We now live in the “green era,” and education institutions are trying to be more respectful of the environment and conservative in energy consumption. Cost-effectiveness, life-cycle and first costs, and LEED requirements all can be considered when designing buildings, which make them healthier and safer for people.

But beyond the buildings themselves, what can be done on site to achieve sustainability? Administrators should consider what's involved in converting campus grounds into a highly sustainable environment and decide how green they want their campuses to be.

In context

The existing LEED-NC Rating System for New Construction consists of a 69-point checklist divided into five sections. Fourteen of these points are in the “Sustainable Sites” section. At least six other site-related points are available in the categories of water-efficient landscaping, efficient wastewater strategies, optimizing energy performance (i.e., building shape and siting), and innovative design. With the proliferation of green-conscious and cost-effective building materials and systems offered in the marketplace, LEED silver certification, the second level, has become an industry standard and is easily achievable. Only 33 points are needed, most of which are obtainable within the building-related sections of LEED. Add 20 site-related points, and a school can jump two levels to the highest certification: platinum.

In addition, on the horizon is the new LEED-ND Rating System for Neighborhood Developments, which emphasizes smart growth aspects of development in combination with key green building practices. Principles to be incorporated into LEED-ND include open space preservation, compact development, proximity to transit, mixed use and pedestrian/bicycle-friendly design.

A history

The first campus plans — going back hundreds of years ago to monasteries and the schools that evolved from them — arranged the few initial buildings needed around a cloistered green space, or quadrangle. The purpose was to create a sense of community, and a place for socialization and study. Until the past 50 years or so, many institutions whose facility needs outgrew the original quadrangle added buildings wherever land was available, usually without a long-term master plan.

More recently, institutions have turned to master planning to help reknit the physical and functional fabric of campuses, as well as to choose the best site for future new buildings, open spaces and circulation systems. However, these attempts often are based on trying to recapture the bucolic, cocoon-like settings of the original plans. In today's green era, a new layer of planning is needed — one that puts a premium on energy, the environment, and individual health and safety, prioritizing pedestrians first and cars second.

Ideas to help make an existing campus a better neighborhood:

  • Bring streets back into the center of campus

    Many people have been conditioned over years of campus street-closing battles to believe that less (streets) is more. Recent traffic design studies point to the contrary. Connection into and through adjoining neighborhoods helps achieve better traffic efficiency and safety, as well as create a more cohesive community. Better linkage between neighborhoods puts holes in the “town and gown” barriers, making the entire campus more pedestrian-friendly and the overall community better integrated.

    These are different streets than in the past, though. Streets of the “green era” are now “skinny” streets designed to slow traffic and reduce the amount of impervious paving needed: narrow lanes, no dead-ends, short blocks with grid-patterned streets. The typical hierarchical street network (neighborhood, collector, arterial, freeway) is replaced with a network of traffic choices that provides functional flexibility, easing of traffic flow by providing multiple travel routes and elimination of long queues in left turn lanes, all at lower speed.

    Adding gentle curves to these streets helps reduce speeds and increase pedestrian safety even further. Use of smaller blocks increases the number of streets in an area, and therefore the number of route options.

    Also, because major roads concentrate traffic, they generally do not provide a good environment for pedestrians. Improve the desirability and safety of walkways by widening sidewalks, providing buffers and landscaping to shield users from traffic, planting shade trees, using street lighting, and installing bus shelters, benches, information kiosks and other amenities. Provide crosswalks with special textures and markings, reduced crossing distances (using “bulb-outs” or refuge islands), and longer crossing signal durations. Consider automated in-pavement flashing lights, countdown signals or infrared pedestrian detectors.

  • Put parking on streets

    Parallel parking on both sides of skinny streets instead of in surface lots reduces paving by 30 percent, with an attendant reduction in the “heat-island” effect. Street parking also helps keep traffic speed down, provides pedestrians with a safety barrier, and increases visibility of functions along the street.

    When this has been accomplished, remove some of the surface parking and return its site to a natural state. On the next new building, tuck a level or two of parking under it.

  • Make it easier to get around without a car

    Encourage staff and students to take a bus, bike or walk to campus. Well-designed and strategically placed bus stops, bike paths and ped-walks can persuade even the most car-dependent person to use another means of transportation. Providing a seamless interface between modes of transport, such as situating bike paths adjacent to transit stops or parking structures, encourages their use.

Other ideas to reduce automobile dependency:

  • Build mixed-use developments, such as an instructional facility close to residential, restaurant and shopping facilities.

  • Provide convenient and safe dropoff spots for car-poolers.

