What’s Next for Sustainability in Higher Education?

No longer considered a “trend”, sustainable design is here to stay. While it’s a commonly integrated practice into today’s buildings, there are subtle differences in how sustainability is implemented into various types of facilities.

We sat down and spoke with two experts on the subject and asked how sustainability, LEED and biophilic design has been adopted into college and university campuses and why it’s simply good business to do so.

Skip Holschbach, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, Associate Principal – Skip specializes in leading the documentation, engineering coordination, and construction administration of several of Kahler Slater’s large-scale higher education, health care and corporate environments. He is passionate about sustainable design principles and is considered our in-house expert on the subject.
Mary LaFrombois, ASID, IIDA, LEED AP, Associate Principal – Mary is an award-winning interior designer with more than 30 years of experience specializing in health sciences education and clinical environments. She loves the challenge of integrating sustainability into the interiors design strategy for our clients.

What is unique about integrating sustainability into a university or college campus building?

Skip: Even if you set aside the positive, forward-looking direct environmental impacts of integrating sustainable design, these buildings also provide a “rearward looking” opportunity to teach occupants (students & educators) about environmental stewardship. This education can be both passive and active. Passive teaching is accomplished through visible components, such as green roofs or solar shading on windows, whereas active teaching can be achieved through educational elements, such as video displays or interactive kiosks providing information about energy and water usage. Given that university and college campuses already have education as their primary goal, buildings on these campuses are already a natural fit for this kind active and passive teaching.

Mary: It’s also important to recognize that the higher education industry is extremely competitive coupled with the incoming generation of students’ desire to make a positive impact on the environment. By telling their “green story”, campuses can increase their appeal to prospective students. Additionally, by integrating various sustainable design strategies, such as increased daylighting and indoor air quality have a positive impact on learning and teaching spaces, making these buildings more humane to faculty, staff and students. Again, this helps to increase a college or university’s competitive advantage, beyond the positive environmental impact.

University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Nursing includes green roofs, gardens and walking paths which were intentionally integrated to help achieve LEED Silver Certification.

How has the adoption of LEED impacted the design of higher education, especially interiors?

Skip: Younger generations – those already in college and those about to enter – are already more attuned to environmental concerns than perhaps older generations were. This has put additional, positive pressure on the industry to provide a more sustainable built higher education environment. LEED has been a primary tool used to drive this pressure forward. The adoption of LEED has been so widespread that is has pushed the building products industry, and interiors products in particular, to produce vastly more sustainable products – higher recycled content, lower VOC’s, etc. This, alone, has led to the overall “greening” of the building products industry, even for projects not specifically pursuing LEED and/or sustainability.

Mary: We often find Universities that have formally adopted LEED as a basis of design for their capital improvement projects, regardless of the size or type of the project. Therefore, our Higher Education Team frequently needs to achieve some level of LEED in our work … to the point it’s become almost second nature to integrate LEED strategies into our designs, regardless of if the college is pursuing certification. As Skip has referenced, the design industry has adopted and embraced LEED into products, making submitting and achieving LEED less of a burden on designers.

What is biophilic design and how do you see it being applied to higher education projects?

Skip: Humans are evolved to live in the natural environment. Our bodies are naturally attuned to respond positively to daylight, vegetation, fresh air and views. Building techniques, particularly those of the 20th century, often ignored this concept, and have often led to a disconnect between people and nature. Biophilic design seeks to embrace these concepts and create a built environment which fosters these connections.

Building siting, orientation, massing, fenestration and space planning can all be done to maximize opportunities to make these types of natural connections. Creating these types of connections may perhaps seem to favor rural campuses, but thoughtful design of urban campuses can also accomplish these goals. Creating learning spaces with good outdoor views, massing strategies which allow for views and daylight in circulation areas, proving quieter outdoor seating and/or learning areas and perhaps occupiable green roof gardens are just a few strategies designers can employ.

The design of Elgin Community College’s Health & Life Sciences Building maximized the opacity of windows within LEED Silver guidelines in student collaborative areas and clerestory windows within classrooms in order to meet the client’s goal of filling the space with natural light.

Mary: We often integrate biophilic geometries and patterning in our interiors to help bring nature indoors. It has been proven that integration of biophilia makes spaces less stressful and better places to work, teach and learn. Manufacturers are providing more products with emphasis on biophilic geometries, which we’ve embraced in selecting materials. I would also note that the integration of natural materials from the exterior into the interior is a main tenant of our building designs. That connection of exterior to interior reinforces successful biophilic design.

What are a few simple strategies to integrate sustainability into an existing building?

Mary: There are so many ways that campuses can become more environmentally-conscious. Simple strategies include:

  • Make every effort to use materials with recycled content – from supplies to fixtures and furnishings - or those that have a long lifespan which eliminates the need for removal and disposal.
  • Investigate if there are materials that are available which would provide cradle to cradle recycling. This means they are made from materials that can be perpetually recycled. For instance, some carpet tiles are now certified as cradle to cradle.
  • Invest in occupancy sensors for room lighting.
  • Install sun-controlled shade systems to eliminate glare/heat gain
  • Use finishes that do not introduce toxins into the building – either finishes that do not require toxic cleaners, additional waxes or off-gas toxic fumes.
  • Recycling or upcycling materials if you are renovating or refurbishing a space.

Skip: All great ideas! Here are a few more to consider. The first three have the added benefit of positively impacting overall behavior and choices beyond the walls of the building itself:

  • Install low-flow plumbing fixtures – this requires little disruption to existing walls.
  • Providing drinking fountains with bottle fillers to reduce plastic bottle waste.
  • Widely distributed and easy to understand recycling containers.
  • Replacing building lighting with LED fixtures.
  • In lieu of replacing building mechanical systems, updating MEP controls to the latest hardware can lead to more efficient operation of building systems
  • Replacing interior finishes with more sustainable options once the existing materials have reached the end of their service life.

Finally, What do you see for the future of sustainability on the college campus?

Mary: As mentioned earlier, sustainability is standard on nearly every campus we work on. It’s an expectation of facilities departments, faculty and students. We are seeing more campuses integrate Healthy Building standards, wellness/Well Building standards into their buildings to help create healthier faculty and students. We see a trend towards designing a centralized staircase to encourage movement and increase communication within buildings. Many campuses are also starting to intentionally plan for integrating walking paths, wellness gardens in green roofs, and amenities for active students (such as showers for bikers). These are all becoming a norm as opposed to an unusual request.

A central waterfall stair encourages active movement throughout a building, as seen here at Mary Baldwin University.

Skip: Sustainability will continue its trajectory towards full integration with daily life, not just buildings, and much of the drive for this will be due to “bottom up” pressure. While many Boomers and Gen X’ers have embraced environmental stewardship and pushed towards sustainability, it was less a part of how these generations grew up, and was less ingrained in daily consciousness. Younger generations, on the other hand, are growing up in the midst of the global climate change conversation. We have already seen the pressure towards environmental stewardship that was driven by Millennials, and this will likely increase as Generation Z starts its matriculation to post-secondary education. They will look for and push these values in the higher education institutions they attend.

Have further questions? Feel free to reach out to Skip or Mary directly.