LEEDing the Pack

June 30, 2009

BALTIMORE -- Constructing the first ever LEED platinum-rated college residence hall “isn’t something that happens accidentally” said Duke University’s dean of residence life about his institution’s recent feat. Not accidentally, perhaps, but serendipitously.

The Smart Home at Duke -- which celebrated its first birthday in January -- was born of a great idea meeting an unexpected opportunity. So Eddie Hull, who is also Duke’s executive director of housing services, explained Monday at the annual meeting of the American College and University Housing Officers-International here. At a showcase of Duke undergraduate students’ thesis projects, Hull said, one student's design plans for a sustainable residence hall caught the eye of a member of Duke’s Board of Visitors -- who also happened to be a senior executive at Home Depot. Two million dollars later, Duke is home to the most state of the art student living facility in the world by LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards, and Home Depot has its name at the end of the walkway as a thanks for footing the bill.

It was with beaming pride, tempered by the confession of lots of luck involved, that Hull and Gary Thompson, director of facilities planning and operations at Duke, told colleagues at the ACUHO-I meeting about the design that won the Smart Home 59 out of 62 possible points in the green building rating system.

Eager to share what they learned from the Smart Home project, Hull and Thompson also advised that Duke’s ambitious -- and free -- project won’t work for most colleges (although Warren Wilson College in North Carolina managed to gain LEED platinum certification in the existing building category for its EcoDorm, opened in 2003). While some other of the day’s sessions focused on ways to improve campus sustainability on a much smaller scale and budget, Duke’s example was anything but modest.

For Duke, the Smart Home represents a commitment to innovative research, both in sustainability and technological developments that promote "smart living." For the 10 students residing there each year, who are chosen by Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering – which was a collaborative partner along with residence life and housing – it’s a high tech playhouse. The Smart Home boasts a fiber-optic network with the fastest Internet access on campus, a fully equipped media room, more LCD TVs than the residents could watch at a time, and two laboratories (one for software, one for hardware) where the engineering students can experiment with “smart living” projects -- all green technology in a "live-in lab," according to Hull.

That last part -- experimentation -- is the cornerstone of the Smart Home’s mission. While the facility itself represents the peak of current technology and sustainable innovation for college housing, Duke is hopeful that, given the space and tools, the Smart Home residents will begin to turn out innovations of their own. The residence labs are accessible to the 10 residents and more than 100 other students involved in a cross-disciplinary program to conduct research on smart living.

The first experiment to be churned out: a thumb-print identification sensor for keeping greedy hands off each others' kegs -- root beer kegs, of course, Hull joked.

In addition to gaining LEED points by using recycled and sustainable materials, the Smart Home incorporates environmentally friendly components in virtually every nook and cranny -- from its roof of plants to energy-generating solar panels to rainwater cisterns to a special lab in the basement for experimenting with products (given by corporate partners) not yet on the market. Believe it or not, Thompson said, there are downsides to having it all (and having it all for free). Because the high-end appliances were donated, they don’t come with warranties, which leaves the facilities staff to learn the nuances of cutting-edge technology on the fly.

The other caveat: Duke’s Smart Home won’t be easily replicated or expanded into a larger model. “I find it very difficult to see if you had to do this on your own financially to do this or extrapolate this to a larger facility,” Thompson said, adding that he calculates that for a 250 bed unit, a LEED platinum rating might take more than 130 years to pay for itself.

“I would encourage you to look at this from a different perspective,” Thompson said. Instead of focusing solely on LEED certification standards, “do what’s right for your facility if it makes sense. Don’t just do something to get a point or two on LEED if it’s not right or efficient for you.”

For three other colleges presenting at a later session, LEED standards were still certainly in the picture, though their efforts were tempered to fit budgets (by which they, unlike Duke, are constrained). And not only is there a marked difference between what Duke did and what most other colleges could imagine doing, but there are also considerable differences in opportunity among colleges dealing with varying budgets.

“They might have Cadillac versions,” Deb Boykin, assistant vice president for student affairs at the College of William & Mary, said of the two private university presenters who spoke before her. “I have the Volkswagen version.”

Where Emory University and Case Western Reserve University in Ohio boast new developments that meet LEED’s silver and gold rating standards, Boykin said her Virginia public college is proud simply to strive for certification. In that vein, William & Mary’s efforts toward certification of its $29.3 million residence hall project -- opened fall 2006 -- were more conservative than what Duke (or even Emory and Case Western Reserve) showcased: water use reduction, energy efficient appliances, shaded spaces, recycled building materials, education outreach.

But all the little innovations add up, she said, and even though the project's budget went up an extra $50,000 to hire a LEED project manager for handling all the extra paperwork, Boykin said getting LEED certified “was worth it.”

Alma Sealine, director of housing at Case Western Reserve, expressed similar sentiments, saying some of the improvements made in her campus’s new residence halls have proven too efficient to leave out of any other future developments. The biggest example, she said, is the energy recovery unit -- “heat wheels” -- that recycles hot air from the bathrooms and kitchens for use in common areas. For comparison: Across the street from the new heat-wheeled hall is another housing unit that, despite being less than half the size and not having air conditioning, uses 40 percent more energy than the hall with heat wheels.

Incorporating those small but meaningful improvements is the first step toward sustainability, whether or not it’s also a step toward applying for LEED certification.

“As for the materials and opportunity,” said Andrea Trinklein, executive director of residence life and housing at Emory, “they’re out there, and the cost is dropping."

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