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Green as the New Norm

Green as the New Norm

More schools and universities are embracing environmentally sensitive practices as they build and renovate facilities.

Before architect Chris Waltz moved overseas in 2004, sustainable building design "was just a little cult topic," he recalls. But when he returned to the United States three years later, it was clear that things had changed.

"All of a sudden, I couldn't turn around without hearing about it," says Waltz, a senior associate at Steffian Bradley Architects. "Everyone knew what LEED was — I used to have to spend a lot of time explaining to clients what that was."

The numbers back up Waltz's assertion. Lured by the recognition that comes with a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating from the U.S. Green Building Council, many schools and universities have become aware of that certification process. But for years, the involvement was limited to a few trendsetters; according to the Green Building Council's database, only about 120 K-12 school facilities have received LEED certification since 2001. But as of January 2009, the list of K-12 education construction projects that have applied for LEED certification has swelled to more than 1,000.

"It's clear that the interest in green design is building," says Larry Eisenberg, executive director of facilities, planning and development for the Los Angeles County Community College District. "A tidal wave is forming and it will crest soon."

With a new administration in place in Washington that openly acknowledges the need to reduce global warming and the benefits of more healthful and energy-efficient practices in building and operating facilities, the green movement will continue to evolve from a rare and unconventional approach into a routine and accepted way of doing business.

Trailblazing in L.A.

Many college campuses have taken great strides to make their campuses more energy efficient and environmentally friendly, but one of the trendsetters in the green movement might seem unlikely. With more than $5.7 billion available in bond proceeds, the Los Angeles Community College District bills its construction program as one of the largest public sector green building efforts in the United States.

"When people find out what we've been doing, they're completely blown away," says Eisenberg. "They say, 'Oh my gosh, you're a community college. This is MIT-type stuff.'"

The community college district's commitment to green design and construction has its roots around 2001 when it was preparing to put a $1.25 billion bond proposal on the ballot. Environmental and community activists lobbied the district to incorporate sustainable design practices into the projects it was planning.

"They said, 'you could really set an example here,'" says Eisenberg. "The idea resonated and led in 2002 to our sustainable building policy."

The policy mandates that all new buildings funded with at least 50 percent bond dollars should meet LEED standards.

How did the community college district become a flagship for green design and construction?

"It's a unique confluence of factors," Eisenberg says. "We have staff commitment, money, a supportive board and the will to do it."

Voters approved the $1.25 billion bond proposal in 2001, a $980 million package in 2003, and, despite the ailing economy, a $3.5 billion request in 2008.

The poor economy has some benefits for the district, which has about 188,000 students. "It's countercyclical," says Eisenberg. "We get our best enrollment in down economic times. And for construction, prices are down, and we are getting great bids."

The green approaches on the community college system's nine campuses range from long-accepted environmental efforts, such as energy-efficient climate control systems, daylighting strategies and wind power, to more innovative and unfamiliar products, such as a coating known as UV-PCO (Ultra-Violet Photocatalytic Oxidation). The coating contains a chemical that, when it comes into contact with sunlight or fluorescent light, reacts and forms cleansing agents that make the facility virtually self-cleaning, Eisenberg says. The district applied the coating to the Child Care Facility at Los Angeles Southwest College.

"It's been a year now, and it looks as good as it did on day one," says Eisenberg. "We've never cleaned the walls or washed the windows. We're going to put it on all 455 buildings."

Even more familiar techniques, such as solar power, are being carried out on such a massive scale that it's hard to ignore the district's green efforts.

At East Los Angeles College, the district has installed a 1.2 megawatt solar farm. It consists of nearly 6,000 solar panels that are installed above carports that provide parking for 530 cars. Eisenberg says the panels save the college $400,000 in energy costs. The panels provide other benefits, too.

"One student was asked what she thought about the panels, and she said, 'Wow, I like the shaded parking,'" Eisenberg says.

As green initiatives are becoming more commonplace, Eisenberg says the system's goal is to stay at the forefront of the green movement.

"Our goal is to get to the zero-energy standard and demonstrate to others that it's possible," says Eisenberg. "We want to take it to the next stage."

Beware of greenwashing

The term green can mean different things to different people in the construction business and the education industry. The familiar song says "it's not easy being green," but as the desire for sustainable design and construction grows, it is easy for schools and vendors to say that they're green. Facility managers always have had to be on the lookout for bidders and vendors who promise more than they can deliver. Because many of the benefits of green design and construction accrue over the life of a facility, it is especially important that the environmental and energy benefits are more than empty promises.

The term coined for being green in name only is greenwashing. In general, it describes businesses that embrace the green banner for marketing or public-relations purposes without necessarily following through with policies and practices that benefit the environment.

In a 2007 "green paper," TerraChoice Environmental Marketing identified six sins of greenwashing:

  • Hidden tradeoff — Suggesting a product is green based on a single environmental attribute or an unreasonably narrow set of attributes without attention to other important environmental issues.

  • No proof — Any environmental claim that cannot be substantiated by easily accessible supporting information, or by a reliable third-party certification.

  • Vagueness — A claim that is so poorly defined or broad that its real meaning is likely to be misunderstood.

  • Irrelevance — Making an environmental claim that may be truthful, but is unimportant and unhelpful.

  • Lesser of two evils — Claims that may be true within a product category, but that may distract a consumer from greater environmental harm (e.g., "green" insecticides).

  • Fibbing — Making environmental claims that simply are false.

School and university administrators should become well-versed in green design and construction so they can avoid becoming victims of greenwashing, Waltz says.

"I would recommend that the head of facilities go and get LEED-accredited," says Waltz, "so they understand the basic principles of sustainability and won't get hoodwinked by vendors claiming to offer green products and services."

