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Colleges & Universities - Transitioning to a More Sustainable Campus

In December 2002, United Nations Resolution 57/254 was adopted which established the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005-2014).  Today it is hard to find a professional association related to building design, construction, maintenance, and operation, as well as community planning and development, which does not have some initiative related to sustainability (e.g. AIA, ASHREA, ASCE, APPA, SCUP, SBIC, and USGBC).  Higher education across the country has adopted the movement toward sustainability.  Many universities and colleges are in various stages of organizing for sustainability. 
Defining Sustainability

The words “sustainability,” “going green,” or “green building” is coming up more often in discussions about the management of resources and business practices.  The concept has been around for many years.  However, it has gotten much more visibility in the past three to four years.  The definition of the word varies depending on who you ask.  Simply put, sustainability has to do with reducing our footprint on the future.  Most people will agree it contains the following main components – 1) improving economic efficiency, 2) protecting and restoring ecological systems, and 3) enhancing the well-being of all peoples.  A sustainable campus program addresses all of these components.  Of course, you will find many definitions depending on who you ask.  But, they generally will have these three components.  Sustainable inititiatives must account for all of these at the same time.

Driving Forces Behind Sustainable Development

The driving forces behind the implementation of sustainability, or as some would say, the transition to a more sustainable future are many, including economic, the indoor environment, growing limitation on non-renewable energy sources, and pollution and its effect on climate change and ecological health.  Some would ask, "Why is this such an urgent issue now?"  One can look at the "signs of the times" for an indication of the answer.  Energy costs and availability, global ecological impact of energy use, availability of new technology, and a growing world-wide concern and interest. 

1. Economics
As energy prices begin to climb, business managers are beginning to see the value of life cycle cost analysis as a more effective means of determining economic benefits.  “First cost” as an overriding economic consideration in decision making is beginning to give way to strategies that consider the entire economic life of facilities including operating costs.  Some “green building” strategies actually have negligible or no effect on the first cost of a new facility.  Building retrofits that replace old technology with new and more efficient have an immediate payback in terms of operating costs.  The “bottom line” is that these green buildings are less expensive to operate because they consume less energy and water.  And, this benefit is immediate.

There's only one!
Defining Sustainability
Driving Forces
  • Economics
  • Indoor Environment
  • Nonrenewable Energy
  • Effect on Environment

  • Campus Transition
  • Administration
  • Academics
  • Research
  • Local Community

  • Obstacles & Challenges

    University Programs
    Arizona State University
    Ball State University
    Brown University

    Carleton University

    Clarion University

    Colorado College

    Cornell University

    Drake University

    Drury University

    Duke University
    Emory University


    Florida Gulf Coast University
    Florida State University

    Georgia Tech

    Harvard University
    Michigan State

    New College of CA

    Northern Arizona University

    Penn State

    Portland State University

    SUNY Buffalo

    UC Berkeley

    UC Santa Barbara


    University of British Columbia

    University of Colorado

    University of Florida

    University of Kentucky

    University of Michigan

    University of NC

    University of NH

    University of Oregon

    University of Virginia

    University of Washington

    University of Wisconsin

    University of Toronto

    Washington State

    The chart to the right shows a 20-year history of crude oil prices since 1986.  One question would be, although we are seeing historical high crude oil prices, how does it compare to past high prices?  The blue bars show actual costs.  The purple bars show the 1986 cost adjusted for inflation by the yearly inflation rate for each year to 2005.  During the past 20 years actual oil prices have fluctuated near the expected price based on the 1986 price.  However, after 9/11 (2001) actual prices have greatly increased each year.  This is having a significant impact on both transportation and facilities energy costs. 
    Another trend in economic accounting which is beginning to gain in popularity is the "Triple Bottom Line" approach.  It is being used as a way for businesses to determine their financial health in terms of economic performance, as well as its social/ethical and environmental performance. 

