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Celebrating Innovation

Inspiration from the 2010 Innovation Awards

By Margo Vanover Porter

*This series on the 2010 NACUBO Innovation Award recipients features Sacred Heart University's Web-based disaster-recovery plan and Los Angeles Community College District's sustainable building program.

Deadline is April 1 for the Innovation Awards Entries in 2011. Click here  to access the forms.

Read "Get Down to the Grass Roots" in the February 2011 issue of Business Officer.

First Responders Get the Picture

*While they satisfied the state mandate, "three-ring binders had severe limitations," says Paul J. Healy, executive director of emergency management and department of public safety, Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, Connecticut. So he looked for a better way to meet the state requirement to share disaster-recovery plans with first responders, such as local firefighters, police, and emergency medical personnel.

His institution's solution captured a NACUBO 2010 Innovation Award. In a recent interview, Healy explains the thought process behind Sacred Heart's Comprehensive All-Hazard and Business Continuity Plan.

What was the challenge your institution faced? Colleges and universities are federally mandated to maintain emergency and incident management plans. To meet the state requirements that our plans be shared with first responders, we reproduced more than 100 pages of plans in three-ring binders. The problem: The binders might not be updated, might not be available to first responders when and where needed, and might never have been shared with all the university personnel who needed them.

We wanted a solution that would make information available to campus users wherever they were, that would limit access to sensitive information to authorized users, and that would be a central repository for information.

What did you find? Microsoft Office SharePoint Server had the attributes we were looking for. In addition to text-based information, it could hold campus maps and blueprints and interior photos of buildings. As accessible to off-campus first responders as it was to authorized campus personnel, SharePoint could continually reflect new needs. The law requires us to update our plans yearly. When we were working with paper-based plans, annual updates were about what we could manage. With our SharePoint Server, we can update our plan daily, so it contains not only more information, but also better information—information that could help save lives during an emergency.

Was this solution your first choice? We explored the use of commercially available packages—until we realized that those packages would cost between $40,000 and $140,000, depending on licensing and consulting costs. That's when we began to look at alternatives already in place elsewhere at Sacred Heart. Our collaborative research with the business office and the information technology (IT) department allowed us to build a system that was intuitive and sustainable at minimal cost.

What is the single most innovative aspect of your project? Making our emergency plan and annexes available to all of our federal, state, and local emergency services partners through permissions. By using unique access accounts, first responders can access the SharePoint Server and view our plan documentation, as well as building blueprints with actual photographs of interior and exterior spaces, such as classrooms, offices, and hallways.

If you could, what would you do differently to improve the process-from idea to implementation? Not a thing. We initiated a process of inclusion, collaborating with our IT professionals to build a Web-based framework to house our emergency plans. Because we built this system using internal resources, we now have a sustainable product we can modify according to our needs and in compliance with federal and state statutory requirements.

At SHU, how do you foster innovation? We encourage all staff to search for new ways of improving the business and academic enterprise and hold weekly meetings to share ideas and update division objectives.

How can business officers obtain buy-in for their innovative ideas? By including stakeholders in the process of developing the direction for thinking. Staff members who are tasked with working on the project can be motivated by possible bonuses for award-winning or sustained revenue-generating ideas.

"The biggest obstacle to innovation is thinking it can be done the old way," said Charles Handy, one of the most influential living management thinkers. I would add that skepticism by decision makers often prevents the translation of ideas into action. Without action, motivation for continued innovation recedes.

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Building a Living Laboratory for Sustainability

*"Zero-energy buildings on campus may sound like a futuristic pipe dream—unless you attend one of the nine colleges in the Los Angeles Community College District (LACCD), California. "Several buildings we have under way will be zero-energy buildings, which means the buildings will produce as much energy as they consume," says Larry H. Eisenberg, executive director of facilities, planning, and development. 

"Technically they wouldn't need to connect to the grid," he continues. "They can stand alone. Around the world, there are only a handful of zero-energy buildings, and we're going to have a lot of them here."

LACCD plans to complete 85 new buildings, all of them LEED-certified. Eisenberg recently explained the sustainable building program, which received a 2010 Innovation Award.

How did this idea develop? In 2001, the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, and other members of the environmental community in Southern California met with our board of trustees, saying, "You really need to provide an example to show what can be done with a major multibillion-dollar building program that's committed to sustainability." Our board members endorsed the idea of becoming a living laboratory for sustainability.

At the moment, we have almost $6 billion of property-tax-supported bond authority that we are using to transform our colleges.

What have you accomplished in the last decade? Right now, we've completed about 30 buildings. Most are LEED gold; some are silver. By the time we're done, we will have built in the neighborhood of 20 to 25 LEED-platinum buildings, which by itself is amazing because the entire United States only has 100 or so of them.

What's the most innovative aspect of your sustainability program? We've changed and created industries. For example, we set a new standard for carpeting. In 2007, we created a specification of using renewable recyclable capability for carpeting. Factories in Georgia changed to meet the requirements of our contract. Other manufacturers responded to our bid and adopted that standard and started creating our product, which is now their most popular product.

It sounds expensive. Before the bid, we were paying $30 a yard installed. When we opened the bid, we paid $15 a yard. It was amazing. I was prepared to pay more in the name of sustainability, and it turned out to be half as much as standard, run-of-the-mill carpet.

What has been your biggest challenge? The myth about the price of sustainability. We've proven in our own program that building LEED platinum costs no more than building standard.  The other myth is that renewable energy is expensive, but we've shown it's not. By taking advantage of federal and state credits, the cost is nominal. It costs us less than buying energy from the utilities.

You're saying that a LEED-platinum building costs no more than standard construction? Definitely. The building costs depend on the choices you make up front. For example, suppose you use polished concrete instead of carpet, which many sustainable buildings do. You've eliminated the price of the carpet. Or you select an exposed ceiling, instead of a drop ceiling.

If you have the holistic, sustainable view from the beginning, you wind up delivering an excellent building at an equal or lesser cost—and most critically, over the life cycle of the building, the maintenance costs will be far less than for a standard building.

How so? Once you make the capital investment, the savings on operating budget are significant. Based on the renewable energy we've put in so far, we project that our energy bill this year would have been $13 million if we hadn't done anything. The real bill we paid was $7 million.

What are the takeaways for other institutions? On our Web site, we have a product called "Sustainable Specification Guidelines", which is a downloadable PDF document. Anyone considering building programs should grab this and use it. Our Web site also has a renewable energy toolkit, which provides our contracts, bids, and financing mechanisms. Business officers are also welcome to grab that.

We all need to get into a sustainability mind-set. Sustainability is critical for the world, but the practical benefit is that it can lower your institution's costs as well.

MARGO VANOVER PORTER, Locust Grove, Virginia, is writing the articles in the "Elegant Solutions" series. She covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.

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