Archive for July, 2008

Publicity (Be Prepared)

Posted on July 28, 2008. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , |

The July 27th issue of The New York Times featured an article entitled “Green, Greener, Greenest” that might very well provide the first broad glimpse for many of its readers into the world of campus sustainability. The big news is that the Princeton Review will debut a “green rating” when it unveils its annual guide to colleges this week. In the article, the institutions receiving the highest green grades from the Princeton Review are revealed, though I’ll note with some frustration that we learn precious little in the article about what these wonderful leaders have accomplished, or the criteria by which the schools were assessed. And as long as I’m at it, I’ll point out the unfortunate misstatement that becoming carbon neutral is impossible without the purchase of offsets. That’s simply not true (and is worth covering in a future posting).

Missed opportunities aside, I’m reminded of P.T. Barnum’s observation that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” (though I do tend to favor the twist that Irish poet Brendan Behan added: “…except your own obituary”). The Times article will be circulated amongst campus constituencies of all levels, it will pique the interests of alumni, and it will ultimately raise all boats amongst campus sustainability professionals. New opportunities will be created, and we’ll all be thankful that the article appeared, warts and all.

I’m in my fourth year as a campus sustainability professional, and one of the biggest lessons that I have to share to date with my newer peers is about publicity and in particular the importance of developing a strong relationship with your university’s Public Affairs group to help you generate and manage publicity. They can help you to:

  • Document and share successes. The Public Affairs group is there to help you document, communicate, and celebrate successes. Let them excel at their jobs. Of course we all have a long way to go before our campus operations can be called sustainable, so be careful in the language that you choose to communicate successes, lest you be accused of green-washing. However, don’t underestimate the importance of creating a buzz to propel sustainability initiatives.
  • Inform your community. Campus greening is a hot topic, and people both within and beyond your university want to know what’s going on with your sustainability efforts. The more you share with them, the more opportunities you’ll have to be connected with those who share your mission, or who are otherwise willing to participate.
  • Raise your program’s profile. University administrators love good publicity for their institutions. Who wouldn’t? When a campus sustainability program begins to generate publicity, administrators take notice, they take pride in the accomplishments, and they open doors (wider) for new opportunities.
  • Filter media requests. Publicity breeds publicity. If you receive a lot of media requests, your Public Affairs group can function as a middleman and filter the requests, identify the focus of each request so that you can prepare, and coordinate the scheduling of interviews on your behalf.
  • Inspire others. We expect universities to inspire, to lead, and to set a good example. I’m increasingly being contacted by people in other organizations and institutions in the Houston area that have heard something about Rice’s sustainability program in the local media and want some advice in launching their own efforts. I also find that our own students get excited when they see Rice’s campus greening initiatives in the news, and they contact me to see how they become involved.

Of course, it does take some time for a university sustainability program to begin notching successes, but once it does, publicity can really accelerate progress. I would advise new campus sustainability professionals to work with Public Affairs to develop content for the campus newspaper and the alumni magazine, to try to have articles placed in local newspapers, and when something exciting with a strong visual component happens, to make a pitch to local television news programs. Effective publicity coupled with genuine results will eventually draw the attention of the national news media, such as with the Times article.

So how will the new Princeton Review green rating and the related publicity impact our jobs? A couple of years ago, I was told rather bluntly and forcefully by an admissions official that applicants do not care about environmental issues when they are selecting a college. Who was I to disagree? My experience was not with applicants, but rather with enrolled students. Regardless of whether that official has a new opinion, I will wager that because of the publicity generated by the Princeton Review ratings and articles like the one from The New York Times, my fellow campus sustainability professionals are likely to be warmly embraced by their Admissions Offices and other administrators over the coming months. We’ll also be spending more time with our Public Affairs group, to help generate the publicity we need to draw attention to and fuel our programs, and to improve our ratings. And, perhaps, our collegial little community of campus sustainability professionals will become a dash more competitive, now that the machinery of college ratings has become involved. Be prepared.

