Greening Forward

Signers of 2007’s American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) acknowledge the importance of becoming carbon neutral. This group of 676 active members has promised to initiate a comprehensive plan to achieve climate neutrality with tangible steps that include building to LEED Silver standards and consuming at least 15 percent of electricity from renewable sources. Have these schools walked 
the talk? Seven case studies find some success, some disappointments, and some real change for the future.

City College of San Francisco Multi-Use Building

Designed through a collaboration of two architectural firms — Pfau Long Architect and VBN Architects — the City College of San Francisco Multi-Use Building uses its form and architecture as the predominate source of cooling. The three-story, 102,000-sq.-ft. building houses classrooms, labs, administrative offices, and other meeting rooms. The structure sets itself apart with its state-of-the-art, wind-driven natural ventilation that takes advantage of the prevailing breezes. This natural ventilation from the perimeter rooms is exhausted out through the glazed skylights at the roof level. A central atrium serves as the lungs of the building, organizing circulation and facilitating the natural ventilation process.

After five months in use, which included both record cold and hot temperatures, the building is working as designed, consuming over 40 percent less energy than a standard structure. Other features like a ground-source geothermal central plant that provides hot and cold water, vegetated roof, and integrated photovoltaic panels contribute to the success story.

"It’s a pioneering concept," says Hormoz Janssens, PE, LEED-AP, principal, Interface Engineering. "And it’s generating a lot of excitement." Janssens admits that the model would not work everywhere, particularly if the weather were extremely cold or humid. He also points out that the exposed louvers have created an acoustics challenge. Still, the building piques a lot of interest. "Universities want to be on the cutting edge of sustainability," Janssens insists, "and donors want their name associated with the latest technology."

Elizabeth Hoggatt Whatley Agricultural Complex

The second LEED Platinum building in Texas and the only LEED-certified agricultural building in Texas, the Elizabeth Hoggatt Whatley Agricultural Complex at the Northeast Texas Community College (NTCC) serves as a teaching tool to both students and the nearby citizens. "There is not a sustainable agriculture program in the state of Texas," says Dr. Charlie Apter, director of Agriculture at NTCC. "We are carving out a place in the country where no one is right now."

In operation since September 2010, the complex, designed by VLK Architects, houses a new classroom building and outdoor pavilion. Sustainable components include a rainwater harvest catchment basin, energy-efficient pumps, a lighting control system, and a photovoltaic solar array intended to provide on-site renewable energy. An energy management dashboard display in the building lobby allows individuals a chance to see the energy being produced by both the solar array and wind turbine in contrast to the energy being consumed. Sloan Harris, senior associate, VLK Architects, goes so far to say it is water-neutral as well. All of the rain is harvested and the waste is reused or recycled.

"Everything in some form or fashion is exposed so students and guests can see the complex’s inner workings," Harris continues. "The goal is to get everyone on board with sustainability." To that end, the building is intended to be a destination for both students and local residents with seminars and activities to attract the locals, while core classes draw the students.

University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC)

Known as Canada’s Green University, UNBC just installed a biomass gasification system from Nexterra Energy of BC. This system will provide heat to the core campus buildings and offset an estimated 85 percent of current natural gas consumption. Fuel will come from locally sourced wood residue.

UNBC can expect to save $600,000 to $800,000 per year in fuel costs and estimates that it will reduce greenhouse gasses by 3,500 tonnes a year.  This is actually the second biomass project on the campus grounds. In May 2009 a pellet system went online as a platform for applied research into gasification. That project’s success stoked the fire for the second, larger plant.

While biomass and gasification has been successful at UNBC, there are some caveats. "If you are running coal or oil you need skilled technicians; if you’re running natural gas you need a system that is user-friendly," says Doug Carter, CTech, assistant director – physical plant, sustainability, capital projects, UNBC. "Biomass combusting requires a different skill set altogether. You need computer-literate people with a high level of technical and trade experience."

Carter also realizes finding a constant stream of fuel could be an issue. Surrounded by huge forests, the school buys and gasifies local logging waste. "Urban locations could source construction waste," he says. But what to do with the ash waste after the process? "We are looking at agricultural uses and building uses. Some countries even use the ash in their pharmaceuticals," he says.

University of Montana

With 15,000 students and 3,000 staff members to keep warm during severe northern plains winters, the University of Montana has looked to many sources to meet their goal. "With a campus full of 100-year-old, coal-burning buildings, carbon neutrality seems more like a journey than a destination," says Bob Duringer, vice president, Administration and Finance. His first goal was to pluck the low-hanging fruit.

