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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Sept/Oct 2006 : Building

Contributing and Educating
Sustainable designs in higher education buildings help attract and retain students.

by Kyle Taft, AIA, LEED, AP

The new United Nations “Decade of Education for Sustainable Development” encourages governments around the world to integrate sustainable-development education into their national educational strategies. In the United States, sound sustainability-based facility decisions are fast becoming a critical design approach to university campus expansion and råenovation. Sustainable design and the message it communicates—that of environmental awareness—is often best demonstrated in a campus’s most visible structure: the student union building.

Universities have found that more students want to support sustainable lifestyles. Further, with many university organizations on campus promoting sustainability through lectures and extracurricular resources, sustainable buildings allow the campus to demonstrate its own sustainability. Basic decisions such as using local resources and specifying from the growing number of low-VOC (volatile organic compound) products are quickly becoming part of mainstream campus construction. Ultimately, providing facilities based on sustainable principles can strengthen both student retention and faculty recruitment.

As a university administration considers integrating sustainable issues into its growth strategy for its student union and other buildings, it must consider four key decisions: building new vs. retrofitting, site selection, design integration, and use of commissioning.

Build New or Retrofit?
Many aging student union buildings are being replaced, but many more are being remodeled if the existing structure is in good shape. Adding on to an existing building is a clear sustainable effort that preserves already-used resources. Likewise, expanding a student union on a piece of property, which has already been used for the same type of building, is more sustainable than using a green field (previously undeveloped land).

When a building must be demolished, some resources can be salvaged and used for the new building. These include certain types of roofing, such as copper—which, at a premium, is a value. Certain types of site concrete can be ground and used as fill rather than transporting fill from elsewhere; this helps reduce fuel usage and costs.

Regardless of which choice administrators make, the university’s symbolic icons are important to preserve whenever possible. These include clock faces, towers and other ties to previous generations. At the University of Arizona, for example, a polished brass door and window frames were preserved in a campus memorial monument for the U.S.S. Arizona. A bas relief was also saved and displayed, achieving both historic and sustainable goals.

Site Selection
If demolition is necessary, rebuilding on the same site is the most sustainable decision to make, because the new building does not take open green space from the campus. Other sustainable issues concern the site’s orientation, especially how it relates to sunlight and the ability to harvest solar energy.

The possible relationship of the site to a transit facility offers sustainability for the greater community, by encouraging the building’s occupants to use mass transit. For a student union, the ideal site offers connections to rail, bus and bicycle routes. City bus systems are most easily interfaced with a university transit system. The result reduces land needs for parking and cuts overall automobile emissions.

At Colorado State University, a transit center was designed as part of the student union master plan and expansion. Likewise, Boise State University’s new transit center is associated with the student union expansion, allowing students to connect easily with campus and intercity bus systems.

Integrated Design
Integrated design is essential to a building’s sustainability, as it allows building systems to function with one another rather than compete. Lighting and electrical systems, for example, need to support mechanical systems rather than work against them.

Daylighting principles, which focus on natural lighting for spaces, help reduce the heat produced by artificial lighting. Heat reduction in a space leads to the downsizing of required mechanical equipment, primarily the cooling systems, because system cooling loads are almost always greater than heating loads. Smaller systems, in turn, require less space. By integrating design, both first costs and lifecycle costs for lighting and mechanics can be reduced.

Natural lighting is generally a desirable amenity in today’s educational settings. University buildings are most livable when interiors have a strong connection to the exterior. In the student union, especially, increased natural lighting through indoor-outdoor connections and the appropriate use of windows and daylighting creates a comfortable “campus living room” atmosphere.

Roofing decisions are also important to integrated design and sustainability. A reflective, rather than absorptive, roof system reduces the cost of cooling the building interior and also keeps the climate around the building cooler. This avoids a “heat island” effect, which can increase overall campus heat by as much as one or two degrees. Reflective roofing systems include spray foam products—to be applied over existing roofing—and white membrane systems.

Surrounding heat can also be alleviated using more landscaping and less hardscaping, such as pavement. A more pedestrian-oriented campus reduces the need for paved parking. A lighter cooling load results, benefiting the campus at large.

The traditional type of commissioning, familiar to most universities, is executed after construction. It involves checking the completed building to make sure all systems are balanced and working. To achieve sustainable goals, a commissioning agent must be involved from the beginning of design, helping design equipment and systems that work in concert rather than discovering later what doesn’t work. Sustainability cannot be added at the end of the process, but must be done with forethought. The involved commissioning agent can guide this approach.

Monitoring systems that function over the building’s lifetime are often part of the commissioning process. These systems may seem to carry a high upfront cost, but eventually pay for themselves by achieving electrical and mechanical systems’ maximum energy efficiency. More elaborate monitoring systems can dim lights and adjust mechanical systems according to weather and occupancy, thus reducing energy usage and costs.

With student populations becoming more sophisticated in their knowledge of ways to benefit our environment, sustainable student unions and other campus buildings can support the cause by both contributing and educating. Students, in turn, will continue to expand the world’s future through sustainability.

Kyle Taft is with MHTN Architects, Inc. He can be reached at

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