sustainability

Benchmarking Campus Sustainability Newsletters

Posted on July 1, 2015. Filed under: Communications, sustainability | Tags: , , , |

As a campus sustainability officer, I’m well aware of the need for continuous communication to my campus community, yet with limited time and staff I have to be careful about striking the right balance between communications and, well, everything else.  Thanks to the hiring of a student intern as well as partnerships with my department’s communications team, I finally feel like we’re getting a handle on our social media planning.  However, I’ve long felt the need to develop a regular newsletter from the sustainability office, and this summer I’ve finally decided that it’s time to make it happen.

In May and June of 2015, my intern Veronica and I conducted a review of sustainability newsletters from sustainability offices across the nation. After analyzing the design and content of over thirty newsletters, we narrowed down our list to ten newsletters that stood out above the rest.  We then reached out to the appropriate contacts for each of those newsletters to schedule a benchmarking phone interview in order to learn more about their experiences.  In telephone interviews of typically 20-30 minutes in length, we asked a series of questions related to the frequency, reach, target audience, content, means of distribution, preparation time, and measures of performance of sustainability office newsletters.  For the benefit of sharing knowledge with my fellow campus sustainability professionals, we are sharing our findings below.

1. FREQUENCY OF THE NEWSLETTER
Eight out of ten universities publish their newsletter monthly, and the other two publish bi-weekly (although some alter their publication frequency when school is not in session).  The consensus opinion is that the best time to send out the newsletters is mid-week, primarily Wednesday and Thursday.  Further, several contacts suggested that morning tends to be the best delivery time.  Having a set schedule is important, however, interviewees also indicated that one should avoid sending out a newsletter without substantive content just to meet a self-imposed publication deadline.

2. TARGET AUDIENCE
We found considerable variation in the responses to the question “who is your target audience?”  Four of the ten universities have students as their only primary target audience.  Two of the ten universities have staff and faculty as their only primary target audience.  Four of the ten universities do not have a specific target audience and try to include content that is relevant for anyone on campus, graduated, or in the local community.  The variation in these responses was often reflected in the design of the newsletters themselves and the kind of content included.  Those newsletters serving multiple audiences had a balanced feel with “targeted” sections whereas others with a more singular focus not surprisingly geared their content specifically for that focus group.

3. SIZE OF AUDIENCE
The number of sustainability office newsletter subscribers varied considerably between institutions, as the total number of subscribers ranged from a little less than 100 subscribers to 20,000 subscribers.

Number of Newsletter Subscribers

Subscribers

Six of the ten universities have over a thousand subscribers for their newsletter.  This is not necessarily surprising given the range in institutional size within our study group. To account for this, we calculated the number of subscribers per enrolled student and found a range from less than 1% to almost 46%.  However, the university with almost 46% of enrolled students as subscribers also now automatically enrolls all incoming first year students.  If we remove that data point, the next highest figure is about 22%.  The typical range of subscribers as a percentage of total enrollment was 6% to 14%.  An additional factor that plays into the large range of number of subscribers is the date the newsletter was established.  Some university newsletters were started less than a year ago while others have been around for a significantly longer time.  The range of subscribers per year was between 100 and 1750 (again taking out the university that automatically enrolls all incoming first year students).

4. BUILDING AN INITIAL AUDIENCE

We identified several common themes regarding building an initial audience for the newsletter.  They are as follows:

  • Presence at Events: Eight of the ten universities brought a sign-up sheet and/or laptop to campus-wide events – specifically student activities fairs, welcome week events, earth day festivals, and staff events – to build the number of subscribers.
  • Utilizing Environmental Leaders: Four of the ten universities reached out to environmental leaders on the campus to add subscribers and promote their newsletter, specifically sustainability committees, green team members, EcoReps, and other student environmental leaders.
  • Utilizing Existing Listservs: Five of the ten universities sent their newsletter to existing environmental listservs, specifically to campus departments and student organizations.
  • Cross Promotion on Social Media: Four of the ten universities cross-promote their newsletter on their social media pages such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.  One school even uses teasers (“here’s what you missed if you didn’t sign-up for the newsletter”) to build connections between social media and newsletter.
  • Sign Up on Website: Almost all of the ten universities include a signup link on their department’s sustainability website.

5. SELECTING CONTENT

The most common content items featured within the newsletters are campus-specific sustainability news and upcoming events.  Four of the ten schools also included broader sustainability news (local, national, international, etc.), a listing of jobs & opportunities, and an “individual spotlight” (featuring a staff member, student, etc.) in their newsletter.  Nine of the ten universities included links to their social media accounts in their newsletters.

Newsletter Content Items

Content Items

We received a number of insights from interviewees regarding content, including:

  • Always Use Photos: Pictures are popular, especially those that include people.  Generally photos get more clicks right away over just text.
  • Feature Stories About People: Empower people by giving credit, recognizing the work of others, and focusing on the people behind the work.  People have a strong emotional communication to human stories, especially when they recognize names.
  • Direct Readers to the Web Site: Many of the newsletters will link stories back to the sustainability web site, thus providing broader coverage and multiple uses for content while also keeping the web site “fresh”.

Although not directly asked about kick-off meetings for each new publication cycle, several interviewees offered that the start of each newsletter process begins with a staff meeting in which content items are discussed and responsibilities are assigned.  A few days to a week prior to publication, some of the interviewees engage another person (such as the sustainability officer) to review the newsletter, offer edits, and to ensure a consistent voice in a professional tone.

When asked whether they directly solicit donations for the campus sustainability office via the newsletter, only two replied affirmatively.  Most either do not have a way to collect donations (deliberately or not) or they use other means to do so.

We observed a varying level of interplay between social media and newsletters.  When asked specifically whether their institutions used national hashtags in their sustainability social media, only three universities reported using any.  Specifically, those universities used hashtags during nation-wide sustainability events such as Recyclemania and Campus Conservation Nationals.

6. TIME/PERSONNEL TO CREATE NEWSLETTER

Of particular note, of the ten universities that we contacted, seven have staff other than the sustainability officer who are tasked with creating the newsletter.  These staff members typically hold communications or outreach positions, although not exclusively.  Student interns are commonly used to help support (and in some cases lead) the creation of newsletters.  There is at least one intern working on the newsletter for seven out of the ten universities.

The time spent in creating the newsletter varies markedly, from as little as 2-3 hours to as many as 60-70 hours per newsletter.  Six of the ten universities spend more than 10 hours working on their newsletter.