"We converted to compact fluorescent light bulbs and reset thermostats to lower the temperatures at night," he says. "But our biggest problem is changing behaviors campus-wide." To educate the population, Duringer held 11 public forums, with mixed results. "Some people really embrace the concept but others are more fickle," he says. "They lose interest after a month or two."

While he continues to try to convince the student body to stick with it, Duringer has taken concrete steps. All new campus buildings will be constructed to LEED Silver specifications. And in January 2012 construction will start on a biomass gasification system that is projected to reduce their carbon footprint by 22 percent. The system will convert locally sourced wood residue into clean, renewable steam that is projected to displace 70 percent of the school’s natural gas consumption. The University expects the plant to generate upwards of $1M in annual energy savings.

Connecticut College

Connecticut College’s president was one of the original signatories on the pledge for carbon neutrality. But according to Stephen George, manager of planning, design, and construction, the ACUPCC is ìjust a small piece of our commitment to sustainability. This 100-year-old-school was green before it was in vogue.

The New London-based College has wrapped that commitment inside its ambitious Asset Re-investment program, a 10-year campus renewal plan that spells out a $53M program for renovating and preserving the college’s physical facilities and campus. The program is designed to enhance technology in learning environments, revitalize student life, boost energy efficiency, and update staff and faculty office spaces.

Every new construction and renovation project has moved Connecticut College closer to carbon neutrality and has improved energy efficiency. They are presently renovating their oldest structure, a 1915 building, turning it into a LEED-certified life science center. The school is also installing a geothermal system, and replaces any cut trees with a new sapling planted in Puerto Rico. "We are committed to carbon neutrality, but meeting the criteria is hard," admits George.

Green Mountain College

As the first school in Vermont to sign the ACUPCC, Green Mountain College (GMC) in Poultney announced in May that the 700-student liberal arts school has achieved climate neutrality. They did this through a combination of efficiency, large-scale adoption of clean energy, and purchase of local carbon offsets. "We take special pride that this milestone has been achieved mostly by steep reductions in our carbon footprint here on campus, and through purchasing carbon offsets that directly benefit our Vermont economy," said GMC President Paul J. Fonteyn at the school’s commencement ceremony.

GMC’s year-old biomass plant burns locally cultivated wood chips. It is designed to provide 85 percent of the heat and 20 percent of the electricity needed for all 24 campus buildings. According to the College’s Greenhouse Gas Inventory, the biomass plant was supposed to reduce fuel oil consumption from 230,000 to 40,700 gal. per year. "We did not hit that target this year," admits Kevin Coburn, director of communications. "But we did burn far less Number 6 fuel oil than we did in the past." Another interesting note: the funding for the biomass plant’s feasibility study came largely from the Student Campus Greening Fund. This money is collected from student activity fees and students vote each year for a deserving campus environmental project.

The school buys 50 percent of their electricity from Central Vermont Public Service Corporation’s Cow Power program. This program extracts methane gas from manure produced on dairy farms and converts it into electricity.


Unlike standard renewable energy credits, Cow Power is a regional program.

Perhaps one of the reasons GMC students take environmental stewardship to heart is the curriculum, which Coburn describes as an, ìELA: environmental liberal arts, he says. "You can major in anything, but 37 of your core credits have to relate to the environment."

Chatham University, Eden Hall Campus

Can you do better than carbon neutral? The people at Chatham University in Richland Township, PA, are aiming to with their new campus. Set on 388 acres, the School of Sustainability is presently in design phase by Mithun Partners. Phase 1a and 1 consists of six buildings that will include an auditorium, Eco-center, dining hall, and cafeteria, as well as two dormitory lodges, classrooms, and a field lab.

Goals for these structures are lofty: LEED Platinum, net-zero energy, net-zero water usage, living building, and Passivhaus (a rigorous residential standard from Germany). "We have a commitment not only to be energy neutral but energy positive," says Sandy Mendler, project manager, Mithun. The project will utilize photovoltaic energy as well as wind energy and will have its own on-site water treatment plant that will create potable water from collected rainwater. All sanitary waste will be fed through a constructed wetland in such a manner to allow all waste to be processed on-site.

"The energy and water stories are exciting," continues Mendler. "It’s not just about super-efficient individual buildings but a campus-wide shared energy loop. And we will essentially become our own water district." Construction on the new campus is slated to begin in early 2012.

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