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The ground floor of the building was dry. “The worst of the storm seemed to have passed — I thought we were good,” he says. When he returned to check again at about 5:30 a.m., the storm surge was more than a foot deep inside and still climbing. It eventually rose to three feet. Tables floated in lab spaces. Shelving meant to keep materials above any minor flooding grew waterlogged and collapsed. “I’m a maritime guy, an environmental guy,” Seidel says. “I had no idea it was going to be as bad as it was.”
Amid financial pressures and campus controversies, colleges are also facing a growing threat from their environments. In addition to warmer temperatures, climate change has brought more-intense storms in some areas and longer droughts in others. Some institutions find themselves facing “100 year” floods every few years. Others confront unpredictable wildfires, bigger and faster-moving than in the past.
Many colleges are finding they need to adapt their physical campuses. They must not only deal with higher temperatures and higher water, but also judge the level of risk facing their campuses and decide how best to prepare and plan their buildings and grounds to manage that risk decades into an uncertain future. And some must do so in communities where the words “climate change” can turn a potentially productive conversation into a political argument.
Discussions about climate change and how to respond to it are nothing new for campus-facilities staff and sustainability managers, but they haven’t had “the level of urgency that we’re feeling now,” says Mike Moss, president of the Society for College and University Planning. The intensity and persistence of storms in recent years — especially those like Isabel and Sandy, in 2012, which caused extensive flooding in urban areas that rarely see it — have helped make it plain that a future of more turbulent weather can’t be ignored. The conversation about dealing with the effects of climate change has “gone from response to preparation,” he says.
If you can see water from your campus, expect that this could happen to you some day, and don’t wait.
The watchword for many colleges is “resilience,” a term that encompasses a variety of strategies and practices meant to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of proliferating, sometimes overlapping, climate-change challenges. Many institutions are doing their best to use less energy, for example, but hotter summers and harsher winters are likely to drive demand for more energy.
Colleges need to do more than save a few kilowatts or do away with single-use plastic, says Mike Cavanaugh, sustainability leader at CannonDesign, an architecture and planning firm that works with colleges. Universities have long been proponents of energy efficiency and sustainability, “but in the last couple of years, a lot of people have realized that’s not going to be enough,” he says. Given uncertain government policy and deregulation regarding climate change, it’s become clear that “there is not one singular overarching power that’s going to save us from a changing climate,” he says. “The ones that we’re looking to to save us are really ourselves. And I think no other place has it hit home as hard as universities.”
In the years since Isabel, Seidel has watched the Chester breach its banks farther and more often. The college’s main campus is located on higher ground, but administrators had to move offices and labs out of the ground floor of the customs house. Parking lots near the river flood frequently.
Many waterside communities face increased risk, but Chestertown is especially susceptible. Research indicates that, in the Chesapeake Bay, “sea level is rising about twice as fast as it is globally,” says Seidel. As much as a three-foot rise is expected by the end of the century. But Washington College, established here in 1782, can’t draw far back from the river. It has staked much of its appeal to prospective students on environmental science. And so it is building by the water.
Semans-Griswold Environmental Hall is under construction about 100 feet from the Chester, where it will house teaching and lab space for environmental science. It has been designed to be zero-energy, and as low-impact on the immediate environment as possible. Situated nine feet above the usual waterline, it should withstand another 30 years of sea-level rise and another Isabel without serious flooding. But it might not escape a bigger storm.
“We recognize that, in many instances, building that close to the water is not a smart thing to do,” Seidel says. “But there are certain activities that by their very nature have to be there, and this is one of them, so we’re trying to be as smart as we can about it.”
Colleges in California have dealt with unpredictable environmental factors all along. Dozens of institutions sit near seismically unstable fault lines, and wildfires sweep the state’s hills regularly. But blazes that used to be confined to “fire season” in late summer and early fall can now break out anytime.
The three driest years in California history have all occurred during the past two decades, and a yearslong drought has killed off and dried out even some of the hardiest native plants. As a result, 2018 was the worst year for wildfires in California history, with more than 1,800,000 acres scorched and more than 100 people dead. Stoked by abundant dry fuel and higher winds, wildfires will continue to be “bigger, faster, more out of control,” says Stephen D. Davis, a professor of biology at Pepperdine University, which has weathered five major wildfires on its Malibu campus over the past 40 years. Davis, who studies climate-change effects on California vegetation, including their relationship to wildfires, is not sanguine. “All the indicators are it’s not going to get better,” he says. “This is going to get worse.”