Waltz also says the demand for green design and construction has led to more education design firms developing an expertise about sustainability.

"When there is competition among a lot of architects, you're more likely to find someone with experience and knowledge about sustainability," says Waltz.

To LEED or not to LEED

Although other green rating programs exist for school facilities, such as the Collaborative for High Performance Schools Criteria and Green Building Initiatives' Green Globes program, the LEED certification process has become the best-known way for education institutions and other builders to receive third-party acknowledgment that their facilities have met standards of environmental friendliness.

Some education institutions covet the recognition that comes with LEED certification, but others have opted not to pursue LEED or other green certification because of the paperwork or cost involved in completing the process.

"I'm a little ambivalent about LEED," says Waltz, a LEED-accredited architect. "Some people consider it the be-all and the end-all, but that's not necessarily the case. The school or university has to know what it wants. It's a lot of paperwork, and it costs maybe $1,500 per point. Instead of using resources putting together the documentation for a LEED certification, they might decide to put that money into the project.

The third-party verification that is part of LEED can be helpful in persuading skeptical students or other stakeholders that the promised environmental benefits in a green project are real. Another benefit of the LEED point system, Waltz says, is that it has prompted more vendors to get into the green business and offer products and services, such as wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, that help builders meet LEED criteria.

"In the early years of LEED, it was difficult to find certain products, like FSC-certified wood, that would enable you to meet LEED standards," says Waltz. "Now those are a lot easier to find."

Eisenberg says he views LEED as a necessary part of the evolution that is making green principles and strategies a normal and expected element of design and construction.

"For right now, it helps to create a standard for measurement: goals and guidelines," says Eisenberg. "What's important is to build buildings that are sustainable, in whatever packaging it comes in."

Just as important as creating sustainable buildings is making sure they stay green when students and staff begin using the facility.

"Building the facility is step one," says Waltz. "Then they have to operate it. Many times an architect will never find out what happens after the ribbon is cut — how well buildings work or how poorly they work."

That's when commissioning is needed — checking that the building is functioning as promised after it is completed.

"Commissioning is a massive, massive thing," says Waltz. "You can tweak the things that aren't working. Maybe the occupancy is higher than what was estimated, and that is throwing off the heating system. That can be adjusted through commissioning."

Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected].

Ready for change

Change was the mantra that fueled Barack Obama's successful presidential campaign, and leaders in the nation's sustainability movement are working to make sure that more environmentally friendly governmental policies become an integral part of the Obama administration.

To that end, a coalition of more than two dozen environmental and conservation groups have put together "Transition to Green," a 391-page document prepared for President Barack Obama's transition team. It spells out environmental recommendations that the organization wants the Obama administration to pursue.

The new administration is likely to give the environmental groups' recommendations a friendlier response than the previous administration. As he introduced his energy team prior to his inauguration, Obama promised, "We will make public buildings more efficient, modernize our electric grid, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and protect and preserve our natural resources."

The groups' recommendations include nothing less than an overhaul of the U.S. education system so the nation can make a transition to a green economy. The environmental groups want "to retool our nation's universities and colleges as centers of research, education and workforce training in green economy-related fields." They also want to restructure K-12 education "by bolstering environmental education and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education." One proposal to boost environmental education is the No Child Left Inside Act, which would provide grants for K-12 environmental education programs. The coalition is seeking $100 million for the proposal.

With regard to school facilities, the report urges the president to "unveil a new national Green Schools goal to promote green design in new school construction and rehabilitation projects."

The report encourages the U.S. Department of Education to endorse a national goal that "100 percent of newly constructed or rehabilitated schools become 'Green Schools' to lower energy costs and greenhouse gas emissions." Specifically, the coalition urges the Obama administration to support the 21st Century High-Performing Public School Facilities Act. The U.S. House passed the bill last year, but the Senate did not take action. The bill would provide $20 billion in funding for school construction over five years and would require that the majority of the funds be used on projects that meet green design standards.

The group also wants the Obama administration to fully fund the Energy Sustainability and Efficiency Grants and Loans program, which provides funds for renewable-energy and energy-efficiency projects at higher education institutions, public schools and local governments. The report says the funding request is $250 million for the grants program and $500 million for the loan program.

From the frying pan into the … gas tank?

Students and staff at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., might not have to feel so guilty about eating fried foods.

Deep frying still is considered less healthful than other ways of preparing food, but at least the oil used to prepare such fat-soaked menu items at campus kitchens is not contributing to the waste stream.

Instead of discarding the cooking oil, the school's food-service operation turns the liquid over to The Dickinson College Biodiesel Project, begun by students in 2006. The project's website says that students collect oil — between 50 and 150 gallons a week — that is used in fryers on campus, as well as at area restaurants. They bring the oil to a biodiesel plant that has been set up in the college's facilities management building and, under the supervision of staff members, converts it to biodiesel.

Campus personnel use the biodiesel fuel to power lawn mowers, garbage trucks, farm equipment and other diesel engines. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that most diesel engines can run on biodiesel without needing any special equipment. Reusing the oil instead of disposing of it reduces Dickinson's carbon footprint, and operating equipment with cleaner-burning biodiesel means the college is releasing fewer pollutants into the atmosphere. Dickinson says production and use of biodiesel results in an 80 percent lifecycle reduction of carbon dioxide emissions when compared with fossil fuels.

Students involved in the Biodiesel Project also are researching sustainable ways of using the glycerol that is created as a byproduct of the biodiesel conversion. The glycerol can be used to create soap — either solid or liquid, depending on what chemicals are used in the biodiesel conversion. The liquid version has been marketed on the Dickinson campus as "Green Devil Bio-Suds."

"Several personnel from the college facilities management department use the soap for personal body care and report it is most effective as a hand cleaner following greasy, dirty work," the college says.

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