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Building Operating Management

Continous Improvement Key to College's Sustainability Efforts

Universities can use a variety of strategies, many of them low-cost, to ensure ongoing sustainable operations

By James Goblirsch and Patrick Thibaudeau   Green

In the United States, more than 4,200 accredited universities and colleges control nearly a million acres of land and operate hundreds of thousands of buildings. Increasingly, administrators are turning their attention to greening their campuses by setting new goals and standards for sustainability. These goals and standards often include joining institutional peers in efforts such as the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment and the Higher Education Association’s Sustainability Consortium. Educational institutions are also investing in campus and facility master plans that remove bureaucratic hurdles to sustainable initiatives, such as using LEED certification as a standard for new buildings.

But green goals shouldn’t stop with the initial design. Facility executives should take steps to ensure that ongoing building operations are green as well. There are many low-cost, easy-to-implement ways to green campus operations. And students and staff play a huge role in these efforts.

Colleges and universities educate more than 15 million students each year, and each of these students spends a good chunk of time in university buildings. Engaging the entire on-campus population about green operations and educating them on how they can help can help further campus green goals, like saving energy. What’s more, the resulting operational savings can, in turn, be used to improve existing operations.


Facility executives can maximize the efficiencies of existing facilities through the process of regularly scheduled commissioning. This process verifies that building systems and assemblies are performing as intended to meet current needs and sustainability requirements. In other words, recommissioning involves tuning up equipment to optimize its function and increase energy efficiency. Studies have shown that the costs of these strategies are recouped within one to three years.

The recommissioning process can trigger systems upgrades such as converting HVAC systems to non-CFC refrigerants; energy-efficient retrofits; performing post-warranty equipment maintenance; implementing systems to automatically monitor building systems functions; and installing lighting controls, and individual temperature and ventilation controls. These upgrades can provide multiple benefits, including reduced energy use, improved occupant comfort and increased system lifespan. Properly training operations and maintenance staff can help ensure maximum benefits are achieved.

Facility executives may also be willing to invest in such on-site, non-polluting renewable energy sources as solar, geothermal, wind and biomass. The initial costs may be higher, but can be recouped over time. Some areas even have incentive programs that provide design fees and construction funds to promote use of alternative energy strategies.

Energy is only one part of the green story. Facility executives should also concentrate on minimizing the use of water, pesticides and gas-powered maintenance by planting native, climate-tolerant shrubs, trees, grasses and flowers on campus. Flora not native to the area, which require regular watering, should be provided with a high-efficiency irrigation system that includes such technology as micro-irrigation, moisture sensors or weather-data-based controllers to limit water use. These irrigation systems can be fed with captured rainwater, gray water or on-site treated wastewater.

Another strategy for greening campus operations is to assess and actively reduce the institution’s carbon footprint. On campus, establish incentives for staff and students to use carpooling, mass transit and bikes. Examine the air-travel patterns of campus staff. Replace air travel that isn’t absolutely necessary with conference calls and video conferencing. Establish a system for buying carbon credits or renewable energy certificates to offset campus gas and oil use and pollution created by travel that is necessary.

When researching replacement equipment, consult EPA’s environmentally preferable purchasing programs. Examine other institutional purchasing practices. Buy only Forest Stewardship Council-certified paper. This paper contains recycled content or pulp from forests certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, which provides guidelines for sustainable forestry practices.

Is there a way to buy more food or other supplies locally, thus supporting area farmers and businesses while reducing the gas and oil used to get products to campus? Are there ways to close the loop on the food-service waste stream by sending food scraps to the horticulture department for composting or to local farmers for livestock feed? These ideas are part of a growing trend to close the lifecycle loop. Posing such questions could result in excellent research projects for staff and students, ensuring their active engagement in the greening of their campus and its operations.

Green Education

When freshmen arrive on campus for orientation and registration, administrators distribute a wealth of information about campus life. With minimal effort, information about green initiatives can be added to these distribution systems. For instance, freshman orientation leaders can be prepped on how to talk with students about green initiatives on campus and, during the orientation process, begin engaging students in going green.