At Pepperdine, a Campus Designed With Fires in Mind
In its nearly 50 years at the site, Pepperdine has survived five major wildfires with only minor damage, because the campus was specifically designed to resist a natural threat that is only growing worse as the climate grows more volatile.
The original architect, William Pereira, foresaw the danger inherent in the Malibu site, and planned the entire campus to be defensible against wildfires. Only about 300 acres of the 800-acre site have been developed — the rest stand as a buffer. Closer to the developed core, the university maintains a 200-foot zone cleared of flammable brush around all structures. Phil Phillips, vice president for administration, has watched fire race toward the campus five times, but “when it hit that brush-clearance line, it would just kind of fade out, peter out, over and over and over.”
The Mediterranean-style buildings themselves are faced with stucco and roofed with terra-cotta tiles, both fire-resistant surfaces. They have no eaves, which are among the easiest entry points for a floating ember or stray flame. The buildings are arranged in clusters, but even as the campus has expanded, they have been spaced widely enough that fire couldn’t easily leap from one to the next, and firefighting equipment could be maneuvered between them.
Pereira even built in a campus water-reclamation system that the university uses to feed its two-piece fleet of firefighting equipment — and its public-safety officers are cross-trained in wildland firefighting.
Just last year, Pepperdine survived the Woolsey Fire, the worst fire in Los Angeles County history, while suffering only minor damage to a couple of buildings. But each fire teaches the university something new about its longtime adversary. After Woolsey, it is considering more firefighting equipment and more on-campus firefighters. “It’s not any one of these things alone” that has kept the campus from disaster, Phillips says. “It’s the way all these measures fit together.”
The University of California at Los Angeles has not been under direct threat from wildfires, though it has come close. In 2017, the Skirball Fire singed more than 400 acres of the Santa Monica Mountains just a couple of miles from the campus. The drifting smoke spurred the university to hand out breathing masks in its student housing, and classes were canceled.
UCLA doesn’t have a campus designed to withstand wildfires, like Pepperdine, but it is taking steps to make its campus less flame-friendly. The drier weather has begun killing off some species of trees planted around the campus, such as non-native Canary Island pines. As part of a master landscape plan, the university is now looking at replacing some trees with better-adapted native species — and getting rid of its eucalyptus trees altogether. The aromatic oil that suffuses them means “eucalyptuses are quite flammable,” says Nurit Katz, chief sustainability officer. “The large number of eucalyptus is part of why the Oakland Fire in the ’90s was so severe.”
Climate change is also making itself felt in areas far from deserts or coastlines. When John Pumilio became director of sustainability at Colgate University, in central New York, in 2009, one of the first projects he worked on was a student-run organic garden. The garden was located near Payne Brook in what the Army Corps of Engineers had designated as a “100 year” floodplain. “It means in any given year, there’s a 1-percent chance of it flooding,” Pumilio says. “We figured that’s a fairly low risk.”
The garden flooded out in 2010, 2011, and 2014. “I’ve got pictures of our students kayaking into the gates,” Pumilio says. More concerning, the water flooded the parking lot, and then the ground floor, of the nearby Newell Apartments. The university eventually moved the garden, but it can’t move the housing.
Pumilio, who grew up in the region, sees other effects from climate change. The state has been experiencing an unusual number of droughts in recent years, and rain, when it comes, more often arrives in downpours. Recent snows have been heavier, even for New York. The storm-water systems on and around the campus haven’t been able to handle all the excess precipitation, “so we’ve been getting flooding with more frequency, and in places where we just haven’t seen it before,” he says.
Warmer temperatures are also leading the university to consider air-conditioning buildings that never needed it, as professors complain about the heat in May and September. “Now we’re getting these hot, humid stretches in the summer where not having air-conditioning is not good,” Pumilio says. Increased air-conditioning usually means increased electricity consumption, which means potential cost increases.
Any one of these effects might be discounted as a fluke, not a sign of long-term changes. “When these things keep occurring, it lends itself well to saying, We need to plan for this,” Pumilio says.
Rod Lehnertz was not expecting to become an expert on flood response and planning. When he came to the University of Iowa as director of planning, design, and construction in 1994, emergency-and-disaster planning was fresh on everyone’s mind. The Iowa River, which bisects the campus, had experienced a historic flood the year before. A swath of the campus lies in a 100-year floodplain, as designated by the Army Corps of Engineers, and the flooding there caused about $6 million in water damage and other impacts.
