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Business Officer Magazine
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Program Helps Surmount Barriers to Green Building

From “Business Briefs” department in May 2009 issue of Business Officer

By Anthony Cortese and Amy Seif Hattan

Minority-serving institutions, community and technical colleges, and some public universities and religiously affiliated colleges are among the higher education institutions that typically have fewer financial resources and a higher percentage of financially disadvantaged students. These resource-challenged colleges and universities often face an uphill battle in finding funds to renovate older, inefficient buildings or construct new buildings to serve growing student populations. In addition to limited funding for bricks-and-mortar projects, many of these institutions face expensive retrofits to mechanical systems on their historic campuses. In this context, incorporating elements of green design can seem like one more challenge to add to an already long list.

However, various studies show minimal increases (as little as 2 percent) in up-front construction costs for green building, which in turn can yield a life-cycle savings of more than 10 times the initial investment. And, some studies find no significant difference in the average design and construction costs for green buildings as compared to traditional construction.

Sheri Tonn, vice president of finance and operations, Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma, Washington, has not experienced financial drawbacks from building green. In fact, she notes that a focus on sustainability can benefit your project: “When you rely on donor-based funding, being green helps your case.”

Building Capacity

Internal research conducted by Second Nature and the Kresge Foundation in fall 2008 showed that the primary barriers to eco-friendly building are not always financial. A lack of institutional capacity may pose as great an obstacle. Interviews with business officers and others at under-resourced institutions surveyed as part of the study indicate that there are six types of challenges with sustainable facilities:

1. Isolation. Colleges and universities that are members of peer groups with few green building projects may not be aware of the resources available to assist them.

2. Decisions based on myths. Some institutional decision makers still perceive environment-conscious building as too expensive and not of the same quality as traditional construction.

3. Expensive learning curve. Some underresourced institutions—especially those in remote areas—may lack the in-house technical expertise or the ability to attract qualified staff for facilities planning and sustainability programs. Likewise, those in regions that lack green building projects may find that inexperienced consultants charge higher premiums for these projects.

4. Problems with leadership in energy and environmental design (LEED) requirements. Some institutions that have moved forward with green building have experienced problems with the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED standards. LEED certification brings additional expenses, such as hiring a LEED-accredited professional, and may pose conflicts with local building codes.

5. Underperforming facilities. In some instances in which institutions have built green, students, staff, and faculty may not be using a building in ways that yield savings. Education and cooperation are critical to ensure that the building and its systems function as intended.

6. Lack of support for innovation. Some underresourced institutions may be less likely to showcase the latest in green design because of the higher initial costs and longer paybacks associated with newer technologies.

Advancing Green Building

Recognizing these challenges, the Kresge Foundation—one of the largest funders of bricks-and-mortar projects at colleges and universities—recently launched a $1.2 million program to support activities that build the capacity of underresourced institutions to construct and renovate buildings using green design principles. Second Nature, in conjunction with several partner organizations, is developing these projects and other activities with a focus on the U.S. Department of Education's list of 582 Title III and Title V institutions—those eligible to receive institutional development funding because of their limited resources. Among the initiatives are the following:

  • A Web portal providing free resources about campus green building to all higher education institutions.
  • Regional summits of institutions of similar size or mission to share best practices.
  • A fellowship program providing business officers and other key staff with opportunities for training and networking with regard to sustainable facilities.
  • Discounted membership in the American Association for Sustainability in Higher Education, a network of more than 500 colleges and universities working to advance sustainability.
  • In addition, the United Negro College Fund, with a planning grant from the Kresge Foundation, is investigating a strategy to provide direct technical assistance and workshops for minority-serving institutions to overcome barriers to building green.

Reasons for Optimism

Green buildings provide long-term operational savings and offer educational opportunities to students from diverse disciplines. They can also help colleges and universities stay competitive in a market increasingly measured by commitments to sustainability, as witnessed by the growing number of green rating systems, including one conducted by the Princeton Review.

A new study released from McGraw-Hill Construction, 2009 Green Outlook: Trends Driving Change, predicts that green building in the United States could triple in five years. While the outlook is good, the data show that the majority of the nation's colleges and universities have yet to embrace green design. When the study's projections were released in November 2008, building projects receiving some level of LEED certification stood on only 132 campuses. Only 10 of the 582 colleges and universities on the Department of Education's list of Title III and Title V institutions have a green building on their campuses.

Although the actual count may be low, the U.S. Green Building Council reports that the number of campus building projects registered for LEED certification has grown, on average, 82 percent each year, from 2002 to 2008. This growth has not been confined to the institutions with greater resources. Butte College, Oroville, California; the College of the Menominee Nation, Keshena and Green Bay, Wisconsin; and Dillard University, New Orleans, are among those proving to their community college and minority-serving institution peers that green building is within reach.

SUBMITTED BY Anthony Cortese, president, and Amy Seif Hattan, director of strategic initiatives, Second Nature, Boston.