Hours Spent Producing the Newsletter

Hours

7. DISTRIBUTION

Six of the ten universities use an email marketing service to distribute their newsletter.  The most common email marketing service used is MailChimp.  All of the universities that use MailChimp are happy with it and its ability to track metrics, although one cited challenges with newsletters from MailChimp landing in “spam” folders.

Method of Distributing Newsletter

Distribution

8. KEY METRICS

Seven of ten universities track metrics related to their newsletter.  The most common metrics were:

  • Subscribers: number of subscribers, growth of subscriber list, who’s subscribing/unsubscribing, and people with the most “opens.”
  • Clickable Links: click-through rate, percentage of clicks, top links clicked, what is more popular and why.
  • AB Testing: testing content to see what performs best – i.e. subject line or time of day/week.  Clickbait subject titles, such as a summary of newsletter content, increase the open rate.
  • Total Hits: number of emails sent, percentage of opens
  • Website Traffic: how many people driving to web site.  In order to keep the sustainability website traffic, some universities link their newsletter and all of its stories and events back to their web site.  The website traffic is trackable via Google Analytics or Bitly.

Closing Thoughts

For me, sustainability office newsletters and the rise of the campus sustainability office communications manager job category is indicative of the further maturing of this profession of ours.  Yet, much like in the earlier days of the profession itself, there is a distinct homegrown quality and character to what each newsletter has been designed to achieve.  Hopefully the information shared above will put other campus sustainability offices in the position of launching their own newsletters, or enable those with existing newsletters to benefit from the experiences of others.

I would like to thank my intern Veronica Johnson for leading this benchmarking exercise and for co-authoring this post.

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Empathy, Transformation, and Leadership: A Brief Reflection on AASHE 2012

Posted on October 16, 2012. Filed under: sustainability | Tags: , , , , , , , , , |

For the past 48 hours, I’ve been taking a deep and nourishing drink from the campus sustainability firehose at the AASHE 2012 conference.  Going all the way back to the very first AASHE conference in Tempe, Arizona in 2006, I’ve found these gatherings to be both educational and inspirational.  Other than that magical first gathering on the Arizona State University campus six years ago, this year’s conference in Los Angeles might very well have been the best one yet.  As I pour over my pages and pages of notes and reflect on the experience, I find that three themes emerge from the pages: empathy, transformation, and leadership.

First, empathy.  This was the theme that caught me by surprise.  The moving keynote performance by Dr. Robert Davies and the Fry Street Quartet humanized our collapsing environmental systems in a collage of images, music, and scientific data so effectively that many in the audience were in tears by the end.  I had to spend a few minutes gathering myself after the session, reminding myself that this is why I chose this profession, that this is why I – and so many others – continue to fight for a better future.  As Monty Hempel observed the next day, human empathy is the gateway to sustainability.  This led Dave Newport to ask a most important question: “How do we turn our human empathy back on?”  I’d like to think that if we can an answer to Dave’s question, we might actually transform the world.

Yes, transformation.  From the opening keynote to the closing awards ceremony, transformation was interwoven throughout the conference.  Hunter Lovins spoke of transformation of higher education with the emergence of online educational tools, a topic I covered recently when I suggested that online education could be the biggest sustainability initiative ever in higher education.  Unfortunately, aside from Hunter Lovins, there were to my knowledge no further serious discussions about online education and sustainability in any of the conference presentations.  If the same holds true next year, I will truly be shocked.

Numerous sessions explored transformations in how we design and construct buildings for university campuses, including experiences with net-zero energy buildings as well as those that meet the stringent guidelines of the Living Building Challenge (LBC).  But even the LBC was itself challenged as not being sustainable, with restorative design identified as the next milestone on the horizon.  Steve Baumgartner of Buro Happold suggested that next year at AASHE, we need to discuss what the word living actually means when applied to a building, because the “living building” designation of the LBC is in itself misleading.  The state-of-the-art has progressed dramatically since the first AASHE conference in 2006, but whether the average new campus building has transformed all that much in the past six years is another question altogether.

That 2006 conference witnessed the announcement of the founding of Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability, a truly transformational moment in sustainability education in higher ed.  Far too few schools have followed ASU’s lead, although the number of majors, minors, and certificate programs related to sustainability has blossomed.  Shirley Vincent of the National Council for Science and the Environment presented a detailed census of such programs, reporting that there are now 143 sustainability degrees, 298 sustainability specializations within degree programs (such as civil engineering or architecture), and 294 minors and certificates in sustainability.  The numbers look impressive – until you realize that there are about 3,400 two-year and four-year institutions of higher education (not including the for-profits).   In other words, there are only 0.2 sustainability major, minor, specialization, or certificate programs per college.  The transformation might very well come from online programs, because the pace of change at most schools to date – including my own – has been far too slow.

The final emergent theme from AASHE 2012 was leadership.  Mike Shriberg presented a compelling sustainability leadership program at the University of Michigan, with a limited and tightly-knit cohort of 25 students admitted per year traveling together through an 11 credit sequence to equip them to become leaders for a sustainable future.  But what does sustainability leadership mean?  A team from Portland State University led by Dr. Heather Burns posed this question in a workshop at the end of the conference, and the responses from the participants included the following:

  • “Sustainability leadership is a change of heart… beating in rhythm with the world” [there’s that empathy theme again!]
  • “It’s leadership embedded in natural systems, educating and communicating to bring others to that frame.”
  • “It’s setting the example.”
  • “It’s being humble and knowing when to ask the right question.”
  • “It’s being a catalyst, a change agent, a co-creator, a collaborator.”
  • “It’s the ability to reimagine the world, and to motivate others with that vision.”
  • “It’s an emergent quality, shared for a period of time, and then passed on to others.”
  • “It’s showing instead of telling.”
  • “It’s a burden!”

Empathy, transformation, leadership… these were the threads that tied together the AASHE 2012 experience for me.  As Robert Davies instructed, “It’s now time for us to believe what we know…  None of our efforts are enough just yet…  We must transform, or collapse.”  Sobering words.  If ever there was a time for empathetic and transformational leadership, now is the time.  But this is not a task to outsource to others; it’s one to take on ourselves.  As Gandhi observed, “We must be the change we wish to see.”

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Are We Missing the Obvious?

Posted on September 24, 2012. Filed under: sustainability, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , |

In the past year, we’ve witnessed some of the most dramatic changes ever in higher education.  A quick and incomplete list of the forces at work includes:

  • Declining federal and state budget support,
  • Soaring tuition costs and student debt burdens,
  • Game-changing technologies in the delivery of education,
  • Restructuring economies requiring lifelong learning for workers,
  • Increasingly global competition amongst universities, and
  • Aging facilities and faculties.

