College Life Involves More Green Principles; Yet Still, Many Naps

August means back-to-school time for thousands of college students across the country — but they aren’t the only ones hitting campus this fall.

Green design has made its way into college life, and green university dorms and buildings may be becoming one of the fastest growing sustainable building sectors. Already:

  • More than 300 schools are Green Building Council members, according to the Houston Chronicle.
  • As of April, more than 30 LEED registered campus projects were underway, according to Green Building Council data.

And with good reason: Wisely, the USGBC for years has actively recruited student involvement. In 2002, it founded the Emerging Green Builders program, a coalition of students and young professionals who work to spread the word about green building’s potential.

By signing on these "future leaders," as the USGBC calls them, the organization is building enthusiasm and support in the industry early–before these students even hit the job market.

Other college kids, like Shyla Raghav, are starting their own programs. Raghav, who is involved in the statewide Green Campus Program, and a group of students spent 100 hours decking a standard UC Irvine dorm room out with hemp towels, organic cotton sheets and recycled train track bed frames as a green model for current students, the LA Times reported.

But Um, Who Wants to Pay for New-Fangled Design?

It’s great that future generations may push for sustainability. But that’s some time off, and today, green construction isn’t cheap. Which can make it a hard sell.

Building green can add 5 percent to a budget’s total (and a recent World Business Council for Sustainable Development study found most industry officials incorrectly estimate it to be much higher).

Take, for instance, the new Dudley H. Davis Center at The University of Vermont. Built with local and recycled materials and designed to reduce water and energy use, the center was the most expensive project UVM has ever taken on — costing a whopping $61 million, the Burlington Free Press reported.

And yet, despite the added cost, many university administrations have gladly followed suit and built green, particularly with residence hall construction. This year, some of the new green dorms include:

  • Rice University will get a new, five-story green residence hall with a green roof and motion detectors to turn lights on and off, saving energy. The dorm comes courtesy of a $30 million gift from former U.S. Energy Secretary Charles Duncan and his wife, Anne.
  • Emory’s new Turman Hall has flooring made of recycled carpet fiber, bamboo and reused auto glass. Turman also features light sensors that cut lights after 30 minutes of inactivity, pre-set room thermostats and water conservation toilets with two flushing options. A monitor in the lobby tracks energy use in the building for students to see.
  • Pitzer College in Claremont has new dorms with garden rooftops and photovoltaic panels, and plans to eventually replace all dorms with green ones, the LA Times reports.

Surprisingly, Colleges Are OK with Absorbing the Cost

So why, if it’s so pricey, is higher education embracing green building?

For one, cost may not be as much of an issue as it is for other construction projects.

While private universities may have a bit more budget leverage than state ones, many cities are passing incentives and mandates to encourage green building, making the decision easier for state universities. Michigan, Washington and Arizona are three which currently require or encourage government buildings to meet LEED standards.

In addition, some universities see green buildings as a selling point to students in the competitive collegiate market. UVM President Dan Fogel, who long campaigned to build the new green Davis Center, told the Burlington Free Press he wanted the center to nationally promote UVM as a green university and increase UVM’s appeal to potential students.

Colleges — Much Like College Loans — Seem to Last Forever

But really, budgets and PR aside, green construction and design just makes sense for universities because of their expected longevity.

They’re timeless, constant community structures. They plan to be educational learning centers for centuries: Many already have.

Well-designed sustainable buildings can help reduce the need for future renovations. And creating long-lasting buildings that add to (instead of taking from) the land a campus sits on — and may have been on for 100 years or more — will help protect the college’s natural resources, from self-sustaining water supplies to the carefully-manicured grounds themselves.

Builders may hope the new homes they construct last as long; but in reality, as neighborhoods change, the chance they will be torn down, rebuilt or gutted is significant. Universities pride themselves on the appearance of tradition and history–and their shelf-life is infinite.

Green design may be a somewhat radical change for campuses — especially those that are conservative and proud of their older, classically-designed buildings — but it’s one that can help them stay the same for decades to come.