You are here

The Benefits of Sustainability

University Business, June 2011

In today’s discussions about buildings and architecture for higher education campuses, sustainability is touted for its positive environmental impact. However, sustainable design can be more than just responsible earth stewardship. It can impact operational costs, support and improve student learning, and even promote change in students’ behavior. Universities should approach sustainability as an expectation, not an add-on, incorporating it into the building process and thinking about all of its potential impact when making design decisions.

At a time when educators at every level are scrutinizing budgets, it is important to not only consider the initial cost of a new campus building, but also the operational cost of the building for the next 50 years. If a building is designed with this in mind, sustainable architecture and engineering practices can pay back operating costs over time.

“Over the past 20 years, Western Michigan University has implemented over 100 energy conservation measures ranging from occupancy sensors to heat recovery systems. These measures offer an average payback period of about three and a half years,” says Peter Strazdas, associate vice president of Facilities Management at Western Michigan University. “Thanks in large part to these energy conservation efforts by the university, our institution has increased our campus- built environment by 7.4 percent while decreasing energy consumption by 22 percent.”

Simple, thoughtful architectural decisions made early in the design process can also impact a building’s maintenance requirements and directly affect the cost of day-to-day maintenance. Choices, which range from minimizing or eliminating hard to reach horizontal surfaces that typically collect dust, to selecting durable flooring in areas with the most student traffic, can reduce janitorial costs substantially.

Sustainable practices can create better learning environments for students. Everything from the type of mechanical systems chosen for each space to the type of light students learn by can positively affect a student’s ability to learn and an instructor’s ability to disseminate information. In fact, according to a Heschong Mahone Group study, the physical conditions of classrooms are an important predictor of student performance.

“Our students, faculty, and staff all report what an open and enjoyable environment our new sustainable building offers for working and learning,” says Kathryn Koch, interim dean of Central Michigan University’s College of Education and Human Services. “Everyone truly appreciates how the new atmosphere contributes to creating a pleasant learning environment.”

As universities take a deeper look at sustainability in their mechanical systems, some are choosing displacement ventilation systems for certain areas as a cost and energy savings option. This type of ventilation system can also impact the learning environment by eliminating excess noise and reducing germ circulation.

Historically, large group instruction spaces in higher education facilities have been designed with higher ceilings and large volume. The traditional method of supplying conditioned air at the ceiling requires the entire air volume to be heated and cooled, even the space near the ceiling where there are no occupants.

On the other hand, displacement ventilation systems introduce the conditioned air low and utilize air stratification to heat and cool mainly the occupied zone of the room. Not only does this save on energy costs, but these types of systems are quieter, which helps with the acoustics in classrooms and eliminates excess noise for students. The same Heschong Mahone Group study found that noises, such as equipment sounds, have measurable negative effects on students’ learning rates.

Additionally, displacement ventilation provides cleaner, filtered air at the occupied zone, and draws contaminated air away from the students, improving air quality, rather than mixing the fresh air with circulating air within the room. In this manner, displacement ventilation can lower the spread of germs among students, which can, in turn, reduce absenteeism.

Classroom lighting can have the biggest impact on a student’s learning environment, and daylighting actually allows the university to save on energy costs while providing desirable natural light to students. According to The Energy Center of Wisconsin’s 2005 report, “Energy Savings from Daylighting,” harvesting daylighting through proper sensors and controls can save universities more than 20 percent on operating costs of about $1.13 per square foot. Repeated studies have also shown that the appropriate level of natural light positively impacts students’ ability to learn at all levels.

When designing Central Michigan University’s College of Education and Human Services, SHW Group wanted to capture an abundance of natural light for students and faculty. To do so, SHW oriented the building on an east/west axis to provide the most flexibility to capture the solar income of the site. All classrooms are on the north side of the building and 12-foot glass window walls allow for the diffusion of sunlight through the classrooms and into the primary circulation corridor to maximize day lighting. Additionally, the central spine is rendered with light wells, drawing ambient northern light from rooftop clerestory windows deep into the core of building.

Throughout the facility, direct-indirect classroom lighting is switched, but programmed to have only one circuit on at a time, thus meeting minimum IES standards. Punched windows in southern located offices allow for proper glazing percentage, and each window hood houses a reflecting shelf to capture and diffuse sunlight for a more comfortable environment.

While sustainable design decisions can improve a student’s ability to learn in a classroom, the space also can be designed in a way that supports the specific type of learning taking place there. By understanding how a specific university’s students will use a space, and how the instructional methodology impacts that, architectural features can be chosen which enhance the usability of the space, while at the same time serve a sustainable purpose.

When SHW Group was tasked with designing a new library for Grand Valley State University (GVSU), the team participated in a three-month visioning session with the University to develop a vision for the new library based on how students and faculty were using the current library. These visioning sessions also included specific discussions on sustainable design to determine how and where to use sustainable features. The team used quality based decisions to help organize the new building, by identifying who and how the occupants would use the space.

For example, by moving books to an off-site storage location, GVSU opened up more space for students to study and collaborate. The university found the space was a large draw for the student population, with gate counts increasing dramatically. Getting a book, however for students could take some time to retrieve.

In planning their new Mary Idema Pew Library Learning and Information Commons, GVSU wanted to maintain the important student study and social spaces, but decided to keep all the books on-site. A building which accommodated space for both student collaboration and books stored in the traditional method would require a lot of square footage.

In response, SHW Group designed the Mary Idema Pew Library with an Automated Storage and Retrieval System (ASRS) that will increase the square footage of usable collaboration spaces by decreasing the required space for books.

The ASRS allowed the patron to have the book they wanted in less than one minute, while managing to store an incredible number of books in a fraction of the space taken up by conventional shelving methods. This minimized the impact of building without sacrificing on learning.

Universities with no renovations or new projects in the near future also participate in the sustainability discussion by educating students outside the classroom. Visual reminders of sustainability and energy usage can help modify students’ behavior. Installing interactive monitors and displays that show the building’s energy usage makes a visual impact on students, encouraging them to make more sustainable decisions. Also, by making students aware of the building’s sustainable features, universities appeal to the upcoming generation’s desire for more environmentally-responsible surroundings and reinforce the universities’ commitment to future generations.

As universities increase the incorporation of sustainable features in current and future campus buildings, the dialogue is evolving and people understand that sustainability is more than a buzzword--there are tangible benefits to sustainable design. When designed correctly, sustainable features can not only contribute to the long term livability of the planet, but also save on operating costs and ultimately provide a better learning environment for students.

Tod Stevens is principal designer and Chris Mackey is principal in charge at SHW Group,

Register now for UBTech 2018

Register now for UBTech 2018, June 4-6 at the Mirage, Las Vegas. At UBTech 2018, you’ll network with a dynamic community of higher ed leaders who are shaping the future of campus technology and explore topics like cyber security, distance learning, campus learning space design, communications, personalized learning and more. Your UBTech registration also includes a free pass to the InfoComm exhibit hall.

Register now>>