Indeed, as we see the business model for higher education being “blown to bits” – to borrow jargon from the dot-com days of the late 90s – many are even questioning whether college is “worth it” anymore.

For those of us in the campus sustainability movement, we’ve been working tirelessly to reduce carbon footprints, squeeze energy and water savings out of existing facilities, incorporate sustainable design features into new buildings, reduce waste streams, advocate for environmental curricula, and transform the university physical plant itself into a laboratory for learning about sustainability.  But in my view, we’ve been missing the obvious: the rise of online education could be the biggest sustainability initiative in all of higher education.

I see three reasons to support this claim.  First, consider the environmental impact of the treadmill of new construction.  According to a recent article in GreenSource Magazine, “It can take between 20 and 80 years for the impacts of a building’s operation to catch up with the impacts of its initial construction: For the first few decades of a building’s life most of its environmental footprint is from the materials used to make it.”[1]

That statistic stopped me in my tracks.  So according to GreenSource, the annual environmental impact of operating a building represents 1.25% to 5% of the environmental impact of constructing the building.  Ask yourself, where have you focused your attention as a campus sustainability professional?  Has it been primarily on how the building will (or does) operate, or on what the building is made of and how those materials were extracted, manufactured, and transported?  Chances are that you’ve spent most of your time on the former, and little on the latter, when in fact we should have done the opposite.  Don’t get me wrong, I warmly embrace those who pursue buildings that produce more energy than they consume.  But the hard truth is that in 2012, the greenest building is the building you don’t build (but please note that you won’t get a LEED certification for that decision).

As universities evolve to a “bricks and clicks” model – to borrow another phrase from the late 90s dot-com lexicon – they can potentially serve many more enrolled students without increasing their square footage.  As my boss, Dr. Barbara Bryson, suggested to me recently, suppose a small struggling college decided to change to a model with two alternating cohorts.  While one cohort would reside on campus for a set period of time, students in the other would use the burgeoning variety of online educational tools to advance their education.  And then after a certain amount of time – perhaps a few weeks – the two cohorts would switch, with the second cohort now residing on campus, and the first cohort using the online educational tools.  Back and forth they would alternate across the span of an academic year.  With that one bold change, that struggling college could double its enrollment without adding a single square foot of additional facilities to campus.  Remember that the greenest building is the one that you don’t build?

The second reason to support this claim about online education as a sustainability initiative is one of social sustainability.  Consider last year’s free online class on artificial intelligence at Stanford.  A whopping 160,000 students registered for the course, with 20,000 finishing.  These students weren’t your typical Stanford students, with high SAT scores, stellar high school resumes, and the financial means to attend one of the world’s top universities.  Rather, these were students of all ages with an internet connection and an interest to learn, period.  Interestingly, the 20,000 students who completed the course hailed from 190 different countries[2], and over 100 volunteers translated the course into 44 languages to make this possible.[3]

Definitions of social sustainability are tricky, but access to resources and access to opportunity are both at its conceptual heart.  When intellectual content from America’s top universities becomes available at no charge to a budding young entrepreneur in Indonesia, or an oppressed woman in Saudi Arabia, or a poor factory worker in China, the world becomes a more equitable place, and the prospect for the future of humanity has brightened.  Conversely, when we restrict access to education, when we raise financial, social, technical, or digital barriers, then the world has become a less equitable place, and the future has darkened.

The final reason why I believe that the rise of online education might very well be the greatest sustainability initiative in all of higher education brings me to the famed “IPAT” equation.  Briefly, “IPAT” is a conceptual equation that tells us that environmental impact (“I”) is a product of three factors: population (“P”), the average consumption of that population (“A”), and the resource intensity of the technology consumed or used (“T”).  If we assume that the global population will reach 9.5 billion by 2050 as many expect, and if we assume a 3% increase in global GDP per year through 2050, then just to maintain today’s level of environmental impact (which is already unsustainable) would require that our technology be 5 times more efficient in 2050 than it is today.  Scary, right?  But consider the following: one of the most effective and acceptable ways to reduce population growth is to educate women.  To quote The Economist, “Educated women are more likely to go out to work, more likely to demand contraception and less likely to want large families.”[4] What if we can reduce both the growth in population as well as the resource intensity of our affluence?  Massive open online courses (MOOCs) and similar tools from your or my university could very well be the conduit to provide women in developing countries with the education that they need that would lead them into the workplace and to a future with a smaller family.  Yes, massive open online courses can lead to massive environmental change.

I’ve been in higher education long enough to know that change at universities is often slow.  At times I’m amazed at how far the campus sustainability movement has come over the past decade given the inertia we sometimes see in higher ed.  Can this glacial pace of change continue?  Curiously, about a dozen years ago, I served as the teaching assistant for an experimental online e-commerce course at the Darden Business School at the University of Virginia, with students also enrolled from the University of Michigan and the University of California at Berkeley.  Twelve years later, despite world-class strength in the digital humanities, UVA’s online educational offerings lagged so far behind the likes of Stanford and MIT that it arguably contributed to the painful and surreal episode of the firing and rehiring of that great institution’s president this past summer.  The lesson here is that the traditional evolution of universities might not survive the revolution of educational technologies.

This will be a new kind of conversation for us, and I am willing to bet that many of us will receive puzzled looks from senior administrators if and when we attempt to join their deliberations about online education.  My head and my gut tell me that online education should be front and center on the campus sustainability professional’s radar screen.  However, my eyes and ears tell me that aside from the occasional certificate program, we as a professional community are missing potentially the biggest initiative we could ever undertake.


[1] Malin, Nadav.  “A Material Issue,” GreenSource, September 1, 2012, http://greensource.construction.com/news/2012/09/120901-a-material-issue.asp accessed September 22, 2012.

[2] Rodriguez, C. Osvaldo, “MOOCs and the AI-Stanford like Courses: Two Successful and Distinct Course Formats for Massive Open Online Courses,” The European Journal for Open, Distance and E-Learning, http://www.eurodl.org/?article=516, accessed September 23, 2012.

[3] Leckart, Steven, “The Stanford Education Experiment Could Change Higher Learning Forever,” Wired, March 20, 2012, http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2012/03/ff_aiclass/all/, accessed September 23, 2012.

[4] “Go Forth and Multiply a Lot Less,” The Economist, October 29, 2009, http://www.economist.com/node/14743589, accessed September 23, 2012.