    2. Indoor Environment
    A myth that is being busted by the new green building approach is that saving energy means you have to give up comfort or risk health issues.  This myth is false!  Sure, you can save money by making everyone turn back their thermostats causing less HVAC operating hours, but you run the risk of poor comfort, health issues, and eventually productivity concerns.  This leaves out the social welbeing component of sustainability.  The green building approach uses technology that requires less energy to achieve the same results or even better, such as in the case of lighting and building commissioning.  Properly commissioned buildings can improve the comfort, indoor air quality, and energy efficiency (see the ORNL guide on building commissioning).  Better design in the use of daylight harvesting has been shown to increase student performance by over 20% in some of the cases studied, while greatly reducing energy consumption (see the Heschong Mahone Group studies on daylighting).  The positive effect on employees by using green building design principles helps to enhance the welfare of the workforce.  This is also an immediate benefit. 

    3. Growing Limitation of Non-renewable Energy Sources
    The past two hurricane seasons have given people in the Gulf States region a snap shot of the future.  We don’t yet know how far in the future this scenario will occur, but it is possible that it will be coming sooner than we expect.  For a brief period we experienced energy shortages and high energy prices.  This by itself is not new.  But the reason for it is different than in the past.  Some experts predict that “cheap” oil will no longer be available 30 to 50 years from now, causing prices to rise and a significant shift to coal (which has an expectancy of 150 to 200 years).  Many communities are facing decisions to build new coal fired energy plants instead of the cleaner burning natural gas plants due to cost and availability of those resources.  The end of the oil age is not here yet.  But, we can see it from here. 
    The Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO) has developed a projection that we are nearing the peak in oil production.  The chart on the right shows a possible scenario for the near future.  Not everyone agrees with their theory, but the data shown in this chart does give one pause to consider whether the urgency is greater than most of us realize.  At some point we will be transitioning from a buyer's market to a seller's market.  That means significantly higher costs and the social ramifications that go with it. 
    4. Pollution and its Effect on Climate Change and Ecological Health
    There is a growing body of evidence that the additional increase of green house gases and particulates added to the air while producing electrical energy and manufacturing commercial goods is significant and is having some impact on the earth’s natural climate.  The effect on ecosystems caused by acid rain is already clearly evident.  As more and more utility companies go to coal-based plants the outside air quality will continue to deteriorate.  One of the signs of our times is the increase in coal-fired energy plants being proposed in recent years (see article in CSMonitor).  Reducing energy consumption creates an immediate reduction in air-pollution.

    Courtesy of J. Chanton, Florida State University

    Transitioning to a Sustainable Campus

    A successful endeavor to transition to a sustainable or green campus involves four aspects of the university community – the administration, academic departments (students and faculty), the university research effort, and the local community.

    Some type of committee or council is needed in the beginning in order to share information, understand the issues and concepts, and develop plans for future initiatives.  Nearly every department on campus has some role to play.  Some universities have established an "Office of Sustainability" to coordinate the many planning initiatives, projects, networking, and monitoring of the program's progress in achieving its goals. 

    1. Administration
    The administration has a very significant impact by the business decisions they make concerning new building design, repair and renovation projects, building operations and maintenance, procurement practices, landscaping, recycling at various levels, waste management, custodial services, energy management, transportation, food service and dining operations, and residential operations. 

    2. Academic Departments
    The educational side is also significant but in different ways.  The investment in the education of students on these subjects has a long term benefit.  They will eventually become leaders in their community and bring with them the important concepts of sustainability.  Service-learning is an important teaching method that allows students to learn required curriculum while applying what they learn to real world problems.  This learning model is very well suited to the university environment and is a way to integrate knowledge base with local requirements and applications.  This can have an immediate benefit depending on the nature of the service requirement.  Further educational opportunities exist with developing courses on sustainable development, informal workshops and training, as well as distance learning. 

    3. Research
    The research sector of the university has a significant role in terms of its near and long term impacts.  There are already on-going projects with ecological habitats and other environmental issues.  Areas for research could also include large scale composting, procurement practices, production methods, alternative energy sources, and any number of building design, construction, operations, and maintenance practices. 

