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Colleges seek sustainable sources for green building

University Business, July 2013
Edna Holmes Hall, a five-story residential living community at Lewis & Clark College (Ore.) last fall, is designed to use  40 percent less water and 26 percent less energy than a typical residential building.
Edna Holmes Hall, a five-story residential living community at Lewis & Clark College (Ore.) last fall, is designed to use 40 percent less water and 26 percent less energy than a typical residential building.

When Vanderbilt University (Tenn.) started its practice of building green in the mid-1990s, finding plywood without VOCs—or volatile organic compounds that can be harmful to human health and the environment—wasn’t possible in the local market, recalls University Architect Keith Loiseau. The project team would have to go to Atlanta for materials, and overall, building green was more expensive.

Today, it’s a different story. “We really do not find any major issues with the availability of green materials, nor do we really see much of a premium at all because most manufacturers have pretty much come on board,” he says. “The whole paradigm has changed with how they’re conducting business.”

Wider availability and greater affordability of green building materials are, of course, a result of greater demand.

Since the U.S. Green Building Council’s development of the LEED certification program in 1998, more than 52,000 projects comprising more than 9.9 billion square feet of construction space have been LEED certified, across all industries and building types.

As of May 1, there were 2,078 LEED-certified projects in the higher education space, out of 16,988 total commercial and industrial LEED-certified projects across all industries. There were an additional 3,249 higher education projects seeking LEED certification.

The higher ed community is overwhelmingly committed to green building—86 percent of higher ed respondents in a 2012 McGraw-Hill Construction and SmartMarket study reported doing at least some new green buildings in the last three years. And more than half of those involved in new green construction reported that, over the last three years, more than 90 percent of their new projects were green.

All that green construction can’t happen without a solid understanding of how to source materials. Here are some practices to keep in mind.

Set your priorities

Even LEED Platinum buildings aren’t 100 percent green. That’s why it’s important for an institution’s project team to know what it’s trying to accomplish, whether it’s lowering energy costs, buying local, or conserving water, says Tony Layne, co-director of the Sustainable Design Initiative for architecture and design firm Perkins+Will.

“Maybe it’s a natural product and it’s renewable in that sense, or the way you care for it is green, but it might not be locally sourced. It’s not really a black or white issue; it’s a grey scenario no matter what,” he says. “You have to find where your priorities are and how you want to balance those things. Where’s the most good?”

In the end, two schools could be building nearly identical-looking buildings, but if their priorities differ, the way sourcing decisions are made could be completely different.

Get varied parties involved early

The best way to ensure a design team knows what an institution’s goals are is for important parties on campus to be involved in the planning process. Lane suggests getting the CEO, CFO, facilities, and accounting folks in a room with the design and construction teams to decide on five or six key drivers on the project that will be used to evaluate decisions later on.

“What we really like to do at the beginning of any project is try and go through a workshop process that really sets in place key design drivers for that client, typically based on their values as a company,” he says.

“At some point the budget is going to come into play and decisions will need to be made,” says Layne. “If you don’t have anything to look back at and say, ‘remember we said this was important to us?’ you end up with a free for all. Things get added or sliced or diced in a way that doesn’t benefit the school.”

Choose a contractor wisely

Making smart decisions in the planning process could be all for naught if a contractor isn’t on board with the green vision. Contractors should also be knowledgeable about what products are green—and where to find them, says Bruce Jenson, capital programs manager at Arizona State University.

“We’re doing the best we can at tracking the impacts we make. The more educated and the more familiar a supplier, contractor, or designer is, the better off we are, and we look at those capabilities and qualifications when we select our partners for construction.”

Layne says good contractors will help projects stay on budget and provide real-world perspective on the availability of materials. “If they’re not on board what will ultimately happen is they’ll come back and ask to use a different material. It puts it back on the design team to do a lot of research to prove that that’s not the right thing to do. Having [contractors] involved early and knowledgeable about these things is really critical.”

Know where to look and for what

Sourcing green not only makes a building project more sustainable, it’s an easy way to add points toward LEED certification. Out of 100 possible points, 14 are available for materials and resources used. Resource subcategories include material use, recycled content, regional materials, rapidly renewable materials, and certified wood.

Most schools aim to use suppliers within a 500-mile radius of campus. The LEED rubric dictates projects must “use building materials or products that have been extracted, harvested or recovered, as well as manufactured, within a specified distance of the project site for a minimum of 10 percent or 20 percent, based on cost, of the total materials value. If only a fraction of a product or material is extracted, harvested, or recovered and manufactured locally, then only that percentage (by weight) can contribute to the regional value.”

Any materials that are permanently installed as part of the building project can be selected to meet the criteria—such as flooring, lighting, plumbing, electrical, and furniture.

While buying local obviously make sense from a green perspective, it makes financial sense, too.

“Contractors aren’t going to go too far away if they can get it locally,” says Lynda J. Boomer, design administrator for Michigan State University Infrastructure Planning and Facilities.

“It’s going to be cheaper usually, considering transportation and all that.”

Loiseau of Vanderbilt says it’s generally pretty easy to stay within the 500-mile limit. However, achieving a specific aesthetic finish can be difficult. “It doesn’t usually represent a large volume of material in the building, but it’s something that’s important to the design,” he says. “There may be products that are manufactured and are green, but not available locally.”

Another area that can cause difficulty is wood flooring, says Steven Varelmann, college architect at Oberlin College (Ohio). When considering substitutes to wood, common alternative for unsustainable vinyl is linoleum, most of which he says is made in Europe. That’s where institutions need to weigh the importance of green versus local.

The label “assembled in the USA” is also a gray area.

“The individual components are being sourced from somewhere else and assembled here, but we don’t know where it was made,” says Varelmann. “We look at everything on a piece-by-piece basis, but we can’t personally go look at every factory. We ask the questions we think are relevant: where things are made, what components are made here. We have to ultimately rely on and trust suppliers.”