Two Perspectives on the Future Sustainable Campus

Earlier this month, HDR sponsored the Chronicle of Higher Education's virtual panel “Building a More Healthy and Sustainable Campus” which featured higher education leaders discussing institutional sustainability and climate action goals in the context of re-opening plans. Panelists included:

  • Ciannat M. Howett, Associate Vice President of Resilience, Sustainability, and Economic Inclusion, Emory University
  • John Morris, Vice President for Facilities Management, College of Charleston
  • Nicholas Santilli, Senior Director of Learning Strategy, Society for College and University Planning

We asked two of our experts — Charlene Mendez from our sustainability and resiliency team and David Zaiser from our higher education team — to listen in and share some of the insights that they took away from the panel.

Students: The “X” Factor for Climate Action Plans

Charlene Mendez headshot
Charlene Mendez

If I could point to one resounding theme of the panel, it would be this: Students are at the forefront of driving positive climate action on higher ed campuses. Throughout the discussion, all the panelists highlighted the impact of students on the actions that universities and colleges take to address climate challenges. Ciannat Howett identified that student support of elevating sustainability is a priority before they have even enrolled. According to the Princeton 2021 Hopes and Dreams survey, 75% of 2021 respondents (parents and students) said having information about a college's commitment to the environment would contribute to their decision to apply to or attend the school (vs 66% in 2020). 

For many of these students, the behavior changes and building modifications required due to COVID-19 have further reinforced the idea that the choices we make about the built environment have a direct impact on our health. Classrooms are now outside; windows are intentionally opened more frequently; and air change rates and ventilation filters have moved to the forefront of conversation.

At a broader level, COVID-19 has demonstrated how a global crisis can very quickly go from feeling like a dystopian concept to being a plausible reality that alters our entire world and our entire lives. As the next generation comes of age, they have even further proof that our collective actions and choices will impact the direction of climate change moving forward.

Institutions can and are taking advantage of the heightened awareness of a sustainably-conscious student body. For example, occupant behavior is a key component to the optimal function of healthy and efficient buildings. Students can be partners in helping institutions reach the sustainable goals they set out to achieve. For example, Howett shared that Emory sends messages to students to not charge their computers during periods of high utility usage, or they request that students focus their activities to designated areas of a building in off-peak hours to reduce impact on HVAC systems. John Morris identified the opportunity universities have to further influence student behavior. For example, universities can communicate the campus’s sustainable goals and policies to each new freshman body, reaffirming the direction of the institution. This in-turn reinforces students’ ambition to further drive change during the duration of their studies – particularly if they become involved in student government.

These are just a couple of examples and ideas that give shape to how student activism and ambition influences climate action on campus. There are many more out there. As a result, I find myself hopeful that current and future student bodies will continue to elevate their sustainable values and drive impactful change at the institutions they attend, within greater society, and across the planet.

Charlene Mendez, LEED AP BD+C, Senior Sustainability Analyst, translates ideas between architects and engineers around the world to test and identify achievable, beautiful sustainable innovations. She has also developed numerous tools to help better understand design problems — some of which are customized to a specific problem and others of which have been successfully utilized by other architects and engineers across the firm. 

Pandemic Effect: New Models of Learning Could Reduce Our Carbon Footprint

David Zaiser
David Zaiser

The Chronicle of Higher Education’s knowledgeable panel of experts rightfully highlighted the connection between sustainability and wellness, emphasizing that human needs like indoor air quality are part of an effective overall sustainability strategy. I believe we can expect students, staff and faculty to be particularly sensitive to health and wellness as they return to campus this fall, with each campus constituency bringing its own set of concerns. For example, incoming first-year students (and their parents) who attended a high school that was retrofitted with high-efficiency particulate air filters (and there were many) may have high expectations for the indoor air quality on campus. Will these demands fade along with the woes of the pandemic itself? We can only guess at this point, but other demands are likely to have long-lasting implications.

As someone who has spent my entire career working with higher education institutions to optimize their physical environments, I’ve done a lot of thinking about the abrupt disruption to traditional teaching approaches that’s taken place this past year and how the lessons we’ve learned might contribute to our sustainability goals on campus.

Despite some of the relative successes of online remote learning, it appears that many campuses will support in-person classes by fall semester. Students want to come back to campus, and financially speaking, institutions need them there. Most experts agree that the in-person learning is more effective than its remote learning cousin, but it’s also the more resource intensive option. Perhaps there is some way to take advantage of what we’ve learned about online learning over the past year. Remote (online) students didn’t take up any space on campus. If even a portion of students could continue to take classes online, classrooms could accommodate more students than they have seats. Considered at a different scale, smaller campuses could accommodate larger student populations, resulting in smaller carbon footprints.

Similar potential savings may be available among faculty and staff accommodations as well. Can staff space accommodations be reduced on campus to align with a full- or part-time work-from-home strategy? Among the least discussed potential space savings strategies is that of adjunct faculty who frequently travel long distances to teach on campus in-person. Could this group continue to teach remotely, further reducing their carbon footprint?

Realizing these potential space savings (and their related reductions in carbon footprint) will require a new perspective in the planning and design of our campuses. Traditional models aren’t going to work. One approach that seems to be getting some traction is a “hybrid” approach that seamlessly integrates both in-person and online (remote) student, faculty, and staff constituencies, without compromising their respective experiences or outcomes. It represents a challenging vision for what a campus could be. As we seek to develop that vision in consideration for sustainability, we can expect our challenges will go beyond technological ones. For so much of what we must do, the real challenge will be our own predilections for campus models that may no longer be useful.

David Zaiser, AIA, Project Principal, has more than 30 years of experience leading a broad cross-section of successful, award-winning projects on more than three dozen college and university campuses. His expansive portfolio includes teaching and learning spaces, library projects, laboratory renovations, dining facilities, art studios, theatres, student housing and student activity spaces.