Bellevue University Sustainability Laboratory view from outside

Three Perspectives: Taking Climate Action on Campus

In August 2021, we hosted a Virtual Adaptations panel discussion on campus sustainability. Our panel included: Greg Power, Head of Capital Projects and Planning, Estates and Facilities, Trinity College Dublin; Merry Rankin, Director of Sustainability, Iowa State University; and Ron Saporta, Chief Operating Officer, Property Services & Sustainability, University of Toronto. This timely discussion highlighted how institutions are thinking about our climate challenges as they relate to the built environment and operations. In the following essays, our HDR colleagues provide their perspectives on some of the important issues discussed during the panel:

Our “Climate-Positive” Movement

According to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, our planet is rapidly accelerating towards a human-driven climate crisis. In the wake of one of the most unwavering and sobering determinations we have ever received from the IPCC, the recent Virtual Adaptations discussion was a timely conversation between a geographically diverse panel of campus sustainability leaders that gave me hope that positive change may be on the fiery horizon…but we must act together. And fast.

One powerful takeaway from the conversation is the unanimous consensus from the panellists that culture is the biggest driver of the significant changes campuses have been able to achieve in the last 15 years, not only in policy and industry but, more importantly, in the acceptance of climate change as a very real phenomenon. Climate action and sustainability initiatives have more support than ever before. And perhaps no generation is as vocal about this reality as Gen Z.

Gen Z currently makes up the majority of students in the higher education system and will continue to do so for at least the next decade, a critical pocket of time for achieving climate action targets that could play a crucial role in our planet’s future. As the first generation of people who grew up in a fully digital, socially and globally-connected world, studies show Gen Zers are more in touch with global news, trends, and issues than generations before, closely tying their decisions and activism to their values and passions. As Merry Rankin observed, a decade ago, roughly 40% of students stated that an institution’s commitment to sustainability had an impact on whether or not they would choose to enrol, while today, over 60% of students agree with that statement. To use the words of Greg Power, sustainability and conscientious sourcing are a part of this generation’s “muscle memory.”

Educational institutions need to harness Gen Z’s sense of urgency and willingness to take climate-conscious action. As we move towards a future that will be defined by unprecedented climate events, our human species will need to problem-solve, adapt, and think quickly in response to conditions we have not seen before. Within the educational system, curriculum and pedagogies must evolve to equip future generations to face the anomalies that are headed our way. Ron Saporta spoke of experiential learning working its way into the curriculum at the University of Toronto, stating examples of how this immersive technique has already shown win-win-win outcomes for student, community, and planet. By leveraging university coursework as an opportunity to solve community-based issues, the student body can play an active role in developing real-time, enforceable solutions with environmental payback for the local communities of which they are a part.

It is increasingly evident that through partnerships between state, community, and university, the powerful combinations of multi-generational, multi-disciplinary teams can strengthen community resilience, impact policy, and drive positive industry changes to combat the climate crisis from multiple angles. As Ron suggested at one point in the panel, shifting our collective thinking from one that aims to achieve a “carbon negative” outcome to one that strives for “climate positive” actions may more effectively align with the critical agenda at hand and push us towards new partnerships, more inclusive discipline engagements, and creative innovations.

Sally Lee, AIA, NCARB, CDT, LEED AP BD+C, is a design architect and associate at HDR. With a background in international commercial work, retail, education, and science and technology, Sally brings a diverse range of cultural and spatial design experience that contributes to meaningful design that enriches the relationships between individuals, communities, and environments.

Navigating the Roadblocks of Climate Action Plans

In the recent Virtual Adaptations discussion, it was interesting to hear from the panellists that in addressing the climate emergency, the problem is not always lack of a good plan.

They discussed how their institutions face multifaceted challenges to implement their plans and achieve their sustainability goals.

I highlight three of those major challenges below and share how our panellists suggested addressing them.

Financial Mechanisms

Panelists identified the cost-benefit of energy savings as an early and key driver of sustainability on campuses. At the same time, the costs associated with implementing low carbon systems, upgrading old infrastructure and adopting new technology is one of the primary barriers to implementing sustainable solutions on campus.

Many universities set ambitious plans to contribute to global climate goals. However, they rarely have the necessary funding and are often unclear about the financial aid and support that universities could receive to overcome financial barriers. For example, certified climate bonds are an interesting financial model available to some universities to finance their climate action plans. However, many universities are unaware of them. Moreover, administration and processes involved are very onerous. Even when you go through the process of applying for bonds, getting a fully-funded plan, as in the recent case of Oberlin College, is not always guaranteed. Although the aid is still helpful, it may not be enough to fully achieve sustainability goals.

Given the urgency of climate change, more support and clarity on financial structures and funding mechanisms can help colleges and universities implement their sustainability plans. Aside from global organizations, local governments have incentives to financially support universities to achieve their sustainability goals. Universities, as large organisms within the cities, can help them lower their overall carbon footprint.

