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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.

Gang aft a-gley
December 16, 2008 - 4:39pm

When it comes to reducing campus greenhouse gas emissions, some of the best-intentioned changes have poor results. 'Getting sustainable' requires more than just good intentions and a grasp of the intuitively obvious; it requires systemic analysis. Two cases in point:

One school of which I'm aware decided to close its campus between Christmas and New Year's. The thinking was that (let's be honest) little real work gets done during that period, and it's expensive to heat buildings. If the buildings are occupied, they have to be heated to (let's say) 70 degrees; if they're vacant, that temperature can be 10-20 degrees lower. By giving employees the (already shortened) week off, money could be saved and emissions could be avoided.

The problem is that, because the period between holidays is calendar year end, some work does have to take place. A few departments (think Payroll and Benefits) have their heaviest workload, and one or two people in many departments have time-critical activities to perform. So certain critical staff don't get the week off, and certain offices need to be heated regardless of the fact that campus is "closed".

Still, maybe 90% of offices should be unoccupied, right? Maybe, but that doesn't translate into 90% of space getting less heat. Not only do the offices of critical staff need heat, but so do lab spaces and library spaces. Bits and pieces of space all across campus need normal heating and -- surprise! -- in many older buildings, there's no way to heat up only rooms 112, 302 and 415. Either the whole building gets heat or none of it does. That's the way the steam system was designed a century or so ago, and that's still the way it works.

So, while the intent of closing campus was to save building operating costs and emissions, the only costs and emissions being saved are due to reduced employee commuting. Maybe that's still a good thing, but it's not the good thing the powers that be are trumpeting in their press releases.

And speaking of commuting, I was talking to a sustainability administrator at a university which has allowed many employees to work shortened work weeks, in the hope of reducing commuting emissions. It's still a 40-hour week, but now it can be 4 days of 10 hours each. Should reduce participating employees' commuting emissions by about 20%, right?

And maybe it does (although some studies are showing that employees drive almost as much on their newfound days off as they did when they were going to work). But it also has the effect of increasing building operating emissions.

Remember the difference between "occupied" and "unoccupied" building temperatures? If employees are working an 8-hour schedule, maybe the building is set to the "occupied" temperature for 9 or 10 hours a day, five days a week. On the other hand, if employees are working 10-hour schedules, and taking differing the days of the week to stay home (so that five-day coverage is maintained for all campus services), now each office is occupied longer each day. Now that same building has to be at the higher temperature for 11 or 12 hours a day. More heat. More energy. More emissions.

Is the reduction in commuting emissions between Christmas and New Year's enough to justify the cost of (in effect) giving all employees an extra three days of annual leave? Is the reduction in commuting emissions from employees working "four tens" greater than the increase in building emissions caused by longer hours of occupancy? In both cases, nobody knows. Those questions were never asked. The decisions weren't well thought through. Intentions were good, but the plans weren't "best laid", either by mice or by men.


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