Similarly, registration packets can include information on sustainability initiatives at the school, along with information on how each student can save energy and use fewer resources. The idea is simply to include information about sustainability in the existing information distribution systems.

Those bits of information might emphasize the benefits of walking, biking or using mass transit to reduce the campus’s carbon footprint and to help improve individual student health. Transit stops at convenient locations timed to the needs of staff and students can increase use of mass transit. Raising on-campus parking costs encourages bus riding, biking and carpooling.

Facility executives can also institute a policy that provides preferred parking or parking discounts to carpools or fuel-efficient vehicles, such as hybrids, and provides parking discounts for these vehicles. Facility executives should work with campus transportation managers to replace older vehicles in the university fleet with hybrids, fuel-efficient or alternative fuel vehicles.

Within the Dorms

Freshmen typically live in dormitories, where they never see a utility bill. That means they have no idea how much water or electricity they’re using every day. Some universities have begun providing students with incentives to reduce energy use, water consumption and waste. For example, a friendly competition between dormitories could offer prizes like a pizza party to whichever dorm can lower its energy bill the most. The prize could be paid for by the savings, so the more savings, the better the prize. Some facilities also include an energy management system utilizing computers for students to monitor their own energy consumption.

Within the dorms, facility executives can set a green example by installing compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) in lighting fixtures. CFLs use at least two-thirds less energy than standard incandescent bulbs to provide the same amount of light. Replacing aging plumbing fixtures with automatic controls and low-flow fixtures reduces water consumption and saves money. Refrigerators in dorms should all be ENERGY STAR-labeled appliances. New dorms can also be designed to take advantage of daylighting with light sensors as well as sun control devices and energy efficient heating and cooling.

In addition, dorms should maintain good indoor air quality by prohibiting smoking. Low-impact, green cleaning products will also help maintain good indoor air quality, while green housekeeping policies that use paper products and waste bags that are Green Seal-certified, or that comply with EPA’s Comprehensive Procurement Guidelines, help reduce waste. Dorm recycling programs can include bins for the separation of paper, metal, glass, plastics and batteries. Change food service operations to eliminate use of plastic or foam products for eating utensils, plates and cups. Buy paper products that have recycled content.

Renewable Efforts

By surrounding freshmen with a green lifestyle, and leveraging students with information and incentives to participate in green operations, campuses can reduce energy and resource use, reduce operating expenses and experience a greening of overall operations.

The two most renewable sources of power on college campuses are the energy of students and staff, and the influence of education and research. When these two sources of energy are properly harnessed, they are powerful drivers behind the greening of operations within campus facilities. Even the smallest effort can increase the scope and impact of the benefit to the campus, its people and the surrounding community. As students graduate, they can inspire others to adopt the lessons they learned on campus: conserving water, reducing energy use, recycling waste products and decreasing their carbon footprint.

Consider LEED-EB

One way facility executives can begin campuswide green operations initiatives is by examining guidelines in the LEED for Existing Buildings (LEED-EB) rating system. This rating system provides standards for ongoing sustainable operations and maintenance. By working through the LEED-EB certification process, facility executives acquire a more thorough understanding of their buildings’ operational costs and environmental impact. The result is reduced operational costs through decreased energy use, and pride of ownership in upgrading an existing building to green standards.

To obtain this certification, facility executives perform a building and operations assessment to identify ways of improving operations and upgrading equipment to meet LEED-EB standards. Owners then develop policies that define the operating intent for each category. After making improvements, owners document building performance for at least three months. A building acquires certification after the operational data has been reviewed and approved by the U.S. Green Building Council.

— Goblirsch and Thibaudeau

Patrick Thibaudeau, CSI, CCS, LEED AP, is vice president for sustainable design at HGA Architects and Engineers. His recent projects include several LEED projects around the country.

James Goblirsch, AIA, CSI, CSS, associate vice president at HGA, has nearly 20 years experience in master planning, building design and implementation strategies. He specializes in education design.

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  posted on 9/1/2007   Article Use Policy

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