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The Sustainability Officer’s Dilemma (Thoughts from AASHE 2011)

Posted on October 11, 2011. Filed under: sustainability | Tags: , , , , , |

Earlier today, as I stood on the balcony of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh, the first LEED-certified convention center in North America, I was struck by an irony.  Immediately to my left was the Rachel Carson Bridge, a span named for the famed biologist and author of Silent Spring, the book widely credited as sparking the modern environmental movement. Passing beneath the bridge, on the smooth waters of the Allegheny River, navigating upstream against the current, was a coal barge.  I had spent the past 36 hours at the AASHE 2011 conference inside the convention center learning how heroes and heroines (David Orr’s words, not mine) at institutions of higher education across North America and in cities like Pittsburgh are battling to preserve what’s left of our natural resources and chart our schools, communities, countries, and world on a new sustainable course, and yet there was a floating reminder – a sort of industrialist’s drive-by – of what we’re up against.  The world is full of people with clever ideas to remove carbon from the ground and put it up into the atmosphere, accelerating our demise as a civilization.  And they’re still winning.

As I’ve talked with colleagues about the biggest challenges that they face in their jobs, two central themes have emerged, and these two themes get to the heart of the sustainability officer’s dilemma.  The first is perhaps best told through an anecdote.  A sustainability officer at a major university discovered that his university was spending $5,000 on c-fold paper towels (you know, the kind that when you grab one, five drop out) in a highly-trafficked campus restroom, so he convinced the building manager to remove the paper towels and install quick-dry energy-efficient hand dryers instead.  The project was an economic success, it eliminated a waste stream, and it avoided the environmental impact of the manufacturing of paper towels.  Only one person complained about the project, and the basis of his complaint was that he couldn’t use the electric hand dryers on the Sabbath.  The building manager reacted by putting back the paper towels.

From my perspective, this is not really a story about paper towels at all.  Rather, it is that we so often sacrifice system performance in pursuit of responding to a complaint or solving a problem, when in fact we should optimize the system and then handle anomalies as they arise.  I see this with energy management all the time.  We overcool a building to keep a single hot spot from getting too warm, when we should instead set the building at a proper temperature range and then solve the problem of the hot spot.  Or we cool a building 24/7 to keep a rogue server from overheating when that server should actually be in a data center.  In the paper towel example, perhaps the building manager could have offered a school-branded hand towel (an over-the-top act of customer service, as surely this problem must arise for the complaintant elsewhere).  Or the building manager could have just said no.  But that’s not what happened.  Instead, the performance of the system was sacrificed.  The anomaly drives the system.

If the first theme is a common syndrome of the operational and administrative side of campus, the second theme that I heard over and over again is a syndrome of the academic side of campus: our academic departmental boundaries, and the system of rewards and promotions that exist within and reinforce those boundaries, are ill-suited for the fundamentally multi-disciplinary work of sustainability.  We incentivize our academic scholars to think narrowly, to research narrowly, and to teach narrowly (to the extent that they’re incentivized to teach), and as a result we educate our students narrowly, and they graduate without a broad understanding of how the natural systems upon which their lives depend even function.  And for that, they often start their careers deeply in debt.  It’s no wonder we end up accelerating our own demise – that would be the expected outcome of our higher education system as presently designed, churning out graduates who (mostly unintentionally) will outdo each other in doing us all in.

These two syndromes that form the sustainability officer’s dilemma are both problems of systems design.  I’ve attended every AASHE annual conference since the first AASHE conference in 2006 (and several Greening of the Campus conferences as well), and in my view this seems to be the first time that so many sustainability officers have come together and talked about and framed their challenges in this way.  I believe this represents a significant leap forward in the maturation of the campus sustainability movement.  When we reassemble next year in Los Angeles, I expect to hear many lessons about how my colleagues are finding leverage points to change how these systems function, and even perhaps changing paradigms at their universities.  We will need success stories at the systems level, because for all our LEED buildings and energy and water conservation measures and recycling initiatives, we are still on the pathway to demise.  The earth is finite, and it’s high time our universities educate and act accordingly.

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Cloud 37: Lessons from LEED

Posted on August 16, 2009. Filed under: sustainability, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , |

Last week, one of my colleagues exclaimed that she was on Cloud 9, or rather, Cloud 37.  She’s not come down since.

Over the last several years, Rice has undertaken an ambitious $1 billion construction program, and the bulk of these facilities are now open.  We’re in celebration mode.  Almost all of our new buildings will be submitted for certification under the US Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) program, the industry standard for green building in the US that recognizes buildings based on their environmental performance at the increasing levels of LEED-certified, silver, gold, or platinum.  Earlier this month, we learned that one of our new buildings – the Rice Children’s Campus – had achieved certification at the level of LEED-Silver, scoring 37 points (almost gold!).  This marks the very first building at Rice to earn LEED certification at any level (although we expect many more to soon follow).

To date, I’ve worked on approximately a dozen LEED projects for new construction, and not all of them have left me on Cloud 9, or Cloud 37 as it may be.  In fact, there have been a number of dark clouds too.  My experiences – positive and negative – have taught me several process-oriented lessons about LEED that I believe are of value to other campus sustainability professionals as they participate in LEED projects on their own campuses.  They are as follows:

1. Commit from the beginning. Our biggest LEED train-wreck came when we decided to “do LEED” late in the design process of a project.  The project team had not been selected based on LEED credentials, and we quickly discovered both a lack of experience and interest amongst key team members.  After several difficult months, we abandoned the LEED process, although it wasn’t a complete loss as several design improvements were directly attributable to our flirtation with LEED.  The confusion led us to adopt a Sustainable Facilities Policy that clearly outlines our department’s LEED goals for future projects, a remedy that should prevent this sort of problem from occurring again.

2. Seek experienced consultants. Commitment to LEED by the university is just the first step.  The composition of the project team is very important, and prior LEED experience matters, although a lack of experience is not an insurmountable obstacle.  As the university interviews potential architects, contractors, and MEP (mechanical, electrical, and plumbing) engineers, they should review not only the LEED experience of each of these consultants, but also (and this is important) of the individuals who will represent these firms on the project team.  Prior LEED experience by the civil engineer and landscape architect are of course helpful too, but not as critical as with the aforementioned team members.

