Green Opportunities

Existing buildings are a key component in making a campus sustainable.

The significance of green building initiatives on college campuses is becoming increasingly evident. Sustainable facilities are a reality and even a necessity for forward-thinking schools. Many campuses have established an office of sustainability; more than 600 presidents of U.S. higher-education institutions have signed the American College & University Presidents' Climate Commitment (ACUPCC), which pledges that they will create a plan to achieve climate neutrality as soon as possible.

Prospective students also are considering sustainability efforts as they decide which college or university to attend. And more donors and alumni are asking that their donations be earmarked to make campuses greener or to develop courses around environmental sustainability.

Much of the buzz around green buildings has centered on new construction. But the inventory of existing buildings far exceeds that of new construction. According to the U.S. Green Building Council, existing buildings in the United States account for 36 percent of total energy use and 65 percent of electricity consumption. They make up 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions and 30 percent of waste output, totaling 136 million tons annually.

Making existing buildings more sustainable is critical to achieving large-scale environmental benefits. Sustainability initiatives in existing buildings also promote significant business benefits, ranging from enhanced productivity to operational savings. But how can an institution effectively evaluate its sustainability options and focus its "green" dollars where they will have the greatest effect?

Green assessment

The first step in identifying the best strategy for pursuing sustainability is an objective evaluation of a college or university's existing level of sustainability and its options for change, including estimated costs and potential benefits.

Examining all these areas holistically — ideally within the context of overall facility improvement needs — can help schools identify economies of scale and bundle the resulting projects most cost-effectively. These categories include energy efficiency, water conservation, indoor air and environmental quality, materials and construction, and site sustainability:

  • For schools looking to roll out green programs incrementally, the initial focus often is on energy efficiency. This is because more effective energy use can deliver the greatest cost savings. An evaluation of energy performance, including electrical and mechanical systems and the potential for renewable energy sources, should identify recommendations for reducing operating and consumption costs and decreasing emissions. In some cases, the savings captured through improvements can be used to pay for other longer-term sustainability initiatives.

  • Water consumption and treatment and the impact on discharge systems, as well as campus water-use practices, also should be assessed to identify opportunities to increase efficiency, reduce waste and improve water conservation. Installing water-flow controls on faucet and flush systems or capturing rainwater for campus landscaping for irrigation are some examples of water-saving initiatives.

  • Indoor air quality, lighting quality and thermal comfort also are important elements of sustainability. An acceptable amount of fresh air provided through a building's HVAC system is important to the health of all building occupants. Eliminating ozone-depleting gases from HVAC, refrigeration and fire-suppression systems is critical to the integrity of the atmosphere. Bringing natural light into the interior of a building can decrease energy use and enhance productivity.

  • Materials and construction is another area where green initiatives can save schools money. Campuses can reduce waste associated with building operations and maintenance; establish recycling and conservation programs; and carry out enhanced waste-management practices. The availability of construction materials that have recycled content or are harvested from sustainable sources is growing significantly. Products such as flooring, wood products, structural-steel components or roofing materials can be obtained at prices comparable to their traditional counterparts.

  • Schools can identify exterior opportunities for promoting more sustainable campuses by assessing ways to employ exterior lighting more effectively; altering landscaping to promote native species and reduce erosion; and making better use of storm-water runoff. It also is important to reduce or protect large surface masses such as parking lots and roofing systems that absorb and concentrate large amounts of heat and affect a site's micro-climate.

Capital planning

With detailed information about the costs and benefits of potential green investments, colleges and universities can evaluate which initiatives will provide the greatest benefits over the short and long term. Each school will have different financial goals. The potential greening initiatives compete with many other capital and operational investments — for systems renewal, building renovations and new construction. Schools may single out sustainability improvements for analysis, but those investments must be assessed in the context of overall campus needs.

As schools make progress — and see results — they may decide to pursue additional greening opportunities. Further assessments may be conducted, for example, in support of major building renovations or large-scale master-planning programs. By combining this information with detailed data about overall requirements across a building portfolio, colleges and universities can develop a holistic view of facility needs.

Haifleigh is director of sustainability solutions at Boston-based VFA, Inc., a provider of solutions for facilities capital planning and asset management. She can be reached at [email protected].

  • Read the "A leading example" sidebar for more information on how one college has shown leadership by undertaking a ground-breaking approach to tracking sustainability on campus.

WEB 101

For more articles on how to go green at your school or university, sustainable design practices and planning for energy-efficiency, visit

Making existing buildings more sustainable is critical to pursuing large-scale environmental benefits.

A leading example

The "2007 Kiwi Green College Report" named the top 50 schools that "will help your kids help the planet," and Salem State College, Salem, Mass., was one of those 50. The college has shown leadership by undertaking a ground-breaking approach to tracking sustainability on campus.

Stephen Keyes, director of campus development, and Thomas Osborne, director of sustainability, saw value in combining the college's traditional facility condition assessments with green initiatives that would help the campus meet the American College & University Presidents' Climate Commitment.

The college wasn't setting aside funding for specific green initiatives, but administrators felt it was important to single out projects and costs that could enhance campus sustainability.

"We have positioned ourselves to be first in line when the funding becomes available, and the best way to accomplish that was to know where we stand currently, what we want to undertake and how much it will cost," says Keyes.

Working with its existing facilities group and a consulting team, Salem State established a specially trained green assessment team to identify potential green opportunities, and conventional operations and maintenance needs simultaneously. This approach minimized deployment costs, and the resulting data helped the school set its conventional capital funding and planning goals, as well as its sustainability goals. By working on one portion of its existing building portfolio at a time, it has been able to minimize the upfront investment and maximize the effectiveness of the dollars spent with a better decisionmaking process.

As Salem State conducts building assessments in the future, it will be able to build upon the foundation provided by the green assessment.

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