Campuses get a 'sustainable' look

Construction is looking good on what will undisputedly be Stanford University's most environmentally sound building, but there's one issue that project director Philippe Cohen can't seem to tackle: the lights.

"You know what drives me nuts about some people," a frustrated Mr. Cohen asks as he peers into a fluorescent-lit classroom in the building hidden in the Bay Area's hills. "They never turn lights off."

Cohen, director of Stanford's Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, is overseeing construction of its first permanent building, a $3.2 million center that will host classrooms, laboratory space, and offices. Everything about the 12,000-square-foot building – from the waterless urinals to the 120-year-old bricks from Leland Stanford's original home that now line the front and back patios – was designed to have as little impact on the earth and its resources as possible.

Cohen's ideas are not foreign on college campuses, but they aren't ubiquitous either. Universities are often some of the bigger developers in communities, with construction of a new alumni center, dormitory, or research space always looming. But on many campuses nationwide, core groups of students, faculty, and administrators have brought sustainable principles – which consider the future while planning for the present – to the forefront of campus life.

"I think the university is an excellent place [for sustainability] for several reasons," says Amory Lovins, chief executive officer of the Rocky Mountain Institute, an environmental think tank in Aspen, Colo. "It has the knowledge to figure out how to do new things, and it has students who have the energy and enthusiasm to do most of the work, and for whom that discovery will be pedagogy."

Stanford students, partly inspired by Cohen's work at Jasper Ridge, worked with the administration to develop Guidelines for Sustainable Buildings, a 38-page booklet that covers everything from energy-efficient lighting to native landscaping. It will be distributed to architects and builders that hope to do work on campus.

Before the administration was persuaded to adopt the principles, the students needed to show how sustainable building can save money.

"We had to learn to speak business," says Grady Jackson, a third-year Stanford law student who helped develop the guidelines.

"If you put the money up front to make a building more energy efficient, it will pay off in operational costs," adds Audrey Chang, who is earning her master's degree in energy engineering at Stanford.

With 275 photovoltaic panels to catch sunlight, there should be no need to buy energy for the Jasper Ridge center from the traditional energy grid. There are even times when the meter will run backward, because surplus energy created by the PV panels will be fed back into the grid.

Enviro-friendly construction doesn't have to be expensive, either, Cohen says. The cost of the Jasper Ridge center was originally estimated at more than $7 million. But Cohen helped execute the entire project for just over $5 million.

Other schools also have found success with sustainable practices. The State University of New York at Buffalo spent $17 million to retrofit buildings to be more energy efficient – a move that will save the school $9 million in utilities costs annually – and Oberlin College in Ohio recently completed a comprehensive analysis of how it can eliminate pollution.

"There's a very lively movement among campuses in the US and worldwide to rethink the college or university as an exemplar of sustainable practice," Mr. Lovins says.

Students at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo hope to one day develop building guidelines. A group of students and faculty recently formed the Campus Sustainability Initiative with the hope of promoting all things environmentally sound – from eco-friendly paper products to alternate forms of transportation.

"Everything our graduates learn to do is either going to contribute to sustainability or detract from it, so we're the place," says Cal Poly English professor Steven Marx.

The group also hopes to get the university's president to sign the Talloires Declaration, an agreement endorsed by 275 universities worldwide. Signers of the declaration, which was named for an environmental conference in France, vow to incorporate sustainability and environmental literacy into teaching, research, operations, and outreach.

Weaving sustainability into all aspects of university life is a lofty goal, according to Wynn Calder, assistant director of University Leaders for a Sustainable Future, a support group based in Washington. Environmental education in universities has blossomed since the 1970s, but finding a niche for sustainability in some disciplines is difficult.

"There is still a tremendous reluctance to change business-as-usual in the disciplines," Calder says. "Basically, the disciplines are very narrowly focused. They get rewarded by doing research in their specific areas. They are not rewarded for thinking in an interdisciplinary way, and they're not rewarded for collaborating with other departments."

The Stanford group doesn't see this as an obstacle to teaching environmental responsibility. Their hope is that fellow students will adopt sustainability through the use and observation of the buildings where they learn.

Residents of one house on campus have already voted to install solar panels, and a class is building a straw-bale shed at the campus community farm. Straw-bale building has become popular because fewer resources, many of them recycled, are used in the construction process, and the finished product is more energy efficient.

"If the structures that you function in don't incorporate sustainability," says Mr. Jackson, the Stanford law student, "then that communicates a lot to students and faculty as well."

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