Last week, Harvard celebrated the completion of its 50th LEED-certified project. LEED buildings are a major feature of the school's plans to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 30% below 2006 levels by 2016. In fact, the university calculates that it has reduced its emissions by 4,000 tons per year, at a savings of about $1.5 million annually. That calculation is based on comparing the energy utilization of Harvard's new LEED-certified buildings to industry standards.
Of course, an industry standard is rather an arbitrary number, and putting up new buildings which improve on it doesn't actually reduce an institution's emissions or energy use. You don't reduce energy use by adding new buildings, you reduce energy use by retiring old buildings or by making them more efficient. If no inefficient space disappears or is transformed, no real savings occur.
Harvard recognizes this, of course. In fact, of the 50 LEED-certified projects completed to date, only 14 are for new construction. That means 36 -- almost three quarters -- of the projects were modifications to existing buildings. It's the modification projects that Harvard's Sustainability and Green Building Services folks are counting on to get the job done. Universities own and operate buildings for decades, even centuries. Efficiency improvements in existing space can accrue significant savings. Harvard understands.
Whether the US Green Building Council understands is another question. A couple of months back, they published an updated version of their Roadmap to a Green Campus, which purports to provide "strategies for using the LEED green building certification as a framework for developing and evolving campus-wide sustainability plans." But if you follow the Roadmap, you're not likely to end up with one quarter new construction and three quarters renovation. Nor will you likely retire any old buildings because of their inherent inefficiency. As a result, you won't achieve campus-wide sustainability or anything like it.
The Roadmap is available for download here. Take a quick read through, and see if you don't agree. Its main message is about putting up better new buildings (it is published by a Building Council, after all), not about improving or retiring old ones. In its 118 pages, the word "construction" appears 114 times. "Renovate" and "renovation" are used a total of 35 times, but in 29 of those cases it's as an afterthought to "new construction". In only 6 cases is renovation referenced in its own right. "Retrofit" appears 7 times, but "retire", "demolish", "repurpose" and "rehabilitate" never occur at all. It's almost as if the campus-focused folks at USGBC think, deep down inside, that colleges and universities can build their ways down to net zero emissions. Which, of course, is foolish.
When I've spoken with folks from the Green Building Council, they acknowledge that renovation is more beneficial than new construction, unless that new construction is accompanied by retirement of inefficient buildings. But their published words don't convey that message. If your campus decides to follow the Roadmap, it's a message you'll have to keep in mind for yourself.
As Harvard as done.