar issues). The use of windows and positioning the building in a way that doesn’t absorb sunlight and will reduce the energy required to cool down. For example, at the University of Saint Mary in Leavenworth, KS, the design focused on minimizing the north and south wall exposure, greatly reducing heat gain.
  • Energy/HVAC systems. Determining which system is the most energy-conscious and cost-effective will depend on the overall project budget and long-term building use. This is especially important for municipal and education building projects, which typically are built to last 40 years or more.
  • Recycled materials. When a choice can be made to use local and/or recycled materials and content, this will go a long way to reducing the landfill pileup and reduce shipping expenses. Building materials, the cost of moving materials, and even the transportation exhaust from vehicles all should factor into decisions. Recent examples of this include projects at Baker University (Baldwin, KS), Wilberforce University (Wilberforce, OH), and Avila University (Kansas City, MO). Each of these schools focused on providing interior finishes with a high amount of recycled content.
  • Landscaping. Choosing drought-resistant landscaping, as well as harvesting rainwater and redirecting it to nourish the landscaping, will help save our ecosystem and water expense.
  • Roofing and glass. The colors and types of materials selected either absorb heat or deflect heat. You can lower your cooling costs by making simple color choices.
  • Plumbing. Choose low-flow fixtures to reduce the amount of water consumption and expenses.
  • Rain gardens. Rain gardens collect water, then filter the contaminants out as it works its way into the soil. There’s a way to do this that is cost-effective.
The more obvious sustainable options include:
  • Use low VOCs (volatile organic compounds). These are the “new” smells we get from paint, clothing, leather, vinyl, cars, etc. At Avila University, the designers selected a vinyl wall covering that not only was high in recycled material, but it also provided a low-VOC solution.
  • Choose equipment with ENERGY STAR ratings. Take a hard look at items that soak up energy (dishwashers, copiers, mechanical equipment, etc.)
  • Look at programmable thermostats.
This holistic view does require a paradigm shift, though. There are some myths that need de-bunking. Going green/sustainable or even becoming LEED certified doesn’t need to be expensive. Going green means looking for concepts that can be applied to any project. Have you considered these?
  • Stormwater cleansing. We can make sure the water we put back into the environment has been decontaminated. For instance, the water that builds up in a parking lot is probably mixed with oil, dirt, and other materials. Let’s purify the water before it goes into our systems. It is a fairly new concept. Some cities have mandated it, like the city of Lenexa, KS. In essence, cities are requiring that everyone not pollute the water that seeps back into the ground.
  • Green cleaning on the construction site. Our contractor partners are now trained to provide and use construction waste recycling areas.
  • Green sells. Especially now that students and our communities are making decisions based on whether a product or organization is environmentally responsible. We’ve noticed in our student forums (as a part of our collaborative effort to include them in our design charettes) that they are requesting green because they want to continue or increase their ability to live more responsibly. This is coming from a group of individuals who have grown up living it at home and going to LEED-certified schools. What else would we expect?
  • Minimize land disturbance. Maintain the natural landscape as much as possible, because the plants and trees that are already used in the environment will survive. You won’t need to “purchase, replace, and repeat.” And, as gas and oil prices continue to rise, it will be wise to work within the natural environment confines rather than re-work the landscape to make a project fit. Think about it. It costs $8 to $10 per yard, or $300 for one truckload, to move dirt. Some projects require that 70,000 yards be moved. What if we just worked within the natural habitat and refocus the design to fit these needs? At Baker University, the total disturbed area was minimized to less than an acre (36,900 sq. ft.) for a three-story, 53,460 sq.-ft. student housing building which provided an additional 184 beds for the campus.
  • Bottom line. Work with the natural systems and construction planning methods. It’s a more holistic approach and calls for using materials that are indigenous to the environment/building site.
We can make something high-performance, high-functioning, and high-design while also being affordable, practical, and sustainable. There are sustainable approaches that work in every project. Whether you’re a developer, an educator, a facilities manager, an architect, or a consumer, we all have a view of what green means to us. What matters most is that we discuss it openly. Inevitably, these candid discussions will force us to change how we view merit-driven LEED and sustainable concepts.
Even climate plays a role. For our firm and projects here in the Midwest, we have the highs and lows of everything. We have temperature swings of 120 degrees. The materials that can survive in other markets won’t work at all in this area, so it takes a practical approach in order to deal with these issues. It’s not an all or nothing deal, though. We all must do what we can.
We need to envision a new view of green will be worth our time and effort. And, we must know our audiences and stakeholders and listen to what they need and expect, so we can continually help universities and colleges retain and recruit great students.
John Southard, AIA, is a partner; Jennifer Baldridge, APR, is director; and Chris Heinz, AIA, is design resource leader for Hollis + Miller Architects ( Founded in 1950, Hollis + Miller has offices in both Kansas and Missouri and is licensed in more than 20 states.