    4. Local Community
    The local community can also provide various levels of resources to assist the sustainability effort and includes alumni, the business community, utility suppliers, transportation providers, vendors, community organizations, and local chapters of professional associations. 

    One of the most effective structures for implementing a green and sustainable campus is the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program established by the US Green Building Council.  The certification process for existing buildings provides a list of projects and standards.  The University could establish a goal to develop a plan on how it could achieve a LEED certified existing building leading to a goal to achieve it.  The LEED Project Checklist is composed of prerequisites and creditable items in the major categories of building siting, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, indoor environmental quality, and innovation in operation, upgrades, and maintenance. 

    This structured approach can help to integrate the efforts of the four aspects of the campus community (administration, academic, research, and local community) toward a common goal.  It can help form the basis of planning and organizing efforts to accomplish a sustainable campus.  Individual and disconnected on-going initiatives can be brought in under the overall green development umbrella.  See "Taking Action - What Can Be Done."


    Obstacles and Challenges to Implementation

    Every good and worthy endeavor will run into obstacles in spite of its apparently good and worthy potential outcome.  Otherwise, we would already be doing it.  It is important to understand why it is not already being done.  An understanding of the obstacles to attaining a sustainable campus is critical to a successful planning and implementation process.  The following list, although certainly not complete, shows the most significant issues that will be faced in terms of implementing a sustainable campus.  It also provides a process for how these obstacles can be overcome. 

    1. Understanding the significance and urgency of sustainable development
    The first and most challenging obstacle is communicating to the organization the need.  Universities like most organizations with a large mission and limited resources work on priorities.  Regardless of how beneficent the endeavor, it will not be resourced unless there is an organizational demand for it.  The more in demand it is, the higher the priority it will have for the organization’s attention.  In the beginning, the organization’s attention (interest, concern, and knowledge of the issue) is more important than money.  Based on initial surveys and discussions with people in various departments on campus there is an underlying interest in the subject of sustainability and developing a green campus.  What is needed at first is a common vocabulary and understanding of the “why” and the “how” of a sustainable campus.  This must occur at all levels of the organization. 

    2. Availability of information resources
    Information on this topic is not easy to find in one place.  Many people know a little bit about different aspects of the problem but are not often able to see the big picture.  Unfortunately, myths also abound and complicate the task of informed decision making. 

    3. Cost of consumption virtually invisible
    Very few organizations widely publish the cost of utility resources.  In most cases only a select few administration officials are aware of the amount of money spent on energy, water, and waste management.  This contributes to the ambivalence toward energy, water, and other utility consumption.  Even most department heads are not aware of the utility cost of their operations. 

    4. Perceived insignificance of the individuals role
    One of the problems with getting people involved in a conservation program is the perception that what one person can do is very little and therefore the effort is not worth the trouble.  The problem is compounded by the fact that it is basically true!  However, when viewed from the perspective of a total organizational effort, all these little bits of effort can add up to tens of thousands of dollars for the organization.  Also, there are many practical tips that people are not aware of. 

    5. Actions devoted to conservation perceived as more cost than benefit
    This is another area where myths abound.  This is also reinforced by the lack of consumption cost information.  Most people are not aware of the significance and impact of conservation efforts whether embodied in retrofit projects, training, education, or individual actions to control energy consumption in their own environment.  They are also unaware of the embedded energy related to the choices they make. 

    6. Conservation perceived as doing without
    To many people conservation means being cold in winter, hot in summer, and dimly lit working areas.  Some prefer the term energy “management” to energy “conservation” because it more nearly gives the sense of optimization.  Energy management focuses on eliminating energy waste and optimizing the use of energy when it is needed.  There is a lot that can be saved just by eliminating waste before we get to reducing the level of service.  The green approach allows for improved working and learning spaces while reducing the cost of utility resources significantly.