Ann K. Newman: Colleges Must Think Beyond Space Management

Ann K. Newman
Ann K. Newman

In higher education, sustainability and green design have become not only buzzwords but also, in many cases, real practice. A brief perusal of the program for the Society for College and University Planning’s upcoming conference shows at least 16 sessions about some aspect of sustainability. Programs such as the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment, and the College Sustainability Report Card are becoming commonplace measures of an institution’s commitment to sustainability.

As a planner, when I think of sustainability I think beyond buildings—I think of environmental, economic, and societal sustainability. The ways that a college uses its space are as critical an aspect of sustainable practice as LEED certification of new buildings, energy-efficient heating and cooling systems, co-generation, or geothermal wells. A college that uses its space as well as possible is one that does not build new buildings, however green they may be, unless its mission and programs absolutely require them. Instead, it reinvests in its existing facilities and energizes its community through the active use of all spaces.

As many have said, we can build all the LEED-certified, carbon-neutral buildings we want, but that’s just a drop in the bucket if we don’t do something to increase the efficiency of the billions of existing buildings. Using space efficiently is one issue, but upgrading building envelopes; installing energy-efficient mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems and sensors; and monitoring energy consumption—all these are critical. A college that is using its space well but has old, inefficient, leaky buildings needs to go further. A building that uses energy very efficiently but is half empty most of the time is a problem as well.

Deferred maintenance has been a problem on college campuses almost forever. The current economic situation isn’t helping. But if a college’s administrators have some money available, I hope that they’ll ask themselves this: Are we sure we need a new building? Let’s look at our space utilization. And if we’re making changes to use that building more efficiently, can we make it as energy-efficient as possible while we’re at it? That’s not as sexy as planning new buildings and hiring international architects, but it’s a whole lot greener. —Ann K. Newman

Ann K. Newman, April’s Buildings & Grounds guest blogger, is head of the planning group at Shepley Bulfinch Richardson & Abbott. She is a psychologist by training. You can read her earlier posts here.

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