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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Bifurcated Budget Begets Bad Buildings
February 8, 2008 - 11:37am

It’s said that the modern university consists of a large number of academic and administrative departments united by a common heating system. We’ll get to academic and administrative “siloing” at a later date, but let’s talk about that heating/cooling system. It’s probably working a lot harder than it should have to. And burning more energy. And responsible for more emissions.

Think about the buildings which are being heated and cooled. When were they designed and constructed? How were they designed and constructed? What drove that process, and what decisions are we paying for now?

Oversimplifying (a lot), most campus buildings went up either a long (long) time ago, or during a period of rapid expansion — after WW II or during the 60’s and early 70’s, for instance. If they’re really old, then their space is hard to configure, their systems have been replaced at least once, and performance tuning is difficult, at best. If they date from one of the post-war building booms, they were probably put up as the result of a low-cost bidding process. As a matter of fact, if your campus is adding a building right now, that term “low-cost bid” may sound familiar. (BTW, does anyone remember what Gus Grissom said about the results of low-cost bidding processes?)

On most campuses, the biggest opportunity for energy savings and emissions reduction revolves around building heating, cooling, and operations. Probably 70-80% of campus emissions result from how we run our buildings. But our operating choices are limited, as a result of capital construction (design and materials) choices made back whenever it was that those buildings went up. Capital construction choices were made, in most cases, with an eye toward minimizing capital funding requirements. Unfortunately, energy-inefficient buildings cost less to construct. In order to save a little on the front end, we end up paying (and emitting) every year for the life of the building.

Many schools are getting smarter about this — raising design and construction standards to require LEED certification, for example. But the basic problem remains. Erecting or enhancing buildings is done using one pot of money. Operating buildings is done out of another pot, entirely. Decisions made in one arena don’t give full weight to impacts in the other. And (more on this, later) savings generated in one arena have a hard time flowing to the other.

We’re struggling with this on my campus. (At least, a few of us are. Some folks seem blissfully unaware.) I wish I knew of a good demonstrated solution. Anybody who has one, please email me.


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