Organizational Adoption

As identified by panellists, organizational adoption is another important consideration. For instance, sometimes maintenance and operations staff's lack of familiarity with new technologies creates barriers in adopting more sustainable systems. In my role as an architect working with institutions, I notice that a common concern from the staff is the lack of available support from suppliers of these new technologies. Suppliers should consider how to address this concern as part of the commercialization of the new green technologies. There is an obvious opportunity for the industry to partner with the universities to provide adequate training and build a body of local trades to provide technical support as needed.

Another aspect is that the research equipment and standards at universities are not necessarily made with efficient consumption practices in mind. Tapping into the resources provided by initiatives and organizations such as My Green Lab, I2SL and SLCan can help researchers, lab staff and students operate the labs more sustainably and demand cleaner technology for purposes of intense research.

Technological Opportunities and Barriers

Panelists also discussed how the availability of advanced technology has made sustainable strategies more affordable and therefore easier for universities to adopt. However, technology alone cannot be the answer. Over-reliance on technology to run mechanical systems can undermine some of the low tech and passive methods that can be made more efficient from both a financial and operations perspective. For example, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ability to supply fresh air and proper ventilation has become urgent. We often observe resistance from mechanical and operation staff to provide operable windows, because they are concerned that open windows can create waste of energy while the mechanical systems are running. However, providing 100% fresh air through mechanical systems is a very high tech, high energy and more expensive alternative.

Using automated operable windows is a relatively affordable method to address this concern while substantially improving the air quality in any space. As one of the panellists mentioned, academic communities should aim to optimize the technological results with the least consumption and impact on the environment. More awareness and information about the life cycle impact of products and technologies is crucial in making the right decision about adopting a technology that actually makes a difference.

As all panellists underscored, the benefits to personal health and wellness will help further propel sustainable efforts moving forward. Air quality is becoming more and more important to students and staff from a health and wellness perspective. We need to make sure that when we adopt the increasing number of building technologies that are available to us, we don’t create future barriers to sustainability or compromise wellness.

Somayeh Mousazadeh OMRAIC, OAA INTERN is a project designer at HDR. She has more than 10 years of experience, working on highly complex institutional projects. As a design strategist, she plays a distinctive role in projects with inherent complexity and competing requirements. Somayeh is motivated by an optimistic design ideology in which nature, humans, and economy can equally thrive — where efficiency and quality coexist.

Culture Shift: 5 Strategies for Maximizing Student and Community Involvement in Climate Action Planning

It is easy to be cynical or disheartened in the current moment we are living: higher education and our larger society are grappling with the impacts of the global pandemic, issues of social justice and a climate crisis that grows more dire each day, particularly given the recent IPCC report. But after listening to our speakers during the recent Virtual Adaptations discussion, I feel more hopeful. The shared commitment all three of their universities hold to engaging on these issues with not only their students and faculty, but also with their greater communities, restored my confidence in the power of people and organizations to tackle big, tough challenges.

The panellists themselves reiterated that a culture shift is underway in the way people think about sustainability, and we have an opportunity to capitalize on that. Below are five ideas that I heard during the session that help to cultivate this type of culture:

  • Keep an Open Line of Communication: Opening up lines of communication between student leadership and administration can help promote sustainability as an integral part of the culture in which all are involved in achieving results – whether that is around reducing carbon emissions, decarbonization, repurposing space or making more sustainable, healthier choices.
  • Extend the Sustainability Conversation Beyond the Campus: Connecting students to their community and getting them directly involved gives them firsthand exposure to systems thinking and strategic planning that can take them beyond the campus. The effort of this collective community acts as a learning laboratory and allows everyone to feel some ownership in solutions and in being a part of the resiliency force.
  • Integrate Resiliency and Climate Adaptation Strategies: Designing agility and flexibility into systems and planning can allow universities to respond not only to their own needs but also to the community’s needs in times of disaster. For example, universities can plan for resiliency zones that can serve not only those on the campus, but also the broader community.
  • Leverage Town-Gown Collaboration for Impact: Universities should play an active role in their community’s decarbonization efforts and overall policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to extend the impact of both through a symbiotic relationship.
  • Utilize Experiential Learning to Ground Ideas in Reality: Giving students experiential learning opportunities, such as providing energy modelling for local landlords, or developing sustainable policies for local NGO(s) can help reinforce these ideas and drive positive impact in the community.

The growth in awareness, interest and knowledge in the climate crisis and the engagement of universities, students and communities on these issues brings hope to a challenging time. The pandemic has raised awareness of the relationships between public health, climate, social justice and the built environment. With heightened awareness of both the climate crisis and the interconnected nature of our lives we have an opportunity to work together to continue the positive culture shift around sustainability, resiliency and adaptation.

Climate change used to be much more nebulous, but now universities are engaging their students, faculty, administrators, and larger communities to set goals and long-term visions and to help activate real, positive change. With heightened awareness of both the climate crisis and the interconnected nature of our lives, we have an opportunity to work together to continue the positive culture shift around sustainability, resiliency and adaptation.

Jean Hansen, FIIDA, LEED Fellow, WELL AP, CID, EDAC, AAHID is sustainable principal at HDR. She is based in San Francisco with 30+ years of experience in interior design, medical planning and sustainable design. Jean is responsible for advancing HDR's sustainability initiatives internally and in project and research work for healthcare and institutional environments.