Sustainable Campus Housing

Aug. 1, 2001
Incorporating energy-efficient features into residence halls can save money and make students' campus experience more enjoyable.

There are many good reasons to renovate and reuse existing buildings — cost is just one of them.

The most important sustainable design factor is constructing residence halls that can evolve as student needs do.

Across the nation, universities and corporate real-estate developers alike are trying to reduce energy usage and improve energy efficiency. This trend is motivated not only by costs, but also by a feeling of corporate responsibility. In addition, students and staff are demanding more comfortable, aesthetically pleasing facilities.

At higher-education facilities, residence halls pose the most significant challenges. Residence halls are huge users and abusers of energy. Schools must carefully balance attempts to rein in energy cost and waste with students' demands for comfort and control of heating and cooling systems.

Here are a few critical areas that facilities managers can consider when looking at ways to improve sustainability and energy conservation in residence halls.

Immediate Steps

Sustainable choices for interiors: carpeting is a tough issue for residence halls. Carpeted halls keep noise down in public spaces, but establishing accountability for stains is difficult. In addition, carpeting can trap dust and other allergens, causing potential indoor air quality problems. As a result, some universities are installing carpets made from low-impact materials and materials that emit few, if any, noxious fumes or volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Schools are also choosing low-VOC adhesives, solvents and paints, helping to reduce out-gassing of chemicals from the room's interior. Designers use the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system for sustainable commercial interiors to help building owners and occupants make sustainable choices.

  • Heat-recovery systems

    These take the latent heat from the air and, rather than exhausting hot air outside, reuse that latent heat to warm the building. The initial costs may seem prohibitive, but colleges and universities should consider how much such a system can save over 10 to 20 years. Baldwin Hall at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa., reduced its energy costs by 65 percent, and its system will pay for itself very quickly.

  • Low-impact lighting and natural daylighting

    Lighting can be expensive and consume a lot of energy. Fluorescent and other low-energy-use lighting and natural daylighting can reduce the need for lamps and overhead lighting. When properly planned and executed, natural daylighting provides enough ambient light for hallways and public spaces so that artificial lights are not necessary. Universities can conserve costs by providing less in-room lighting. Incandescent lightbulbs are much less efficient than fluorescent and add significantly to heat load in the room. By giving students the means to use electric lighting and incandescent bulbs less often, they can reduce energy waste.

  • Reuse of existing buildings

    Housing needs have changed in the last 20 years. Students are demanding private rooms, private baths and amenities such as convenience stores and coffee shops. Even though existing residence halls may have become outmoded, it does not always make sense to demolish them. Renovation and reuse may be the answer.

There are many good reasons to renovate and reuse existing buildings — cost is just one of them. Reuse eliminates unnecessary or irresponsible construction waste; helps upgrade the efficiency of existing buildings; and allows campuses to retain their architectural history, character and consistency. Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., for example, is turning an academic building into a residence hall, and Allegheny College is considering acquiring a building adjacent to campus and converting it to a residence hall.

Addressing the Future

Here are some things to consider for future construction projects or renovations to existing residence halls:

  • “Kill” switches

    In the days of radiated heat, residence hall temperatures often were so high that students needed to open the windows in the winter. Today, because of student demand, most rooms have individual HVAC controls. However, individual controls are not energy-conscious. Many students in residence halls may feel a sense of entitlement regarding tuition and residence hall costs, and may simply prefer to open the windows and turn up the heat simultaneously. Hotels commonly install a “kill” switch on the windows that turns off heating and air conditioning whenever a window is open. This simple strategy could be useful in reducing energy waste in residence halls.

  • Gray-water recycling

    Instead of simply disposing of shower water and lab water, it is possible to recycle this “gray” water into the toilet system or use it to water the grounds. Gray-water recycling systems are in place in high-energy-use facilities, such as convention centers. Gray-water recycling has obvious applications to residence halls, especially for institutions with thousands of students in on-campus housing.

  • Siting buildings for heating/cooling

    In choosing where to place a building on a site, more developers are trying to choose a location that makes their heating and cooling systems more efficient. For example, in warmer climates, a building can be situated so that windows are shaded from the sun. Heating and cooling systems also can be adjusted to the orientation of the sun, with shaded areas getting a more powerful heating unit than sunny areas.

One of the most significant aspects in sustainable design is flexible space — space that lasts, space designed to evolve and accommodate new technologies and changing student demands. The most important sustainable design factor is constructing residence halls that can evolve as student needs do.

Students recall their residence hall experiences more vividly than they do many of their classes. As alumni, they tend to return to visit student unions, residence halls or other public spaces, more than they do classrooms. With that in mind, university facility managers should invest in and plan for rehabilitation and reconfigurations of their student housing.

Shimm is a principal with the architecture, engineering and design firm of Burt Hill Kosar Rittelmann Associates, in Pittsburgh. He concentrates in the design of residence halls and government facilities. The firm, in association with Surber Barber Choate Hertlein, designed the University of Georgia project.

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