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An Hour Well Spent

Posted on July 16, 2008. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , |

Our new fiscal year at Rice began on July 1, and with it, a new reality of energy prices that have blown a multi-million dollar hole in our budget. Like many of you I’m sure, we’re now drafting a campus energy policy, we’re identifying and implementing various energy conservation measures, and we’re preparing a set of proposed conservation projects for the next capital budget cycle. Running parallel is the effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to draft a climate action plan. Sound familiar?

Not long ago, being the standard-bearer for sustainability meant flying into a strong headwind. My observation is that the winds shifted direction for many of us over the past couple of years, and we’re instead being propelled by a robust tailwind. We’re now awash in opportunities, and yet ours is such a young profession that we’re still learning how to run campus sustainability offices and how to function effectively in our roles. With so many of us in similar places on the learning curve, we are quite fortunate when we can tap the knowledge of one of our few counterparts that has actually been working in this business for a decade or more.

One of the true leaders in energy conservation in higher education is Walter Simpson, the University Energy Officer for University at Buffalo, in the SUNY system. Walter was the featured speaker in a recent free APPA Webinar entitled “Reducing Greenhouse Gases & Achieving Climate Neutrality” that originally streamed on June 18, 2008. In his talk, he presented twenty “programmatic ingredients” as part of a “recipe for success” for saving energy and cutting greenhouse gas emissions, many of which were discussed in-depth, with valuable lessons offered. The presentation is still accessible online (click here). If you too are engaged in the twin efforts of energy conservation and greenhouse gas reductions, do consider devoting a quiet hour of time to learn from Walter’s experiences.

Afterwards, explore the web site of the playfully-named UB Green office, including their You Have the Power energy conservation campaign. Finally, give some serious thought to what it means to have saved a university over $100 million in cumulative energy costs – and the associated emissions and environmental impact prevented – as Walter has done. If AASHE ever develops an award for lifetime achievement for campus sustainability professionals, my nomination for first recipient would be Walter Simpson.

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Putting Recycling in Perspective (A Perspective on Recycling)

Posted on July 10, 2008. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , |

I spend a lot of time in the classroom. Often when I’m making my first appearance in front of a particular class, I will begin by asking the students to “grade” Rice’s sustainability efforts. After I’ve tallied the votes for the various letter grades, I will then ask for comments for why people voted as they did. The replies are almost always about the same thing: recycling.

I love recycling. I’ll readily confess that I derive perhaps a bit too much satisfaction out of recycling oddball items like worn-out athletic shoes and 80’s-vintage personal computers. My garage is full of miscellaneous items waiting to be recycled. For those of us who were kids in the 70s, how could you not feel good about recycling after watching all of those Keep America Beautiful commercials with “the crying Indian” (see here and here)? Certainly a campus solid waste recycling program needs to be a component of a university’s overall bundle of sustainability initiatives, but if students are viewing recycling as the most critical initiative, is it time that we put recycling into perspective?

Suppose for the sake of discussion that we believe global warming to be our greatest environmental challenge. Let’s then assume that Rice neither recycled nor composted a single pound of waste, and instead all of that material was trucked to a landfill without methane capture. The result would be that our solid waste would account for about 2,000 metric tons (“tonnes”) of CO2-equivalent emissions each year, which sounds like a lot but is actually just below 2% of the university’s total annual greenhouse gas emissions for 2006, far behind energy consumption (first) and transportation (a distant second). Under this scenario, if we recycled or composted everything, then we’d avoid emitting those 2,000 tonnes, which is the combined annual carbon footprint of about 150 of our students.

However, our solid waste goes to a landfill with methane capture used for electricity generation. Even if we didn’t recycle or compost anything, this switch to a better landfill reduces the greenhouse gas impact of our solid waste by 85%, down to about 300 tonnes. At best, if we recycled or composted everything, we’d avoid emitting those 300 tonnes, which is the combined annual carbon footprint of about 22 of our students.

We do of course recycle and we compost much of our landscaping waste too. In total, our institutional solid waste stream including recycling and composting accounts for just 0.25% of our total campus greenhouse gas emissions. If contribution to global warming is your yardstick for measuring the success of a university’s sustainability initiatives, then you’ve lost your sense of scale if you grade that program based on recycling.