  • Stormwater and graywater: don't dump it, use it

    Instead of pumping stormwater into a stormsewer system and sending it to treatment plants, or running it downhill to a large and costly retention pond, incorporate low-impact development (LID) concepts for stormwater detention, infiltration, eliminating contaminants, and recharging groundwater. Preserve or mimic the natural stormwater hydrology of the site by dealing with stormwater at its source, using an integrated management practices (IMP) approach. A variety of IMP systems are available, including:

  • Capturing rainwater with green roof landscaping, or adding rainwater-collection systems on the roof and using the water for landscape irrigation, flushing toilets and urinals, or custodial uses. Where codes permit, graywater (wastewater from lavs, showers, washing machines or other equipment not involving human waste or food processing) also can be used.

  • Allowing stormwater to infiltrate sidewalks and parking lots by eliminating impervious concrete and blacktop areas and replacing them with a permeable interlocking concrete pavement system.

  • Setting aside natural drainage routes as permanent open space riparian corridors, effective places for wildlife habitats, bike paths and jogging trails.

  • Using drainage and hydrology to create permanent and replenishable wetland areas, dry wells, microstorage raingardens, bioretention cells, vegetated filter strips and bioswales to turn stormwater into aquatic habitats and landscape features.

  • Get rid of plants and trees that don't belong

    Everybody loves to see conventional lawns, flowers and flowering trees on campus, but few understand how expensive it is to water and maintain them, not to mention the effects of pesticide use and pollution generated from mowing. There are low-maintenance, but equally attractive options: native plants and perennial groundcovers tolerant of drought and (where applicable) frigid winters. Consider replanting some of the irrigated lawn areas with something both indigenous and low-maintenance, such as prairie grass.

  • Let Mother Earth heat and cool campus buildings

    By using the reasonably stable temperature of the ground (or in some climates, the water), geoexchange systems extract groundwater from deep wells with ground-source heat pumps as a heat source in winter and a heat sink in summer. Fossil fuels are not spent; carbon dioxide isn't released into the atmosphere; and electricity use is minimal. The result: cleaner air and less acid rain.

  • Take a pass on harvesting renewable energy

    Wind power is the fastest-growing energy sector, but unless a campus has a large, open site in a consistently windy area, a school probably should forgo a major effort to harvest wind energy. Still, it is fast becoming a reasonably cost-effective alternative to conventional generation, so think about partnering with a wind energy company or purchasing blocks of wind energy already in production.

  • Stop lighting the sky

    Design site lighting with full-cutoff or shielded luminaires and low-angle spotlights such that zero direct-beam illumination leaves the site. It will improve night sky access and reduce development impact on nocturnal environments.

  • Make form follow energy

    Where possible, buildings should be shaped by energy conservation principles first, and function second. To optimize energy efficiency and increase occupant comfort, develop buildings with narrow floor plans to maximize natural light and cross-ventilation. This will reduce the demand for artificial lighting and mechanical ventilation, which in turn reduces energy demand while providing a healthier source of light and air.

    Orient buildings east-west to minimize the negative effects of solar gain (i.e., fewer windows on the east and west elevations facing directly into the rising and setting sun). North and south windows can provide controllable daylighting; south windows also can provide passive solar heating. Operable windows can provide convective cooling for large-volume spaces, such as atriums.

  • Fill in the quad

    It is an important feature of “smart growth” to protect natural resources and save open space by clustering development in compact building zones. Besides the obvious benefits of preserving open space for animal and plant habitats and rainwater absorption, reducing sprawl allows people to commute shorter distances.

New standalone buildings and related site elements can take as much as 10 acres or more of land; infill buildings, with site elements already in place, take up considerably less. One way to foster this principle is by filling in the quad — but not all the way. By placing buildings into over-scaled quads and creating more human-scaled quads or courtyards, several good things are accomplished:

  • It helps protect natural resources and save open space elsewhere.

  • It helps reduce auto traffic by providing a denser concentration of buildings.

  • Smaller quads provide better protection for buildings and people during inclement weather.

Another good “infill” strategy: wrap additions around existing buildings, particularly if the existing space does not require daylighting (e.g., theaters and large lecture halls).

Regarding surface parking, convert large, off-street surface parking lots to lots serving ADA or critical service requirements, and provide parking decks for everyone else. Convert the saved land into building sites, playfields or open space.

One last thought: stormwater runoff and soil erosion are created during construction, and natural water flows are disrupted; the smaller the building footprint, the less site disturbed. Consider massing the building with an extra floor or two.

Conroy, FAIA, LEED AP, is a principal with Loebl Schlossman & Hackl, Chicago, an architectural, planning and interiors firm.