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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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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Water Efficiency, LEED, and the Attack of the Naysayer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At this point, we ran our numbers:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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