Looking beyond just global warming impact to total ecological footprint, we see a similar conclusion: it’s all about energy. The report Ecological Footprint of Nations: 2005 Update shows that more than 90% of the ecological footprint of the United States is related to the production and consumption of energy.

Some of you might be gritting your teeth at this point because I’ve not discussed the upstream impacts and benefits of recycling, which are much more significant than the downstream effects, and I’ve also treated recycling as if there’s no connection to energy consumption. Fair enough. For years recycling has been represented as a necessary action due to vanishing landfill capacity, which is an argument that misses the big picture. The reason to recycle is because of the upstream benefits. In our economy, only 4% of the materials that we extract end up in actual products, and the other 96% are already waste by the time we’ve even purchased the products.[1] Then most products we buy are thrown away almost immediately, meaning perhaps just 1-2% of the materials in our economy end up in goods of long-term value. The rest is waste. By recycling, we can eliminate a considerable share of this “upstream” environmental impact. Forget the landfill; recycling is all about preventing the future extraction and manufacturing of materials, the consumption of energy to drive these processes, and the associated environmental consequences of each. This is especially true for the recycling of metals.

What does recycling mean from an energy perspective? According to the US Green Building Council, the heating, cooling, and powering of buildings accounts for 39% of our national energy consumption, followed by the fueling of the transportation sector at 32%, and finally industry at 29%. The energy benefits of recycling are most likely to be realized within the industry category. While I have no sense of the exact amount of such benefits, it certainly would not exceed the total share of energy consumed by industry. Again, this simply helps us to see recycling in a proper scale.

This brings us back to the classroom. Despite the overwhelming number of responses concerning recycling, there is always at least one student who comments that our buildings are over-cooled, and that student is the one on the right track. Another might then ask where our energy comes from, and that is critically important, but it’s not a question that I frequently hear.

Yes, there are numerous environmental benefits to recycling, and beyond just that, it’s conceptually representative of the kind of closed-loop materials economy that we need to be moving towards. There is genuine value in people participating in such a system in a reflexive and visible way. However, more importantly, that closed-loop economy needs to be powered by clean, renewable, affordable energy. So is recycling an important part of a campus sustainability program? Yes. Should it be the primary measure by which a campus sustainability program is judged? Absolutely not.


[1] Data obtained in personal communication with Professor Robert Ayres in 2005. See his work in Frontiers of Environmental Economics, edited by Folmer, Gabel, Gerking and Rose (Elgar, 2001).

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Water Efficiency, LEED, and the Attack of the Naysayer

Posted on July 2, 2008. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , |

“This LEED stuff doesn’t work, and it will cost you more!”

One of the challenges that campus sustainability professionals face is that we are charged to create change. Our very position requires that we suspend the status quo, and convince others to do so as well. Within any organization, there will always be those who are open to change, those who will go along if they sense others are doing so, and those will resist change altogether.

For some then, the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system for green building must be downright threatening. That is, until they realize that it’s actually not.

A plumbing subcontractor for one of our LEED new construction projects announced at the beginning of a recent meeting to review water fixture submittals that “this LEED stuff doesn’t work, and it will cost you more.” I might have expected such a comment in 2004 or even 2005 when LEED was somewhat new to the Houston market, but the combination of a rapid shift towards green building by prominent facility owners (such as the City of Houston, NASA, Hines, Rice University, etc.) coupled with Houston’s recent construction boom has created a transformation in the green building capabilities across our local design and construction industry. In fact, a report released this past March ranked Houston second in the nation in total square footage of green development, ownership, and occupancy, behind only Los Angeles.

Entering the meeting, we had the three challenges. First, we wanted to achieve the LEED credit for achieving at least 20% water efficiency. Second, the specified fixture list that had gone out for bid met only the maximum water consumption threshold allowed by federal law. From a LEED perspective, we were starting with a 0% water efficiency. Third, we could not spend a single penny more above the bid for water fixtures. And then add on top of that, a critical team member had thrown down the gauntlet; that any change we wanted to make for LEED was not going to work, and it would cost us more.