In 2008, heavy winter snowfalls and heavy spring rains swelled area waterways to create a 500-year flood. The Iowa River typically flows at about 7,000 cubic feet per second. In 1993 it reached about 28,000 feet per second. In 2008 it exceeded 48,000 feet per second. As the waters sluicing through the campus rose, Lehnertz says, “each day it got darker and more desperate, frankly.” Thousands of volunteers showed up to fill sandbags, but 22 campus buildings suffered flood damage. The water reached the campus power plant, and the university temporarily went dark. Two buildings — a center for the performing arts and the music school — were rendered unusable, and the campus suffered a $750-million impact over all.
The question for college leaders and planners becomes: How do you absorb uncertainty?
Iowa has spent much of the past decade preparing for the next flood. The student union, which was inundated in 2008, now sits behind a 360-degree flood wall, more than 10 feet high on the river side. The university also invested in nine miles’ worth of large-scale interlocking prefabricated barriers that can be quickly moved into place and filled with sand by bulk loaders to protect other sites.
Some sites can be protected only so much. The building that houses the theater-arts department at Iowa sits right on the river bank, and the 2008 flood deposited about six inches of river-bottom sludge on every horizontal surface on the first floor. Iowa has since prepared the building for deluges to come. All of the mechanical systems were moved up from ground level. The university redid the ground floor with durable triple-layer plaster, raised electrical outlets, and minimized the activities held on that floor.
If another 2008-level flood comes, the university is even prepared to flood the theater building itself before the river gets in. Clean-up and mold remediation are much easier, Lehnertz says, if you “proactively flood some of those spaces with clean water, as opposed to letting silt-ridden floodwaters enter.”
The section of campus in the floodplain has always been mostly parkland, and the university plans to keep it that way. In 2017, it built a new residence hall into the side of a hill overlooking the river, but its primary entrances sit on the uphill side, and the entrances on the river side lie above projected flood levels. Lehnertz, now vice president for finance and operations, says that the university has no plans for new construction in the floodplain, but that if it did build anything there, the bottom floors would probably be used as a parking garage.
The university’s flood-response plans are so good, and so comprehensive, that they’ve served as guides for other institutions considering similar plans. “We had to end up being a campus that lived it to become good at it,” Lehnertz says. The best preparation advice he gives to peers? “If you can see water from your campus, expect that this could happen to you some day, and don’t wait.”
Colleges face a dilemma in preparing for the worst of climate-change effects: How do you weigh long-term needs against short-term challenges, especially tight budgets?
The guidelines for campus construction have been well established for years. Local building codes and industry standards are based on decades of data about real-life building performance, says Allison Wilson, sustainability director at Ayers Saint Gross, an architecture and planning firm that works with colleges. But that data looks backward.
“As climate change and its impacts potentially accelerate, how accurate is the historical record at predicting the future?” she asks. “Chances are it’s probably not going to be superaccurate.”
The question for college leaders and planners becomes: How do you absorb uncertainty? “Are we going to design for five feet of sea-level rise on this particular site? Are we going to design for 10 feet of storm surge?” Wilson asks. “Are we going to design for the reality that the power grid is going to be down for three days? Or seven?” Answering such questions entails assessing risk and deciding what level of risk is acceptable.
Even small decisions could have big impacts, depending on what the world is like in 25 years. Sealed windows, for example can help a structure be more energy-efficient, as airflow can be more tightly regulated. But what happens if the electrical grid goes down in the early-September heat? A building without windows that can be opened could become uninhabitable. There are strategies for energy and water and other factors involved in campus resilience, Wilson says, but some “may be different, or sometimes competing.”
Being prepared for the future often costs more. Windows that open are more expensive, Wilson notes. Features that would make a building more sustainable, like a system that reuses water, “might get value-engineered out of a project due to the more immediate cost pressures,” says Katz, of UCLA. While California is one of a few states with strict mandates for carbon neutrality and other resilience factors in new construction, in addition to standards established by the University of California system, “there’s always a challenge about operational costs,” she adds. “There’s a lot of sustainability implications in that broader challenge.”
Zero-energy buildings and other vanguard resilient-construction projects carry another potential benefit: They can be attractive to donors. A pitch for a new science wing may not generate much excitement, Liljequist says, but a pitch for the first zero-energy science wing in the state can be a different story. Washington College raised more than $10 million for its new environmental building in just six months.
