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
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.
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
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
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
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
Kyle Taft is with MHTN Architects, Inc. He can be reached at Kyle.firstname.lastname@example.org.