While I’m not a plumbing expert, I had worked years ago as an engineer for a water and sewer utility, so I knew that the market for water-efficient fixtures was quite mature. Prior to the meeting, I had consulted three sources of information. First, the February 2008 issue of Environmental Building News featured a detailed cover article about water-efficient fixtures. (If you can only subscribe to one green building products publication, let this be the one.) Second, the Environmental Protection Agency has launched a labeling program for water-efficient fixtures called WaterSense. Think EnergyStar, but for water. Though the program is still nascent, the web site contains excellent guidance for several categories of water fixtures. Third, through the GRNSCH-L listserv, I had received an outstanding response on a query about experiences with water efficient fixtures from Nathan Gauthier, Assistant Director of the Harvard Green Campus Initiative.

I also ran some preliminary scenarios on a spreadsheet before the meeting to get a sense of where my best water savings opportunities might be. I had four fixture categories to consider, and I’ll present the maximum allowable flows in parenthesis: toilets (1.6 gallons per flush), showerheads (2.5 gallons per minute), bathroom sinks (2.5 gpm), and kitchen sinks (2.5 gpm). My fear was that if I had to rely upon changing the toilets I’d be sunk, as dual-flush and pressure-assisted flush toilets command a premium above the baseline 1.6 gallons per flush fixtures that we had specified. Fortunately, the numbers were showing that I could reduce water consumption considerably just through the faucets and showerheads. But would it be enough? And would it cost more?

As we began the review of plumbing fixtures, our plumbing subcontractor leapt right to the toilets category, saying that he’d have to provide plungers if we made him change the specified toilet. I asked that we table the toilets discussion and review our other fixtures first, and then see where we stood from a LEED perspective. So first, we reviewed showerheads. Our research suggested that 2.0 gpm showerheads provided high quality showers, and were readily available. The plumber agreed. Any cost premium? No. Next, we considered the bathroom sinks. While code allows up to 2.5 gpm, the types of functions performed at a bathroom sink – like brushing teeth – do not require large volumes of water. We asked if 0.5 gpm aerators were available, and if they performed well. The answer was yes. We suspected that this was so, based on the information that we had from Harvard. But was their a cost premium? No. Then, we decided to be somewhat conservative with kitchen sinks. Keeping in mind that our residents would be using their kitchen sinks to fill pots with water, we decided to try 1.5 gpm aerators. Any cost premium? None.

At this point, we ran our numbers:

  • Total water savings above the baseline: 21%
  • Gallons of water saved per year: 450,000, based on year-round occupancy.
  • Annual utility savings: $3,300
  • Increased cost to construction budget: $0

Jackpot! We had achieved our objectives without touching the toilets. Further, with everyone in the room having had the opportunity to run through the LEED water efficiency process together, it was clear that we could reduce water consumption by at least 20% through proven and accepted off-the-shelf plumbing products without impacting the budget. In fact, we all saw first-hand how surprisingly easy it could be.

I took away several lessons from this experience. First, do your homework. The internet is a great information equalizer. Based on the three key sources that I cited, I didn’t need to be an expert in plumbing to know that our goal was achievable. I just needed to understand where our best opportunities for water savings based on our particular building could be found. Second, don’t be afraid to disagree with an expert. If you have done your homework, then don’t be satisfied with a contrary opinion until you are 100% convinced. Third, you don’t have to spend more to save water. This should be self-evident by now. And fourth, consult with your fellow campus sustainability professionals when you have questions. This is a new profession, and many of us started within a year or two of each other. Chances are, if you are facing a particular question, several of your peers have encountered it too, and probably have experiences to share and guidance to offer. I have found that the campus sustainability professional community is quite unselfish when it comes to devoting time to assist others or to share knowledge.

This was a minor victory. We didn’t do anything particularly innovative regarding water fixtures. We could have even pushed the savings a bit further without impacting budget. But we did change the status quo, albeit modestly, and exposed the canard that LEED equates to increased cost and poor performance.

So given what we achieved in our water fixture review meeting, the question then becomes if we can cut water consumption by 20% with no increase in cost, why didn’t our consultants design the building that way from the beginning? Why is the default to design to the worst possible performance that is permissible under federal law? And why didn’t we as building owners already have stricter requirements incorporated into our standards? Blame the status quo.

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    Insights and observations on the campus greening movement, from the perspective of a campus sustainability professional

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