Sustainability Practices in Higher Education


In recent years, the higher education sector has led the charge in sustainability — making it a priority in their budgets and strategic plans. While sustainable before meant recycling bins and electric dryers instead of paper towels, now colleges and universities are taking a whole-systems approach to make their campus more sustainable and energy efficient.

Part of this movement is due to the millennial generation being more environmentally conscious and asking deeper questions about their schools’ commitment to the environment.  LEED, or Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design, is one of the main green building certification programs used to assess building sustainability.

The VCU Academic Learning Commons in Richmond, VA, has recently been certified LEED Gold by the U.S. Green Building Council. At the start of the project, the building aimed to be certified LEED Silver. However, after much collaboration within the project team, the building was able to reach LEED Gold.  Here are a few ways that the project team was able to achieve Gold certification.

Reducing energy use and creating a healthier environment

One of the categories of LEED is Energy & Atmosphere that aims to create healthy environments through the reduction of energy use, ongoing system performance and renewable energy applications.

In order to reach LEED Gold, the VCU Academic Learning Commons obtained higher marks in this category by adding two credits. First, the team enhanced refrigerant management, which helps reduce ozone depletion and global warming.

Second, the project earned the Green Power credit, which encourages the development and use of grid-source, renewable energy technologies on a net-zero pollution basis. It requires that at least 35% of the building’s electricity from renewable sources by engaging in at least a 2-year renewable energy contract.

Recycling content and sourcing regionally

The Materials and Resources category of LEED encourages the use of sustainable building materials and reducing waste. In order to receive more credits in this category, the VCU project used 20% recycled content, 20% regional materials (within 500 miles) and 50% FSC-certified wood. Here is more detailed look into the materials used:

Improving indoor environmental quality

The Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ) category of LEED focuses on the conditions inside a building—air quality, lighting, thermal conditions, ergonomics—and their effects on building occupants. IEQ encourages protecting human health, improving quality of life and reducing stress. Not only does it enhance the lives of occupants, but it also increases the resale value of the building and reduces liability for the owner.

In the VCU building, the team earned additional credits by:

These additions help to promote productivity, comfort and the well-being of building occupants. It also contributed to the building receiving higher certification level of Gold.

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