3. Designate the LEED-er. The LEED process needs a steward, and it shouldn’t be the university.  In fact, my preference is to hire a consultant specifically to lead the LEED process, one with a lengthy resume of prior LEED projects and a deep knowledge of a variety of LEED ratings systems and the associated rulings and intricacies of those systems.  This LEED-er can be the commissioning agent, which yields the benefit of engaging the commissioning perspective throughout the project’s design.  However, if the LEED responsibilities lie with one of the primary consultants, such as the architect, MEP, or contractor, then my experience is that the busier they become in the project, the greater the tendency to let their LEED responsibilities slip.

4. Set priorities. It’s not enough for the university to state an expectation that a project will achieve a certain level of LEED certification.  There are numerous pathways to certification, and the consultants need to know what aspects of LEED are of particular importance to the university.  For us, it’s typically energy conservation.

5. Assign responsibility. From the beginning, each project team member should understand their LEED responsibilities.  This includes the credits that they will be expected to complete and the data that they will need to collect either to support their own submittals or those of other team members.

6. Set deadlines. Hand-in-hand with assigning responsibility is the need to set deadlines.  I’ve spent countless hours in meetings where we’ve spun our wheels going down the LEED checklist, listening to consultants say “oh yeah, I need to get to that.”  Procrastination has consequences, and opportunities will be lost.  The following two points highlight the importance for the LEED-er to connect responsibilities with deadlines.

7. Fast-track the energy model. From my perspective, there is no component of the LEED process more important than the energy model, which quantifies the proposed building’s energy consumption and expresses savings in comparison with a baseline “to code” alternate.  If the energy model is prepared in a timely fashion, it serves as a powerful tool that enables the project team to understand the best opportunities for improving their design to save energy.  I’ve participated in meetings where hundreds of thousands of dollars of expected annual utility costs were shed, based on insights and scenarios from a timely energy model.  On the other hand, some of my greatest moments of frustration engaging in the design process have come from MEPs who drag their feet in preparing the building’s energy model.  In fact, with one project, the energy model was nearly a year late, so late that the building was already close to completion.  Any opportunity to use the energy model to improve the design had long since evaporated, and with it the chance to save significant money for the university.

The need for a timely energy model goes beyond just influencing the project’s design.  Up to 10 LEED points are available for energy conservation – potentially a sizable share of the final point total – and uncertainty over the number of anticipated energy conservation points makes estimating the project’s overall LEED point total and level of certification difficult.  On several projects, if we had known the results of the energy model sooner than we did, we might have targeted (and ultimately achieved) higher levels of LEED certification.  My conclusion is that there are numerous compelling reasons to fast-track the energy model (and conversely, no clear reasons not to).

8. Submit the design credits early. For a small fee, the USGBC allows project teams to submit design-related LEED credits early, and then follow-up with construction-related credits (and deferred design credits) at a later date.  I find this opportunity valuable for several reasons.  First, as many of the LEED prerequisites are design-oriented, if there are any potential problems with these mandatory credits, the issues will be identified early enough such that corrective action can be incorporated into the project’s construction.  Second, a two-stage submittal tends to prevent procrastination.  Rather, it has the effect of spreading the work more evenly across the project’s timeline.  Third, early knowledge of expected design credits adds certainty to the project’s final LEED outcome, and could even embolden a team to “stretch” for a higher goal.

9. Want it! Implementing the previous eight recommendations will in my view significantly improve the LEED process for a new building, but there’s still something missing here, and that’s setting the right tone.  You have to want it!  In my experience, there is a noticeable difference in the performance of the project teams that are genuinely enthusiastic about pursuing LEED certification and those who think it’s just one more requirement.  The university’s team members need to convey a consistent desire to achieve the project’s environmental goals, and likewise should choose those consultants who also demonstrate a similar attitude.  LEED can be fun with a motivated team, and a nightmare with those who would just as soon not be bothered.

With these nine lessons, hopefully we’ll have more of our campus sustainabilty professionals on cloud nine celebrating successful LEED projects.  Of course, no project is perfect, and problems always arise.  However, by carefully constructing the LEED process, the campus sustainabilty professional can at least ensure that when dark clouds appear, they’re more likely to have a silver (or gold, or platinum) lining.

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Inspiration From Afar

Posted on July 24, 2009. Filed under: sustainability | Tags: , , , , , , |

In this era of budget cutting, I’m regularly hearing from my fellow campus sustainability professionals that they’ve had to reduce or eliminate their travel.  I’m no exception.  The challenge then is to find opportunities to be inspired by the great thinkers and practitioners of the sustainability arena without actually leaving our campuses, for it’s often after attending these talks that we develop our own big ideas.

This past March, Rice University hosted an extraordinary conference entitled “Transforming the Metropolis: Creating Sustainable and Humane Cities” that featured many of the speakers whom we would hope to see as keynoters when we travel to conferences.  The talks from this conference are now available online and are posted below.  In lieu of actually going to a conference, consider blocking off time on your calendar, closing your email, unplugging your telephone, and allowing yourself the time to be inspired from afar (without the CO2 emissions from air travel!):

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Over-design

Posted on June 16, 2009. Filed under: sustainability | Tags: , , |

Would you wash your hands with a fire hose?

Over the last few weeks I’ve been thinking about a significant source of energy waste, one that burdens utility budgets, frustrates maintenance personnel, and ultimately leads to building occupants who are either too hot or too cold, but never just right.  This pernicious source of energy waste is over-design.

Over-design of heating and cooling systems is hard for me to visualize.  I am admittedly at a disadvantage in this discussion as like most campus sustainability professionals I am not a mechanical engineer by training.  Or an HVAC technician.  Or a controls technician.  Or an architect.  Or a contractor.  In fact, if you are looking for an expert on the subject, you’ve come to the wrong place.

Yet, I’m increasingly on the look-out for over-designed mechanical systems.  In a recently completed project for Rice, the MEP (mechanical, electrical, and plumbing) engineering consultant originally recommended 2,000 tons of cooling.  An internal team from Rice whittled this down to 300 tons of cooling – an 85% reduction.  To date, the building’s actual consumption has not peaked above 40 tons, although it eventually will.  The difference between the original recommendation and the actual peak from operations to date is a factor of 50.  That’s over-design!  As a comparison, when we wash our hands under a sink, the stream of water is typically flowing at a rate of 2.5 gallons per minute.  If this were over-designed by a factor of 50, the flow rate would be 125 gallons per minute, which is typical for a fire hose.  So again I ask the question, would you wash your hands with a fire hose?  Certainly not, and no consultant would recommend that we do so.  But when it comes to energy, we’ll get the equivalent of a fire hose to wash our hands if we’re not careful.