But college leaders and campus planners still face agonizing choices over cost, and over how prepared to be. The Semans-Griswold Environmental Hall project at Washington College “was an eye-opener for us,” says Seidel, director of the Center for Environment & Society. The $11.6-million building is meant to be part of the Living Building Challenge, a rigorous certification program for construction projects that are energy self-sufficient and have a positive impact on their settings. Constructing a lab building as a Living Building proved especially challenging. Meeting the energy-efficiency demands meant evaluating and calculating the projected electricity use of everything within, including scientific equipment such as specimen freezers.
The college faced an even more daunting calculation in determining how high above sea level to build. Sea level is expected to rise by as much as two feet by 2050 in the Chesapeake Bay at the mouth of the Chester, about 10 miles downstream from campus. The local building code requires nine feet of clearance to account for a potential seven feet of storm surge in the Chestertown area, though nearly eight feet of surge was reported in the area during Isabel.
At 10 feet above current sea level, Semans-Griswold will have about a foot to spare in clearing projections for sea-level rise and storm surge. “We were not comfortable” with nine feet, Seidel says. “We wanted go to 11 feet.” The cost of that one more foot of clearance was deemed prohibitive, “when you looked at all of the other elements of this building, and what we thought we could raise.”
But the storm-surge figures for Chestertown are based on storms like Isabel, which, though only a tropical storm by the time it reached Chestertown, caused the worst flooding in the area since the 1930s. A Category 3 hurricane heading up the bay could bring as much as 14 feet of surge. A Category 4 storm could bring nearly 20 feet of water, not counting wind-driven waves.
But many colleges and communities aren’t on the same page about the issue. Pumilio is Colgate’s first director of sustainability, and when he arrived, he had a lot of work to do. The college was doing some good things, he says, but “there were quite a few people on campus who were just basically unfamiliar with what sustainability was, or what it is we were trying to do.” After years of piecemeal projects and awareness-raising, he hopes the college is entering a phase in which sustainability work is “a little less project-based and more: This is how we do things here.”
Sustainability has to be a part of the decision-making process on campus to have the best effect, and some colleges are better at that than others. “Sustainability directors who typically champion these sorts of issues on campus are housed in every department,” says Wilson, of Ayers Saint Gross, the architecture firm. “Some of them are in housing or students affairs, some of them are in facilities management, some of them are in offices of diversity and inclusion.” If they’re not part of the conversations about capital planning or master planning, there may be no one in the room to advocate for a zero-energy building, the need to address increased storm water, or more-resilient landscaping.
Without that advocacy, college leaders may have little idea of how sustainable their campuses are or what challenges lie ahead. Often, “if you ask, What’s your most inefficient building on the campus?, there’s only one guy, who’s sitting in a back-corner office, who knows that,” says Amir Rezaei, a high-performance-building analyst at CannonDesign. Rezaei puts a premium on disseminating data about building performance among college leaders and all across campus to help everyone understand what’s at stake and what decisions can have the most impact.
All the indicators are it’s not going to get better. This is going to get worse.
Colleges also face challenges in discussing climate change off campus. There’s only so much any institutional plan to adapt to or mitigate those effects can do if the surrounding community isn’t involved. “There are specific things you can do to your building or your campus,” says Katz, of UCLA, “but ultimately we have to work together.” In Los Angeles, as in many other areas, local government works with local colleges to create a cooperative citywide resilience strategy.
There are still many communities, however, where sustainability directors have to watch what they say when they’re in town. Pumilio and a colleague recently founded a working committee of university personnel and local leaders and residents to discuss mitigating climate impacts. They named it the Hamilton Climate Preparedness Working Group, for the town where Colgate is located. The terms “climate change” or “global warming,” and what they entail, are “definitely like a trigger word for some in our community,” he says. Emphasizing in the name that the group is talking about responding to changes in climate, no matter what’s causing them, “is more inclusive,” and may lead to more cooperation and more effective integrated responses.
The hotter summers, the mercurial winters, the high waters, and the raging wildfires are making plain to a growing number of Americans that things are shifting. “Are they really 100-year floods if they’re happening every five years?” asks Moss, of the college-planning society. And colleges have vital work to do in preparing the larger community for what’s to come. “If you take all of our campuses, rural and urban, we’ve got a huge footprint in this country,” Moss says, and with that footprint comes an outsize responsibility. Colleges have long served as bellwethers for change, and as places that show how the best ideas can work. And, he says, we’re all going to need that in the years to come.