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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Nov/Dec 2007 : Cover Story

Cover Story

Recruiting with Sustainable Design
Some universities are beginning to choose sustainable education over rankings.

by Kyle Taft, AIA, Leed AP,
MHTN Architects, Salt Lake City, UT

Colleges and universities are honing sustainable design into a tool for recruiting top students, faculty, and administrators.

Colleges and universities have discovered that environmentally friendly architectural design can help recruit top undergraduate and graduate students as well as faculty, researchers, and administrators.

Strategies include recycling campus buildings, building with regional materials, employing rapidly renewable resources whenever possible, and devising user-controlled lighting and HVAC systems.

How To Recycle Buildings

In the interest of full disclosure, recycling a building ultimately means renovating— renovating in more comprehensive and more sophisticated ways, perhaps, but still renovating.

Still, the change in terms seems appropriate. Renovating sounds expensive, while recycling sounds less expensive and more responsible. In fact, the distinction holds up. The concept of re-using an existing building has environmental value. An old building often proves to be a built resource already in place—why not recycle it?

Pure cost analyses might suggest that it would be cheaper to tear down old buildings and put up new ones. But there are more cost issues to consider than cash outlays. Architects today can conduct comprehensive feasibility studies to determine when recycling a building or starting over makes sense.

Feasibility studies look over the bones of a building. Does the building have a sound, re-usable structure? How much will it cost to bring it up to current seismic standards and life safety codes? Significant structural deficiencies generally cost so much to repair that it can make more sense to demolish a building.

On the other hand, if the structure is sound, it may make sense to redo the mechanical, plumbing, and electrical systems, along with modifications to the exterior skin and interior walls.

First, the cost of renovating or replacing those systems should not approach the cost of demolishing, disposing of rubble, and rebuilding with new materials.

Second, renovating or recycling a building will not consume significant quantities of structural steel, concrete, or masonry. Instead, renovating conserves those in place resources and their embedded energy. It also conserves the fossil fuels that would be needed to transport structural building materials to a site.

Building recycling programs can be quite creative. Idaho State University, for example, recently completed the Rendezvous Center, a new facility that includes a student union, 50 classrooms, and housing for 300 students all in one building. The 300 new residences enabled the University to take an outmoded residence hall out of service and recycle it for office use.

Building With Regional Materials
Building with indigenous materials is a sustainable technique that conserves fossil fuels while supporting the local economy. The U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program includes the strategy in its rating systems and recommends finding materials within 500 miles of the site.

The concept sometimes controls elements of building design. Suppose, for example, that a concrete plant is just 30 miles from a site, but trucks would have to carry steel more than 1,000 miles. In such a case, a strategy of building with regional materials would direct architects to design with concrete.

Sustainable issues aren’t always black and white. Consider the case of a building project aiming for a LEED platinum designation, the program’s highest rating.

While attempting to satisfy the local-use requirements for LEED, the contractor came across a conundrum. In a renovation, LEED calls for old carpet to be recycled. In this case, the closest carpet-recycling center was 800 miles away, too far to be considered local. There was a local landfill, however. Landfilling would save fossil fuels but reduce space available for solid waste by filling that space with a recyclable product. It’s a judgment call.

Renewable Resources
Like wind and solar energy, some building materials are considered renewable.

While old growth forests that developed over hundreds of years, cannot withstand clear-cutting, a number of renewable resource vendors are growing trees on plantations and harvesting the wood after just 10 years, for use in building doors, cabinets, and other components.
Fast growing bamboo is another easily renewable product that is being used to produce floor coverings, wall coverings, and ceiling tiles.
Linoleum is still another natural and rapidly renewable flooring covering, with a cost roughly equivalent to non-renewable vinyl. Natural fibers such as hemp and sisal are renewable agricultural products available for use in wall coverings. The cost of these natural fibers roughly matches the cost of non-renewable paints and vinyl wall coverings.

User Controlled HVAC And Lighting
Ideal building designs coordinate heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems with lighting systems. The reason is that lights produce heat that HVAC systems must cool — which uses electricity produced by burning fossil fuels.

A coordinated system adds natural light to the mix and reduces the need for artificial lighting, which in turn reduces the size of the HVAC system required to heat and cool the space. First costs for lighting and HVAC equipment go down. Lifetime costs decline as well, since smaller lighting and HVAC systems use less electricity (which, in many cases, is produced by non-renewable fossil fuels).

Another element of sustainable lighting and HVAC design gives occupants the ability to control their own microenvironments.

One such design employs a mechanical system with a floor plenum that distributes air under the floor. The entire floor is raised six to 18 inches, providing space for electrical wiring and forming a plenum or ventilation area that reduces the need for ducts. Conditioned air is fed into the floor plenum, which distributes the air to cubicles or offices through perforated panels spaced throughout the floor.

Control baffles beneath the perforated floor enable occupants to control the temperature in their cubicles or offices by sliding a solid panel over perforations to reduce the air flowing into the space.

Individual HVAC controls can be designed with ceiling plenums also, but they cost more. Such systems require more dampers and more automated controls. They may even require thermostat controls at each workstation.

Turning to lighting, window designs can provide enough natural light to replace a substantial number of light fixtures in a classroom or office building, again reducing first costs. Desk surface task lighting can provide plenty of light for individual occupants during times of the day when natural light isn’t sufficient.

Communicating The Strategy To Prospective Students And Faculty
Sustainable designs offer their own reward in terms of cost-saving economics. Given a bit of publicity, they can also help recruit students, faculty, and administrative talent.

People are well aware of sustainable issues. They know that sustainable buildings are more comfortable and enjoyable places to work.
A number of studies show that sustainable buildings with properly balanced lighting and HVAC controls lead to higher productivity on the part of occupants. Some studies have shown that sustainable designs boost the performance of students.

To promote the benefits, sustainable buildings plus supporting studies can be used as learning tools in classes about sustainable design.

For building users, signage explaining the sustainable features of buildings can be placed at strategic points in the buildings to educate them about how the principles of sustainability were applied in their building. Sustainable designs can be mentioned in literature, videos, and web information promoting the institution.

Another way to communicate a school’s interest in the environment is to create recycling programs. The student center, cafeterias, and other food services on campus can set up recycling stations where students can separate and drop off paper, plastics, and food scraps as they leave. Recycling stations in offices and classrooms can offer separate disposal containers for newspapers and office paper.

Whatever you do to keep your campus environmentally friendly shows your commitment to sustainability, a commitment that current and future students, faculty, and administrators will appreciate, especially as you communicate your commitment with them. Kyle can be reached at

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