Over-designed mechanical systems are bad for a number of reasons.  To name just a few, they cost more up-front, and then also to operate.  They operate inefficiently, far outside of their optimal ranges, which shortens the lifespan of the equipment.  They are difficult for maintenance people to control (imagine trying to adjust the flow on that fire hose to fill a cup of water without spilling!)  And when the systems are hard to control, space temperatures will either be too cold or too hot, and the building occupants will suffer as a result.

So what’s a campus sustainability professional to do?  As I’ve noted in other posts on this blog, we can’t be experts in everything, but we can bring the conversation to a fundamental level that enables us to partially overcome our lack of technical experience and play to our strengths.  Following are a few tips:

  • Enable the conversation. We operate horizontally in an organization of vertical silos.  Our job is all about making connections and facilitating communication between experts.  I recommend organizing one or several energy-focused conversations during the design of a new building.
  • Get the system in the room. Think carefully about the different voices and skill sets that need to be at the table.  From your institution, this may include one or several maintenance representatives, an energy manager, a project engineer, and a project architect.  From your consulting team, the MEP consultant, the LEED consultant, the design architect, and so forth.  The full range of stakeholders need to be present.
  • Gather benchmarking data. One of the best ways to ferret-out over-design is to gather operational data in either dollars per square foot or units of energy per square foot for comparable facilities.  If any of your campus buildings are individually metered (and hopefully most of them are!), then calculating annual energy consumption per square foot is easy and provides you with operational data for facilities that you can readily visualize.
  • Apply diversity factors. This is a big one, and often you’ll have to know to ask this question.  For certain facilities, designs are created assuming that everything is in a worst-case scenario, with additional factors of safety layered-in.  Suppose your consulting team is designing a laboratory with fume hoods.  For the sake of design, they are likely to assume that all labs are in full use at all times with all fume hoods opened to their 100% position. In reality, this simply does not happen.  It’s not that they’re designing the equivalent of a church parking lot for the Easter service.  It’s that they’re designing the church parking lot as if Christmas, Easter, and Palm Sunday all happen on the same morning, with additional spaces provided in the event that the church might double its size at some future date.  The diversity factor is a multiplier that enables for a more realistic sizing of mechanical systems in recognition that a “worst x worst x worst x safety factor” scenario just doesn’t happen.  Consultants will be hesitant to even suggest a diversity factor to apply; you’ll have to do this legwork on your own.
  • Set the parameters. The previous recommendations are often reactive.  In a sense, they’re a recipe for an intervention.  Ideally, you don’t want an intervention, you want right-sized systems as part of the original design.  One approach would be to gather benchmarking data prior to a project, establish a “do not exceed” figure for energy per square foot based on real operational data from your institution (or comparable), and then see if the consulting team has the discipline to stay at or below the target.

These steps will help the campus sustainability professional to orient a project team towards eliminating over-design.  As you step back to consider the system-wide impact of over-design, one on top of the other, from the upsizing of air handling units and pumps by a manufacturer’s salesperson to setting an excessive minimum number of air changes to assuming improper design temperatures to failing to apply diversity factors and on and on and on…. well, suddenly it’s not so hard to see why when it comes to energy, we do sometimes end up with the equivalent of washing our hands with a fire hose.  But as the era of cheap energy draws to a close, this will be one mistake that we simply cannot afford to keep making.

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Green Jobs (Everybody Wants One)

Posted on May 19, 2009. Filed under: sustainability | Tags: , , , , , , , |

I’ve served as a campus sustainability professional since 2004, and my observation has been that each year brings with it a new initiative or buzzword or idea that sweeps through sustainability offices in higher education.  For example, 2004 was the year that green building and LEED seemed to reach a tipping point on university campuses, and 2005 witnessed a boom in biodiesel projects.  Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” led us all to calculate our carbon footprints in 2006, and thanks to the American College and University President’s Climate Commitment, in 2007 we decided to do something about those carbon footprints by committing to become climate neutral.  2008 offered us a frightening glimpse of the future as the complex interconnections of energy, climate, water, and food became apparent, and these topics coalesced in the tangible form of university trayless dining initiatives.  So naturally, I’ve been waiting for the next big thing to reveal itself for 2009, and I’m ready to declare that the wait is over.  2009 is the year of green jobs.

Over the last few years, a number of people have come to me seeking advice about green jobs.  Usually the inquiries have come from undergraduates, and they’ve historically come at a modest but steady pace.  The last few months have been totally different.  Yes, I’m still hearing from students – and a lot more students to be sure – but also from mid-career professionals who are ready to make a change, MBAs seeking a new direction, and young alums who don’t want to get locked-in to their current (non-green) paths.

I’m certainly not a trained career counselor, but there are a few things that I’d like to say to job-seekers and potential employers about green jobs.

  • First, not all green jobs are born green.  Or, to put a different spin on it, one approach could be to “green” an existing “brown” job.  This is easy to say of course, and I certainly know from experience the difficulty of putting this into practice.  A number of years ago I worked as a water and sewer engineer for a utility, and I encountered a considerable amount of resistance and even some ridicule when I proposed that we initiate a series of water conservation programs.  Yet, times do change.  A few years after I left, the combination of population growth and a severe drought triggered a water emergency, and now that very same utility has a reasonably robust (although certainly not exemplary) water conservation program.  Certainly a lesson for greening an existing brown job would be to know when the time is right.
  • Second, for recent graduates, inexperience in the workplace can be an advantage when they seek a green job, as it’s harder to unlearn a way of thinking than it is to learn it.  My former colleagues at the utility had to unlearn a way of thinking before they could see that reducing demand for water was just as important if not more so than simply adding supply.  I was inexperienced enough not to be burdened with their mental framing.  When I tell students that their inexperience can help them, I also add that some in their generation (not all, mind you, but some) think in systems and readily see connections in ways that quite frankly their parents’ generation does not.  I attribute this in part to the fact that these young adults were raised in a world of hyperlinks.  The ability to see connections without pre-existing frames will put any seeker of green jobs at an advantage.
  • Third, a number of students will tell me that they’re planning to just “finish up” their major, and then they want to get a green job that’s presumably something completely different.  If they dislike their major, then that’s fine.  However, I do advise students to first think about whether they can leverage what they already know before they make a clean break.  Similarly, when someone with many years of professional experience tells me that they want to start over, the first thing I ask is to see their resume, which often reveals a set of experiences that if framed the right way can help make the next step to a green job easier than they might have otherwise thought.  I also remind them that young green companies need experienced hands to help them grow, which offers another point of entry.
  • Fourth, if employers haven’t figured out by now that that this generation of students not only want green jobs but are demanding them, then they are missing out on a golden recruiting opportunity that can also help to transform their companies.  I know a lot of people with green jobs, and I would describe most of these people as being highly motivated and passionate about their work, as it gives them a sense of meaning and purpose in what they do.  What employer wouldn’t want to capitalize on that?  If I had to describe my colleagues when I worked as a highway engineer many years ago, well… motivated and passionate would not be amongst the words I would have selected.

