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, 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,, accessed September 23, 2012.

[3] Leckart, Steven, “The Stanford Education Experiment Could Change Higher Learning Forever,” Wired, March 20, 2012,, accessed September 23, 2012.

[4] “Go Forth and Multiply a Lot Less,” The Economist, October 29, 2009,, 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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Water Efficiency, LEED, and the Attack of the Naysayer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At this point, we ran our numbers:

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

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

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

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

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

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