By Racquel Palmese
During tough economic times, when bonds to fund building projects at community colleges may be difficult to vote in or to sell and new construction is not keeping up the pace it had a few years ago, how does the largest green building organization in the world keep the train going down the track? In a conversation with Green Technology Magazine, Jaime Van Mourik, higher education sector manager for the U.S. Green Building Council, says it’s about planning for the future and focusing on making the most of what already exists.
When it comes to efforts to green their campuses, how are colleges coping with lower levels of funding?
Many institutions saw drops in their endowments or funding, and they're starting to assess where their money is going. They want to make decisions that are going to affect their bottom line, and things like energy efficiency projects and understanding how they're utilizing their physical facilities are very important now.
Institutions are asking key questions such as: Are there opportunities to make some shifts? Do we really need to build new, or can we redesign spaces within our existing buildings?
How are things shifting at the USGBC?
For many professionals within the building industry - architects, engineers, landscape architects - there's a new door that opens in a down economy. For example, I have spoken with a number of architects who have started to really look at the LEED for Existing Buildings: Operations and Maintenance rating system as a tool for clients interested in greening their existing buildings.
They are interested in facilitating conversations with their clients about upgrades to existing facilities and in using their skills as problem solvers to help their clients navigate through projects. They can help their clients research what upgrades could look like, help them write policies and build out educational programs.
I think the downturn in the economy has really created an opportunity to build out a new scope of services for many of these consultants and suppliers to help institutions with their climate action planning, their greenhouse gas inventories, writing comprehensive sustainability plans, perhaps even writing a campus performance plan. Then they can walk them through the process and help to train and build the capacity that the institutions need to be able to move forward.
At the same time, there are building projects going on in many community college districts. What are you seeing in terms of green building?
Every day we hear that something's happening at an institution. In terms of LEED certification, currently community colleges in the US account for almost 3.7 million certified square feet. Of this number, California’s community colleges represent over 1 million LEED certified square feet. There is an additional 11.1 million square feet at community colleges in California registered for LEED but not yet certified. Many of these projects are still ongoing. This is out of a total in the US of almost 30 million square feet. California accounts for over a third of the total; it’s clearly a leader in green building in this sector.
On a weekly basis, AASHE [the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education] publishes a bulletin, which is filled with green building activities -on campus. Four-year institutions, two-year institutions, technical colleges, minority serving institutions - there's definitely activity.
We are constantly encouraged by the efforts of these institutions that have made a commitment to build and renovate in a sustainable and responsible manner. They are considering what the cost of maintaining and operating their new facilities will be over 50, 100, even 150 years, and making decisions based on current and future budgets.
Also, institutions are getting questioned by prospective students. The Princeton Review has found that 68 percent of prospective college students are assessing campuses based on their environmental attributes. They're asking what are the commitments that you've made? How are you holding yourself accountable?
Is this because students are invested in a green future?
Students are getting very savvy. They're looking for the LEED certification plaques on campuses because that tells them the institution has made a formal commitment to sustainability. So much is happening in the K-12 world as we continue to educate for sustainability and develop sustainability natives [children who naturally embrace environmentally conscious behavior]. These are going to be the students that in a few years are going to be at the doors of higher education. So colleges need to be ready for them.
Being in a green building is part of that education, isn't it?
Absolutely. We're seeing more and more instances where campuses are using their buildings as teaching tools. We talk about how a campus can act as a living laboratory, how students can learn by their surroundings. Creating these really rich learning spaces helps students walk away from college as global citizens that really understand what sustainability means. They then make decisions based on everything that they have learned.
A lot of institutions are starting to ask how do we infuse sustainability across the curriculum? At USGBC we're asking, how can you use your green buildings to enhance the curriculum? How can you start building in more hands-on learning experiences? For instance, at the LACCD they have over 90 projects registered for LEED certification on their 9 campuses. The money that was appropriated through bonds to help them renovate and build green does not include green building education. LACCD is working with the Los Angeles Chapter of the USGBC to develop courses and provide mentorship opportunities as part of a one-year intern program for students who will support the LEED project teams. This is a great example of how students can get engaged in green building on campus and be part of the solution.
From what you’re saying, we’re in a period of change in green building, Especially at where we can assess and figure out where we want to go and how to get there.
Right. It's not so much about building new, it's also about the spaces that are going to have to get renovated on a campus, new classroom spaces, new office spaces. It’s important to keep learning about the breakthroughs in technology and best practices at conferences. Everybody in the building industry, and beyond the building industry, should be part of this continuous learning. Conferences offer just that, and they also offer the opportunity to network and to meet new people.
When the market turns and we start to again see a focus on building, it's going to be those people that have positioned themselves as being extremely knowledgeable in green building practices who will get the work.
You have a new resource coming out that will help people position themselves well in this new paradigm. Tell us about it.
Yes, the resource is titled the Roadmap to a Green Campus. It will map a pathway to a green campus, identifying stops along the way. The first stop would be commitment, and then engaging your stakeholders and creating a team, then assessing what's already happening on campus, then creating a plan and building up a capacity to carry it through, then using your campus as a living laboratory.
The Roadmap will be around 120 pages and will have references to about 100 tools and resources, both USGBC and non-USGBC. It will also profile green campus success stories for each of the different sections. It will be an online resource, a downloadable PDF. As much as we can, we like to create resources that are free to this community, so we can continue to facilitate the conversation about green campuses. We’re hoping to have it done sometime in August. Keep checking the Green Campus Campaign webpage.
Is there a message you’d like to share with Green Technology readers?
Yes. We all need to be visionaries. We all need to look 10, 20, 50 years down the road. We can't get caught up just thinking about today. We need to prepare for what's coming and be ready for it. So when things are a little slower, as they are now, there are opportunities to be more creative, to think outside the box and to work with others on that. Is it challenging? Yes, but I think it's also very exciting.