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Green Grow the Campuses – by Jeff Riley of Centerbrook Architects

| February 18, 2010 | 0 Comments

How green a campus is today is a crucial factor in a college’s admissions, affecting not simply the number of applicants but also the percentage of accepted students who chose to attend a given institution. Since the average applicant now applies to seven schools, the competition for top candidates is obviously fierce. Recently the yield nationwide dropped four points to 45 percent, meaning that more than half the students who were accepted at various colleges and universities demurred. As the number of graduating high school seniors decreases from a peak this year of 3.33 million, the battle can only intensify.

So a green campus is among the features that this shrinking pool of selective students value. I am not referring only to the aesthetic mix of trees, grass and shrubbery, important as they are, but to the ethical concern that an institution exhibits towards energy conservation and impact of its greenhouse gas emissions on the environment. The verb “exhibits” should be emphasized. Not only do colleges need to walk the walk, they should be able to talk the walk, i.e. to show the world they are doing their part in protecting the environment.

Another argument for the greening of American campuses in a demonstrative fashion is the fact that sustainability has recently entered most educational curriculums. In fact, it is among the fastest growing academic majors, according to a recent national poll. Green infrastructure, therefore, can serve a dual role: as a responsible way to conserve and generate energy and as a “real world” teaching tool.

Quinnipiac University in Connecticut opened its York Hill campus this past fall with an array of sustainable approaches and alternative energy systems, some purposely quite visible. The star of the show is its wind terrace, which makes clean energy and, as important, also serves as a kinetic sculpture garden, a social gathering place for students. This cluster of 25 vertical-axis wind turbines, or “Windspires,” provides an aesthetically pleasing venue, infrastructure as destination, for students to walk through and visit. Set on a grassy hilltop with views of Long Island Sound, the wind terrace is set along a well used student path. Passersby can stop, sit on benches, and shoot the breeze themselves. Besides student interest, the media has become engaged in covering this unique, oh-so-social wind farm. Among others, The New York Times published an article on it in November.

In addition to showing the public what it is doing, some schools are taking the next logical step: telling people what it all means in terms of kilowatts generated, greenhouse gases displaced, payback projections and the like. Infrastructure as a formal “exhibit trail” is one of the options that Quinnipiac is considering. Nearby, Yale University’s Kroon Hall, the new home of its forestry and environmental studies school, is telling its impressive green story (it is carbon neutral) with on-site kiosks and an intriguing web site, www.yale.edu/sustainability.

Visually impressive as the sculpture-like turbines are at York Hill, along with rooftop photovoltaic solar collectors, many of the most sustainable and arguably more significant initiatives are out of sight. The little known secret about sustainable architecture is that the most basic, and least expensive, approaches are actually the most productive. For example, how you site a building in the landscape and orientate it towards the sun, a strategy that costs little or nothing in most cases, can have the greatest impact on energy usage. Placement of windows and building mass can greatly improve passive solar heating and cooling, as well as “light harvesting,” the use of natural light to reduce the need for electrical generation.

Responsible construction at campuses is not just about the bells and whistles, but nitty-gritty components such as the use and conservation of durable and local materials and an eye for how the facility can be efficiently maintained over time. Everything from rainwater harvesting and automatic sensors to turn-off lights, to low-flow plumbing fixtures, are just some of the myriad details that add up to significant conservation and budget savings. Our firm has developed a check list of 78 energy efficiency approaches that can be applied to the design of a project where appropriate.

The most sustainable building of all, of course, is the one that you don’t have to build, or to put it another way, one that lasts for generations. An eminently practical and efficient structure that has no soul or flair, a place that people don’t want to inhabit, or look at, is likely to be gutted or torn down and replaced before long. The one most overlooked feature in successful green construction is the creation of a building that will be beloved by its owners, users, and passersby. If it is dear, as opposed to dreary, it will last for years and years.

Jeff Riley is a partner in Centerbrook Architects, that designs buildings for colleges and universities across the country.

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