So what new initiatives might those of us in the campus sustainability community undertake related to green jobs?  One possibility would be to partner with campus career services centers to host green jobs speakers and fairs, and to attract employers that offer entry-level green jobs to recruit at our campuses.  A second possibility of course would be to continue working to green existing brown jobs on our campuses.  A third suggestion is to provide opportunities for students to work part-time in some sort of campus green job, such as a dormitory eco-rep or sustainability office intern, so that they can gain experience prior to entering the workforce.  A fourth suggestion is to promote class projects that use the campus or neighboring community as a hands-on laboratory for learning about sustainability, which again provides students with tangible experience prior to graduation.  Finally, beyond our own campuses, another idea would be to include opportunities for potential employers to meet and interview sustainability-minded students at a future AASHE conference.  (The time is certainly ripe for some bright entrepreneur to launch a green version of Monster.com, which with apologies to Red Sox fans I’ll call “GreenMonster.com” but until that happens perhaps there’s a role for AASHE to play).

In closing, given everything I’ve already said, I will caution that at some point in time that is likely closer than we think, green jobs will just be known as jobs.  Remember ten years ago when the internet revolution spawned e-business?  I distinctly remember the then-dean of the University of Virginia’s Darden Business School noting as he launched a new initiative in e-business that before long, we wouldn’t be using the word “e-business” anymore.  The “e” would go away; it would just be business again, albeit something quite different than before.  He was right.  I think the same will hold true for green jobs.  There will still be jobs that are most certainly not green, but those that are will be so ubiquitous that we won’t find ourselves calling for them to be created by the millions.  The only trick is for us to figure out how to get there from here.

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Drop the Tray! (Trayless Dining: A Green Strategy for Lean Times)

Posted on April 13, 2009. Filed under: sustainability | Tags: , , , , , , , , |

In this turbulent economy, I don’t think I can name a single college or university that is not cutting costs. These next few years will be lean(er) times in higher education. However, one lesson that is clearly emerging is that campus sustainability efforts are not being treated as a luxury. In fact, many campus greening initiatives are really gaining momentum precisely because they can help improve a university’s bottom line.

One such initiative is trayless dining. I co-teach a course each fall where students use the campus as a laboratory for learning about sustainability, and as part of the class requirements they work on group projects to improve the environmental performance of the university. When a group of my students decided that they wanted to implement a trayless dining pilot project last September, we initially viewed the initiative as primarily an environmental measure. We would soon discover that dropping the tray opened the door to a much broader web of benefits.

The problem is straight-forward. In dining halls that feature all-you-can-eat meals, people tend to put more food on their trays than they actually eat. And why not? When taking an additional food item carries no extra cost to the student, the incentive is to over-consume. The result is that a noticeable quantity of food ends up in the trash, and it’s this visible display of waste bound for a landfill that will stir-up environmentally-minded students.

In 2005, a group of my students worked on an educational campaign to reduce food waste in a campus dining hall. Using a test and control site, they found that those students at the test site who were targeted with a campaign of waste reduction messages in fact reduced their plate waste by 30%, while the students at the control site showed no change. In their final report, the student group thoroughly detailed the upstream environmental impacts avoided by not wasting food, as well as the downstream landfill issues. Curiously, over the course of the entire semester, we all missed an obvious accomplice to these wasteful activities, and it could not have been more visible: the tray.

My students last fall hypothesized that by removing trays from a dining hall, students would be more careful about their food selections. This would decrease food consumption and waste, as well as the energy and water used to clean the trays and extra plates. However, while they felt they could prove their hypothesis, they feared student backlash and staff opposition. An educational campaign was one thing, taking away trays and changing the operations of a dining hall was quite another.

Fortunately, over the years the class has become a bit of a safe haven for experiments. With the promise of faculty oversight of student work, several administrators have become comfortable with letting students in the class test new ideas. And indeed, our Housing and Dining (H&D) personnel were quite supportive of a pilot trayless dining project. However, they worried about student opinion. To address this, the students on the project team met with the elected leaders of two residential college (dormitory) governments and proposed four lunchtime trayless dining pilots in their shared dining facility spanning a four week period that would be called “Wasteless Wednesdays.” The college governments agreed, and the project was a go.

The first test date brought a mixed reaction. With the student project team on-hand to gauge opinion, they found that almost half of the impacted students were wildly supportive of the trayless dining concept, another 40% were vehemently opposed to it, and the final 10% were completely apathetic. Those of you who work on a university campus will instantly recognize the tendency for students to react strongly or not at all.

Back in the kitchen, the H&D staff reported that plate waste had dropped 30% (the same amount as had been achieved by the educational campaign in 2005), and that the use of water, energy, and cleaning chemicals to wash plates and trays had dropped by almost 10%. They were intrigued. On a typical day in this particular dining hall, they would spend about $1000 per lunch period on food costs, not including the labor for preparation or associated utilities. What if they could reduce the amount of food that they needed to prepare? And not just for lunch, but for dinner and breakfast too (which together cost about another $1,000 per day just for the food)?

The following Wasteless Wednesdays yielded similar results. Student opposition began to wane as the project team continued to listen to the concerns of their fellow students and to work with the staff to take steps to address them, such as moving a supply of flatware out into the dining area so that students didn’t have to balance it on their plates or make a separate trip just to get a fork and knife.

Following the successful pilot project, Housing and Dining staff approached the Rice Student Association (the “SA” is our campus student government) to begin a dialog about implementing trayless dining at all Rice dining halls for all meals. The SA adopted a resolution in February supporting the measure, which was endorsed by our student newspaper, and in March the trays were removed from all dining halls. To date, I am aware of only one complaint resulting from trayless dining at Rice.

