How are colleges retooling for sustainability

Acting locally with a green mindset and cost-cutting savvy, universities have breathed new life into old spaces.

Higher education institutions can venerate or perpetuate hallowed traditions. Institutions have had a reputation for infrastructure conservatism. William Rees’ 2003 article “Impeding Sustainability? The Ecological Footprint of Higher Education” states “the real challenge for higher education is to help articulate an alternative life-sustaining worldview.” Today, campuses lead the transformation to sustainability, demonstrating its value nationwide.

Economic and environmental sustainability influence students’ perceptions and values and the building process. Acting locally with a green mindset and cost-cutting savvy, universities have breathed new life into old spaces.

Preparing for an Economically Sustainable Future

Economic sustainability is both global and local. While colleges haven’t always prioritized sustainability, they are now promoting it through building designs.

Today’s students have grown up with reducing, reusing and recycling. Sustainability is a household term. They anticipate a workforce that emphasizes sustainability. Being educated in a sustainable environment shapes students’ perceptions and values, preparing them for today’s greener marketplace.

The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education rewards sustainability leadership in Education and Research, Operations, and Planning-Administration-Engagement. Colleges are transforming the old pedagogy of growth to one of stewardship. Education allows for personal development through innovation, creativity, and critical thinking.

The Time for Transformation is Now

Colleges connect to the world via community involvement, student ties to industry, and cooperation with government and nonprofit institutions. Committing to sustainability instills this transforming wisdom into future leaders.

Answering a Call for Sustainability

Clarion University expanded two dormitories, pursuing LEED certification. SSOE performed the mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and fire protection for Phase 1. Construction couldn’t disturb other buildings or student safety. SSOE installed primary vaults, conductors, pad-mounted switches and transformers from the substation. Inside, SSOE completed power distribution, lighting, voice data, cabling, fire alarms, and security systems. Water-source heat pumps were the primary cooling technology.

LEED certification looked at lighting performance, high-efficiency plumbing fixtures, and a water-source heat pump HVAC system. Central utility steam generated semi-instantaneous domestic water, reducing energy loss from old water heating tanks.

Sports facilities are flagships for sustainable design because of their scale and exposure to non-students. The University of Toledo expanded and upgraded Savage Arena. The 163,000 sf LEED-Gold-certified facility features a new entry pavilion, improved lockers, weight and training facilities, and specialty seating. SSOE reallocated part of the facility (formerly racquetball courts) to a steam power generation plant for the campus. Among other achievements, the project:

  • Reduced water consumption by 20% using landscaping materials that require little to no irrigation.
  • Installed low-flush toilets.
  • Used certified wood and recycled content materials.
  • Diverted or recycled over 50% of construction waste.

Historically, sustainability was an abstraction harkening to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Today, sustainability is a compelling reality. On campuses, it is a symbol of integrity inspiring students, faculty, and sports fans.

Modular, Flexible Materials

Modular lab design pioneers are reaping benefits from a lifecycle approach. The University of Toledo’s Wolfe hall, built in 1995 exemplifies this. In a recent renovation, 80% of the removed casework was reused, retrofitting old casework in the new environment with no proprietary restriction to one manufacturer.

All cabinets were advantageously based on a 4’ platform, making replacements interchangeable. The lab perimeters were modular with flexible pieces occupying the center. High-quality original materials that could be repurposed saved money, time, and the environment.

These projects accomplished both sustainability and cost savings. Quality materials enable reuse later for a sustainable and inexpensive lasting solution.

Acting Locally

Higher education models technologies for the community, including renewables, conservation, and mass transportation and practices sustainability in building design and construction.

Encouraging Sustainability K-12 and Beyond

Educational curricula espouse sustainability at all levels. Sylvania, Ohio advanced sustainability by incorporating strategies with demonstrable cost savings amidst reduced public funding. Sylvania rebuilt a 1920’s school, incorporating geothermal heating and cooling. The facility, nearly twice its original size, is highly efficient. Daylighting in south-facing classrooms decreased artificial lighting requirements. High-quality insulation reduced HVAC costs and paid for themselves quickly.

Toledo Public Schools had another incentive which was a LEED Silver renovation of the 100 year old Scott High School, as part of their $650,000,000 state supported rebuild program. Designers used construction debris recycling, energy-efficient lighting, water-efficient plumbing, and energy recovery in mechanical systems.

The University of Alabama-Birmingham added a bi-level parking deck addition with 250 stalls. SSOE provided expertise in rainwater harvesting. Rainwater was redirected to an underground collection system. This was the first rainwater harvesting project completed by UAB, and it reduced irrigation water. The facility remained operational during renovations.

—Joe Kunkle, AIA, PE, LEED AP, is principal account executive at SSOE Group, a global engineering, procurement and construction-management firm. He can be reached at 419.255.3830 or [email protected]. 


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