Innovation & Design

The Quad's Not the Only Green Spot on Campus


College students are often considered the wellspring of the environmental movement. Now campus designers are going green, too

Although college buildings can be energy-hogs with weekday-only classrooms and offices, the environmental revolution discussed in class is increasingly visible on the outside of the same lecture halls. College architecture, often caricatured as ivy-clad towers surrounding lawns hatched with student walkways, is getting a 21st century makeover.

Michelle Moore, senior vice-president of the U.S. Green Building Council, says colleges are at the vanguard of the green architecture movement because they are closely associated with the generation most in tune with environmental issues.

"This generation is uniquely nervous about the fact that environmental degradation could make them worse off then their parents," she says. "There is tremendously powerful interest coming from the millennial generation, and colleges understand their green commitment is critical to attract the best students."

New Models and New Laws

Gerald Reifert, an associate with Mahlum Architects in Seattle and a member of the American Institute of Architects Education Committee, says the design philosophy at schools has changed dramatically in the past few decades. "The response to the energy crisis in the early 1970s was to take away all the windows," he said, adding: "That was exactly the wrong response." Now more architects experiment with natural ventilation and day-lighting, which both rely on windows that can open and let in sunlight.

Reifert says the eco-friendly features of glass-oriented designs include natural ventilation and day-lighting—the use of windows and light sensors to replace electric lighting. "I don't think it has to be more expensive," he says, pointing to an elegant array of glass panels and windows his firm installed at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. "We spent less on mechanical systems [and] more on the envelope of the building," he says. "It's about resource management during the design phase."

Increasingly, eco-conscious architecture isn't just chic—it's the law. Reifert says Washington State now requires all construction projects that receive public funding, including many schools, to qualify for Silver LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) certification, attaining the standards specified by the U.S. Green Building Council, which scores environmental factors such as water quality and energy use.

Energy-Saving Giants

In the Midwest, an eco-architecture competition between Minnesota schools has raged without a government mandate. When Macalester College in St. Paul erected a largely symbolic turbine in 2003, it sparked a War for Wind in Minnesota: Carleton College responded in 2004 with a 1.65-megawatt monster, the first college-owned utility turbine in the country. Not to be outdone, St. Olaf College and the University of Minnesota began to assemble their own energy-saving giants. Today in Minnesota, campuses that once guzzled watts without a care are making energy out of thin air.

Moore says colleges could spur a stronger national movement toward eco-architecture. "I think they'll be galvanizing for two reasons. On the economic basis, if you look at education buildings, they are the largest commercial construction market in the U.S.," says Moore. "It's also where the next generation is growing and learning about design and construction."

She points to the Clinton Foundation's Climate Initiative, which has brought cities, banks, schools, and contractors together to retrofit buildings to reduce their carbon impact in more than 20 cities around the world, including Los Angeles, London, and Cairo. "If all 4,000 U.S. campuses purchased 100% renewable energy, it would quadruple current U.S. demand for renewables," she says. "Schools' ability to buy and move products in this market is huge."

Thompson is a reporter for BusinessWeek in New York .

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