Several lessons are clear from our early efforts with trayless dining at Rice:

  • Experimentation! The ability to conduct a pilot project in a safe setting – through a class project – provided a level of comfort for both staff and students to engage in an experiment.
  • Communication! Students in the dining hall appreciated that their concerns were heard – and in some cases addressed – during the pilot project, and further our student government reacted favorably to being engaged in discussions about supporting trayless dining rather than simply being notified that it would happen.
  • Location! In any trayless dining effort, we have come to discover that the geography of the kitchen and dining hall are very important. The placement of flatware and drink dispensers for example can make trayless dining relatively easy or quite challenging.
  • Education! As David Orr wrote in his famed essay “What is Education For?”, faculty and students should work together to study the wells, farms, feedlots, mines, and forests that supply the campus, as well as the places where the wastes are discharged or dumped, and then should participate in the creation of real solutions to these real problems. Trayless dining is one such example. This was an opportunity to create a teaching moment while also fostering student leadership skills.

We have come to discover that removing the tray is akin to removing a keystone, unleashing a variety of benefits. In addition to those already discussed, there are additional energy and labor savings related to reducing the quantity of food to be cooked. Arguably, trayless dining also improves the health of students by discouraging over-eating. I continue to hear from students that they pay more attention to the food that they consume now that the trays are gone.

As universities continue to look for savings opportunities, our experience at Rice echoes what others have also discovered. That is, if you want to save money and improve the environmental performance of your campus dining hall, perhaps the biggest and easiest step to take is to drop the tray.

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“Wow, What is this Place?”

Posted on February 6, 2009. Filed under: sustainability | Tags: , , , , |

One of the joys of working as a campus sustainability professional is the opportunity to spend time in the classroom, either as an instructor or as a guest lecturer. For my first guest lecture appearance at Rice, I provided a sustainability walking tour of our campus to students in the sustainable design class in our school of architecture. I have since returned to give variations of that tour about eight or nine times, most recently last week. One of the stops I like to make is in our civil engineering building (Ryon Laboratory), where we have an excellent example of a water-efficient restroom. As a tour stop, waterless urinals are always good for conversation.

The center of Ryon is a large open space filled with gigantic pieces of equipment for breaking things like steel bars and concrete beams. While there’s nothing aesthetically pleasing about it, there’s an inherent curiosity and coolness to the space that attracts one’s attention. As we walked past this central area towards the restroom, I couldn’t help but overhear a number of the students commenting to each other, “Wow, what is this place?”

What just happened? That one comment told me everything I needed to know about the level of interaction between architecture and engineering students on our campus. The architects had never been inside the civil engineers’ building, and I’m guessing the opposite held true as well. That’s two different buildings and two separate worlds for two professions that absolutely must become more familiar with one another if we are to create a more sustainable future.

One of the most challenging jobs for campus sustainability professionals is to thread the different worlds of the university together. I’m presently co-chairing a conference entitled “Transforming the Metropolis: Creating Sustainable and Humane Cities” where we’re trying to do exactly that by bringing together architects, urban planners, elected officials, civil engineers, environmental engineers, corporate executives, sociologists, community leaders, energy policy experts, faith community leaders, and many other disciplines and professions to address how an urban future can provide answers to our ecological, social, and economic challenges.

My role in part has been to see beyond the departmental and topical boundaries and to build connections. When planning the conference, there were pressures to compartmentalize the program, and to package the speakers into different tracks for different disciplines. And if left unchecked, there is a general tendency for each interest to just focus on their own preferred speakers, rather than to see a broader context. But the discussion of sustainability doesn’t fit into anyone’s box, and neither do discussions about cities. These topics demand to be handled in an interdisciplinary manner. And so we decided that all attendees regardless of background would hear the same speakers, and like it or not would be fully immersed in a number of topical worlds that might not be altogether familiar to them.

If you’ll allow me to digress for a moment, I would like to briefly describe the flow of the program (you can view the speaker bios here), and to invite any reader of this blog to register for this exciting and affordable event, which will be held on the Rice campus from March 2-4.

The first morning of the conference features a panel of mayors, representing Houston, Texas; Bogota, Colombia; Karachi, Pakistan; and Rehovot, Israel. For the first time in human history, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities, so this conference envisions the city as holding the solution to our challenges for building a more sustainable and humane world (if done correctly, of course). The mayors will collectively illustrate progress and problems in their own cities in achieving this outcome. Following the panel is a discussion about the natural limits on our expansion by the originator of the ecological footprint William Rees, paired with a historical view of the human tendency to sprawl, by Robert Bruegmann. In the afternoon, we’ll address our future water and energy supplies with Perry McCarty and Amy Myers Jaffe, respectively. Next, we’ll turn our attention to globalization with Saskia Sassen, followed by discussions of demographics and the middle class with Elijah Anderson and Joel Kotkin. Ray Anderson of Interface, Inc. will close the evening by providing a striking story of sustainability and innovation in the corporate world.

Day two begins with strategies of hope from Cameron Sinclair, whose work in promoting design solutions to humanitarian crises has brought him to the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast in recent years. Alejandro Guitierrez and David Crossley will present design frameworks for sustainable cities, followed by a discussion of movement and access by Catherine Ross and Antanas Mockus. In the afternoon, Larry Beasley, Peter Calthorpe, and Lars Lerup will address the topic of people, power, and planning. Fred Kent will share snapshots and lessons of successful urban spaces, and Ken Yeang will discuss designing eco-cities and eco-skyscrapers. The evening comes to a close with Majora Carter, whose work as the founder of Sustainable South Bronx led to her being recognized as a MacArthur Fellow.

The final morning of the conference delves into the present and future of the city’s infrastructure with Thomas D. O’Rourke and William J. Mitchell. Alexander Zehnder will offer thoughts on the future of water management, and finally Wayne Gordon and Pastor Harvey Clemons, Jr. will share their experiences on the role of communities of faith in building cities of hope.

But what happens on March 5th, the day after the conference, when all of the attendees have gone home? Will our faculty and staff co-chairs and planning committee retreat to their separate worlds? Are the connections that we’ve been making ephemeral, or are they real? This will be the real test. In some respects, universities are highly conservative places, penalizing those who reach outside their departments or who take unconventional approaches to their scholarly pursuits (witness the struggles of the digital humanities community, for example). Further, the pace of change in the curriculum can be glacial.

However, at this moment in time, my gut tells me that this conference is an important and necessary step in spanning the often wide chasms between the disciplines on my own campus on issues of sustainability and the city. And if I’m lucky, perhaps within just a few years, when I lead students in the sustainable design class on a sustainability walking tour of campus, when we walk into the civil engineering building, I won’t have to hear “Wow, what is this place?” but rather “Hey, I love coming to this place!” Wouldn’t that be more appropriate in a building for a discipline known for bridge-building?

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