Green Grow the Campuses

How green a campus is today is a crucial factor in a college’s admissions, affecting not simply the number of applicants but also the percentage of accepted students, known as “the yield,” who chose to attend a given four-year institution. Since the average applicant now applies to seven schools, the competition for top candidates is obviously fierce. Recently the yield nationwide dropped four points to 45 percent, meaning that more than half the students who were accepted at various colleges and universities demurred. As the number of graduating high school seniors decreases from a peak this year of 3.33 million, the battle can only intensify, especially as guidance counselors are reporting that a growing number of students are putting college on hold due to the economy.

So a green campus is among the features that this shrinking pool of selective students value. I am not referring only to the aesthetic mix of trees, grass and shrubbery, important as they are, but to the ethical concern that an institution exhibits over energy conservation and impact of its greenhouse gas emissions on the environment. The verb “exhibits” should be emphasized. Colleges not only need to walk the walk, they want to be able to talk the walk, to show the world they are doing their part in protecting the environment.

A final argument for the greening of American campuses in a demonstrative fashion is the fact that sustainability has recently entered most educational curriculums. In fact, it is among the fastest growing academic majors, according to a recent national poll. Green infrastructure, therefore, can serve a duel role: as a responsible way to conserve and generate energy and as a “real world” teaching tool.

A prime example is the Hotchkiss School, an independent boarding school in Lakeville, Connecticut. The administration is planning to replace the central power plant, changing from a dependence on oil to burning biomass fuel that is available locally. Preliminary plans call for the creation of a classroom integrated into the new facility itself, where students in environmental studies can meet, observe, and monitor the sustainable technology first hand.

Downstate, Quinnipiac University in Hamden opened its York Hill campus this fall with an array of sustainable approaches and alternative energy systems, some purposely quite visible. The star of the show is a cluster of 25 vertical-axis wind turbines (pictured), or “Windspires,” that not only generate power cleanly, but also make up a kinetic sculpture of sorts that will provide an aesthetically pleasing venue for students to visit. Set on a grassy hilltop with views of Long Island Sound, this “wind sculpture garden” sits along a student path leading from residence halls and the community center to a central parking garage, which will soon to be outfitted with solar power stations for all electric cars. Passersby can stop, sit on benches, admire the views and green energy in action and shoot the breeze themselves. This is a first, at least as far as I am aware: collegiate infrastructure front and center as a sociable destination and work of art.

In addition to showing the public what it is doing, some schools are taking the next logical step: telling people what it all means in terms of kilowatts generated, greenhouse gases displaced, payback projections and the like. Infrastructure as a formal “exhibit trail” with information kiosks and signage is one of the options that Quinnipiac is considering. Nearby, Yale University Kroon Hall for its Forestry School is telling its green story on an intriguing web site

Visually impressive as the sculpture-like turbines are at York Hill, along with rooftop photovoltaic solar collectors, many of the most sustainable and arguably more significant initiatives are out of sight. The little known secret about sustainable architecture is that the most basic, and least expensive, approaches are actually the most productive. For example, how you site a building in the landscape and orientate it towards the sun, a strategy that costs little or nothing in most cases, can have the greatest impact on energy usage. Placement of windows and building mass can greatly improve passive solar heating and cooling, as well as “light harvesting,” the use of natural light to reduce the need for electrical generation.

Responsible construction at campuses is not just about the bells and whistles, but nitty-gritty components like the use and conservation of durable and local materials and an eye for how the facility can be efficiently maintained over time. Everything from rainwater harvesting and automatic sensors to turn off lights, to low-flow plumbing fixtures are just some of the myriad details that add up to significant conservation and budget savings.

The most sustainable building of all, of course, is the one that you don’t have to build, or to put it another way, one that lasts for generations. An eminently practical and efficient structure that has no soul or flair, a place that people don’t want to inhabit, or look at, is likely to be torn down and replaced before long. The one most overlooked feature in successful green construction is the creation of a building that will be beloved by its owners, users, and passersby. If it is dear, as opposed to dreary, it will last for years and years.