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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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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Questioning Assumptions

Posted on September 3, 2008. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , |

There are times when we stumble into our lessons.

A few years ago, when I was first getting my feet wet as a campus sustainability professional, I was unexpectedly called upon in the middle of a design meeting for a new building and asked to lead a conversation about energy efficiency. As my mind began to race, I found myself thinking that there was about 200 years of combined design and construction experience assembled at the table, and that I was without a doubt the least experienced of the group. My eyes must have been as wide as saucers.

I began by charting the rapid increase in energy costs to our university. I explained that every dollar spent on utilities is a dollar that can’t be spent on teaching, research, students, or any other aspect of the school’s educational mission. I encouraged the design team to make every effort to embed energy efficiency into the building’s design. It was a pep rally speech, and it was going nowhere.

I was grasping, so I asked the mechanical engineers to briefly explain their design to me. I have no background in mechanical engineering, and I struggled to follow their answer. I then asked a question that has since served me well: “Tell me about the assumptions that guided your design.”

I soon learned that the HVAC systems of buildings are designed to particular summer- and winter-time thresholds set by ASHRAE (the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers) using fifteen years of historical hourly weather data. The summer design temperature is the point that contains 99% of all of the hourly summer readings, meaning the threshold will only be exceeded 1% of the time, on average. Similarly, the winter design temperature is set at the 99% condition, with only 1 hour in every 100 falling below this bound during a typical winter.

For the project at hand, the upper bound was 97 degrees, which seemed reasonable enough. However, the design team reported that they were using a winter design temperature of 20 degrees. Suddenly, there was no doubt who in the room was from Houston and who was not.

I’ve lived in Houston for a combined 26 years. I remarked that I could probably count on one hand the number of times that the temperature has dropped below 20 degrees during those 26 years, and that’s probably true. The coldest month in Houston is January, where the average high is 63 degrees and the average low is 45. Since the beginning of record-keeping for such things, the temperature has never been colder than 10 degrees in January in Houston.[1] This year, the coldest recorded temperature in January was 33.8 degrees, and that happened twice. All told, we’ve only spent 44 hours this year to date below 40 degrees. In 2007, the mercury dropped below 40 degrees for a grand total of about 120 hours, with a minimum recorded temperature of 32. We haven’t had a single hour below freezing since early March of 2002.[2] That winter design condition of 20 degrees just did not seem right to the Houstonians in the room.

With a few minutes of pouring through design guides, we found that the appropriate winter design temperature for Houston as established by ASHRAE is either 29 degrees or 27 degrees, depending on the site location in the city. Even those values seemed low to us, but nevertheless far more reasonable than 20 degrees. Somewhere along the way, someone had padded an established standard with a significant “factor of comfort”.

So why does this even matter? The capacity of the HVAC equipment is designed in part to meet these conditions. We were over-designing for the winter, and doing so would cost us energy and money. We might not have ever uncovered this had we not questioned the design team’s assumptions.

With that issue resolved, we examined several other assumptions, and over the course of the meeting developed a series of proposed changes – most of which were adopted – that saved up-front equipment costs while slashing the building’s anticipated energy consumption by 15-20%. We weren’t sacrificing the functionality of the building – we simply were correcting a previously undetected over-design. Who knows how many we didn’t catch?!

A challenge for campus sustainability professionals is that we participate in so many different kinds of conversations with such a broad range of people that we can’t be experts in everything. There are going to be moments – perhaps many – when we are the least experienced people in the room. Bringing the conversation to a fundamental level enables us to partially overcome the experience gap, to start to play to our strengths, and to make constructive comments. This is such a young profession that we’re all climbing the learning curve together. I’d be interested to know if others have similar tips to share. We need all the lessons we can get!


[2] Temperature data drawn from the Bayland Park weather station, located at the corner of Hillcroft and Bissonnet in southwest Houston. Data available online at http://www.tceq.state.tx.us/cgi-bin/compliance/monops/yearly_summary.pl?cams=53

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

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