RALEIGH, N.C. -- Stephen C. Scott makes a case for sustainability that plays well in community college circles. “Sustainability is not only the right thing to do; in the long run, it’s going to be the most economical also.”
Scott, the president of Wake Technical Community College, spoke last week from a sun-drenched conference room at Wake Tech’s new campus, north of downtown Raleigh. Opened in August 2007 and built to be an “all-LEED” community college campus, the buildings (three completed so far, with another well on the way) are being constructed with the goal of obtaining the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification, at least at the most basic level. Applications for certification of the finished academic buildings are pending, administrators say.
Perhaps the most obvious characteristic of the new construction is the abundance of natural light. The buildings are oriented to the south and 90 percent of the occupied spaces feature outside views.
“We often don’t turn the lights on in the classroom. We don’t need them,” says Gayle Greene, dean of Wake Tech's Northern Wake Campus. “You always feel like the light’s coming in here, even in January.”
An Orientation to the Campus
So far at the Northern Wake Campus, there are two completed academic buildings, with 36 classrooms and, for this fall semester, 4,200 students between them. Classes are offered on campus from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., with courses in university transfer programs primarily scheduled during the day and business and computer classes offered mainly at night. “We change shifts in the middle of the day,” says Greene.
There's also a regional plant that fulfills the college’s cooling and heating needs (natural gas is used for heat). As a qualification on the otherwise "all-LEED" campus plan, Wake Tech is not going for LEED certification for the plant, as there's no applicable category, explains Wendell B. Goodwin, the facility engineering officer.
A fourth building under construction on Northern Wake Campus -- college officials anticipate it will be ready for student use by March – will feature 29 labs and classrooms. Another fun feature: a college bookstore for the digital age, with limited shelf space (many students, after all, buy online) and a Borders-style coffee bar and patio space overlooking a pond -- which filters sediments from storm water before the water returns to the Neuse River, which borders the campus's eastern edge.
By spring, with the completion of the fourth building, Wake Tech expects to have spent $54 million on the campus. Ultimately, college officials plan to build 17 buildings on the 125-acre parcel.
Sustainable construction features include improved insulation, occupancy sensors that automatically turn off lights when their users don't, and higher-efficiency chillers and boilers. Slat-like shading devices filter the outside light when the sun is strongest in summer, cutting cooling costs somewhat. (Behavioral solutions work, too: Wake Tech just changed its standard thermostat setting from 73 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit in summer and from 70 to 68 degrees in winter.)
Landscaping-wise, the campus features indigenous, drought-resistant plants and the college does not irrigate the campus. To date, college officials estimate electricity savings of 26 percent annually compared with baseline standards maintained by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers. That equals, they estimate, a savings of $36,800 per year.
Meanwhile, low-flush fixtures contribute to estimated water savings of just over half a million gallons a year.
Challenges and a Future Course
Wake Tech also demonstrates, however, some of the challenges community colleges face in promoting sustainable practices, their own and those of their commuting students. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the cost of building to the basic LEED standards actually wasn't prohibitive, administrators say: Goodwin estimates construction cost an extra half to 1.5 percent above the baseline.
But that covered the basics of sustainable construction. When asked what they couldn't do because of cost, solar energy is at the top of administrators’ lists.
“It makes the first cost of the building so high and the pay-off period is so long,” says Goodwin, the facility engineering officer. He adds that geothermal energy was another desirable but prohibitively expensive option, requiring the drilling of exceptionally deep wells through unweathered rock.
The college didn't get the point for public transit on its LEED applications, because while there’s one bus route to the Northern Wake Campus, the standards call for two, says James A. Opdenbrouw, the project manager. The campus has 747 parking spaces, plus 200 overflow spots, and at peak times the lots largely fill (like around 11 a.m. on a Wednesday when a reporter from Inside Higher Ed arrived). The campus -- on land that once included a tobacco barn -- is designated as tobacco-free, which also explains a small cluster of students smoking by the road on the property's outermost edge Wednesday morning.
More generally speaking, Wake Tech, which has six other locations (three other campuses and three centers), has identified a number of more sustainable business and construction practices. The college has implemented green purchasing policies -- stipulating that all new vehicles be hybrid or alternative fuel, and buying locally to reduce associated transportation emissions. (For the first phase of the Northern Wake Campus construction, 38 percent of materials were manufactured within 500 miles of the site, and 13.6 percent contained recycled content, according to the college’s calculations.)
Academically, the college has increased its distance learning offerings, thereby cutting students’ commuting emissions. According to Wake Tech, distance learning enrollment increased 59 percent this fall over last, to 10,157 students. College officials are investigating the possibility of signing onto the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment, Goodwin says. College presidents who sign the pledge commit to pursue "carbon neutrality."
"When you sign onto a commitment that large you want to be sure you know what you're doing," Goodwin says.
Meanwhile, the college's home, Wake County, is growing rapidly, the population having increased from 627,846 in 2000 to 832,970 in 2007, according to U.S. Census data. Enrollment at Wake Tech is also up 14 percent this fall after a 10 percent increase the year before, President Scott says. In July, the college purchased 82 acres for further expansion in the western part of Wake County. Per the college’s stated objectives, anticipated new construction there and elsewhere will be completed to be LEED-certifiable, at a minimum.
For the first two completed classroom buildings on the bustling Northern Wake Campus, the college went for basic LEED certification. For the third under way, the college, more ambitious, went for the more coveted LEED silver status.
In part because of a cleaner construction process, “We went for silver,” Scott says, “but we may be very close to getting gold.”