All posts by Xarissa Holdaway


Suicide Barriers at Cornell Possibly Delayed Because of Designers’ Dispute

A project designed to prevent suicides at Cornell University is facing an uncertain future because of a spat between members of the firm tapped to design barriers on campus bridges.

Cornell has struggled with perceptions about its suicide rates. Timothy Marchell, a clinical psychologist in the campus health service, speculates that this is because many suicides take place in dramatic spots among the gorges of Ithaca, N.Y., from bridges as high as 70 feet.

One student jumped in February and tw…


Biodegradable Forks: Not So Biodegradable

Dan Goosen, compost manager, holds up a spoon that says “Biodegradable,” found mostly undecayed in the compost heap. (Sally McCay for UVM)

File another one under “good intentions gone awry.” At lunch events, campus picnics, and in dining halls, colleges have distributed biodegradable utensils. But the cutlery isn’t, well, cutting the mustard.

The University of Vermont sends food scraps and other waste to a local commercial composter, where they are turned into rich, nutrient-dense soil to be …


What Future for College Sustainability Programs?

In the wake of the midterm elections, little optimism is being expressed for regulating greenhouse-gas emissions.

The influx of Republican lawmakers—many of whom hail from coal states, where carbon caps are deemed politically risky—may mean an impasse in devising a comprehensive federal policy on energy and fossil fuels. Almost all of the Republican candidates were indifferent or hostile to climate-change science. Political observers see that attitude translated into policy.

“Voters effectively …


To Create a Sustainable University, Triple-Check the Numbers

If you don’t know by now that incandescent lights are out of favor, you haven’t been paying attention.

Incandescent bulbs, which are essentially space heaters that happen to also provide a small amount of light, are inefficient and burn out quickly, and are one of the first things to go in energy-efficiency campaigns on campus. compact fluorescents last far longer, emit less heat, use less electricity, reduce carbon emissions, and can be installed in existing fixtures. So, when a university is l…


It’s Time Colleges Looked at Living Walls

A green wall at the U. of Guelph (U. of Guelph photo)

A recent study at the University of Michigan, designed to examine the ways our brains respond to our surroundings, found that we are profoundly influenced by the amount of greenery we see on a daily basis. Researchers measured the cognitive deficits caused by a short urban walk, showing that students who walked around an arboretum performed significantly better on working memory and attention tests than those who had taken a walk downtown. (I…


Why Machines Need to Talk to Each Other, and to Us

I recently interviewed Mark Kapner, a senior engineer at the Texas utility Austin Energy, about some myths in the clean-energy conversation. The conversation got me thinking about the communications gap in our system for generating electricity—a gap that leads utilities to operate as though they were always on the verge of peak demand.

“What utilities need is a mix of resources to assure that they can match supply to demand at all times,” Mr. Kapner said. “Those resources will be a mixture of di…


Preparing Students for Green Jobs? Start With Campus Projects

Xarissa Holdaway, one of this summer’s Buildings & Grounds guest bloggers, is campus e-news coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation’s campus-ecology project. You can read her previous posts here.

More and more colleges have started the long and complicated process of working toward carbon neutrality, but many of them are ignoring an opportunity that exists right under their noses. This is the opportunity to educate students for jobs in sustainability by letting them learn from the colle…


Guest Blogger: Time to Roll Up Our Sleeves

A few weeks ago, The Washington Post ran an article about the power of symbolic actions within the environmental movement—and about how those symbolic acts can derail useful, real-world solutions. The author, Shankar Vedantam, points out that if all the people who participated in Earth Hour by turning off their lights had instead switched even one incandescent bulb to a compact fluorescent, the energy savings would have been enormous, perhaps as much as 1,368 times higher.

Severin Borenstein, di…


Guest Blogger: There’s More to Decision Making Than We Realize

Wind turbines, food miles, biomass, vertical farming, carbon sequestration — the Internet is a textbook study in overstimulation. There’s a lot of information, and a lot of it is depressing. But beneath the techno-speak and the climate predictions run a deeper current and a bigger set of questions.

What are we, the human race, trying to accomplish? Do we have enough time and political will? What does it mean to live off the sun, and why aren’t we doing it yet? Is it possible to transform an oi…


Guest Blogger: Tweaking Won’t Assure Sustainability—but Reimagining Might

Biodesign Institute

Building B of the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State U.: True progress? (Chronicle photograph)

Almost every day, press releases for new green buildings show up in my inbox and on blogs like the one you’re reading. One striking example—Arizona State University’s new Biodesign Institute, a soaring, uber-chic, high-performance, LEED-certified center—gave me chills. The built-in “third spaces,” natural daylighting, and funneling of air-conditioning condensation for a shade garden are particu…