By: David Adamian, President and CEO, GreenerU

I’m just back from Second Nature’s Presidential Climate Leadership Summit in Tempe, AZ. If you missed it, you missed a lot of ideas, inspiration, excitement, and opportunities for personal connections. But a few things stick with me as the summit recedes in the rearview mirror.

I learned that energy accounts for approximately 1% of the costs associated with our buildings. Ownership and operation of the buildings accounts for about 9%. Both of these items are dwarfed by the human activities that go on in those buildings and account for 90% of the cost structure.

These figures are general, and derived based on commercial facilities (think office building), but the same basic concept applies to higher education. The value of the educational and research activities that happen in our buildings dwarf the cost of owning, operating, and maintaining those buildings.

For someone who has spent the last 25+ years doing energy efficiency work it was a bit of a jolt to realize that I’ve been focusing on the smallest sliver of the pie. OK, this isn’t exactly news to me, but it was eye-opening to see it laid bare like that.

So, on the one hand, it’s humbling to realize I’ve been focusing on the little stuff. On the other hand, it also made our challenges seem a little smaller. This was a climate summit – building energy use accounts for about 70% of institutional greenhouse gas emissions[1]. Thus, the energy responsible for the majority of our institutions’ greenhouse gas emissions are embedded in about 1% of the institutions’ cost structure. That should be easy to tackle.

Not only should they be easy to tackle, but the summit really drove home how important it is to the core mission of our educational institutions that we do it, and do it well. Consider the following quotes from the summit, both made in the context of discussing sustainability initiatives in campus operations:

“We are teaching through the force of institutional example.”

– Paul Zingg, President Emeritus of California State University at Chico

“Our students spend 5% of their time in the classroom and 95% of their time on the campus.

We are teaching with what we do on campus.”

– Jonathan Lash, President of Hampshire College

So, not only, is the cost associated with the majority of campus emissions a tiny sliver of the cost of running the institution, but addressing those carbon emissions is an important component of how we educate our students.

Unfortunately, this is entirely out of sync with the conversations happening on most campuses about addressing greenhouse gas emissions from existing buildings. Those conversations tend to focus on payback and the quest for “low-hanging fruit”. We are looking at that tiny 1% sliver in isolation. On a good day, maybe we’re giving some consideration to the mid-sized sliver associated with the cost of owning, operating and maintaining a building. But, for the most part, we are missing the big picture. These conversations are happening without a good system for considering how we are impacting the core value proposition – supporting education and research. That should be front and center for every decision we make about our buildings.

Something else I learned at the Summit: What we do with our building systems can have enormous impacts on the productivity of the individuals working in those buildings.[2] Some details from scientific studies:

Because we’re talking about that 90% piece of the pie, the human activity that happens in our buildings, impacts like that can be enormous. A 1-2% improvement in productivity provides value equivalent to erasing the energy cost structure for a building. 5%-25% improvements are off the charts relative to energy costs. As we address energy use in our buildings we have to pay at least as much attention to the impacts on the occupants as we do to the impacts on energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.

So, let’s put this all together. Climate change and its effects will be the single biggest issue facing our current students in their lifetimes. How do we more effectively tie efforts to reduce energy use and associated greenhouse gas emissions together with efforts to make our buildings more hospitable working, studying, and living environments? And how do we tie those efforts to the educational mission?

Furthermore, if we are “teaching through the force of institutional example”, what is the value of the numerous student projects and classes that have grown out of Hampshire College’s new Living Building Challenge building?[5] Or the partnerships the University of Missouri’s District Energy System has forged with the academic side of the house?[6] And how do we do more of that?

Conversely, what are we teaching our students – through the force of institutional example – when we make decisions based on narrow payback criteria without serious consideration of the impact on what goes on in our buildings or on our buildings’ carbon footprint?

These questions are becoming increasingly pertinent because of the state of campus infrastructure.  According to Sightlines, as a consequence primarily of the baby boom-inspired building boom on campuses in the late 60s and early 70s, we are reaching a critical point where our existing buildings are in dire need of attention. [7] We need to tend more proactively to our aging infrastructure or risk being overwhelmed by its decay.

But herein lies an opportunity as well. We will, out of necessity, be investing significantly in our existing buildings over the next decade and beyond. As we modernize our buildings for the 21st century, we have a choice: We can make our decisions based on short-sighted and narrowly-considered payback criteria, or we can take the opportunity to make our buildings better spaces in which to teach, learn, and live while we demonstrate responsible stewardship of our campuses and our planet. We, and our successors, will be living with those choices for another 50 years or so. I hope we get it right.

[1] Based on a review of greenhouse gas emissions reporting by Carbon Commitment signatories.
[2] Presentation at the Presidential Climate Leadership Summit by John Mandyck, Chief Sustainability Officer at United Technologies: “Transformational Leadership for Green Buildings: New Areas of Exploration”.
[3] Allen, MacNaughton, Satish, Santanam, Vallarino, and Spengler. Associations of Cognitive Function Scores with Carbon Dioxide, Ventilation, and Volatile Organic Compound Exposures in Office Worker: A Controlled Exposure Study of Green and Conventional Office Environments. Environmental Health Perspectives, October 26, 2015.
[4] Seppanen, Fisk & Lei. Effect of Temperature on Task Performance in Office Environment. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, July 2006.
[6] Coffin, Gregg. District Energy Goes to Class at Mizzou!. Presented at International District Energy Association Campus Energy 2017, February 23, 2017.
[7] State of Facilities in Higher Education, 2016 Benchmarks, Best Practices & Trends. Sightlines.