Richmond is working to become environmentally “greener”

By Taylor Engelson

The University of Richmond, along with a number of colleges and universities across the country, is making changes to become more environmentally friendly.

The design of the buildings on the Richmond campus is the biggest factor in evaluating UR's "greenness." Since UR adopted its latest master plan in 2000, all projects are designed with the LEED rating system in mind, facilities architect Andrew McBride said.

LEED is the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design green building rating system established by the U.S. Green Building Council. In order for a building to quality for LEED certification, it has to earn a certain number of points. LEED evaluates buildings in the following areas: sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources and indoor environmental quality. The number of points a project earns determines the level of certification it receives.

The four levels are Certified, Silver, Gold and Platinum. Certified means that a building has 26-32 points, Silver is 33-38 points, Gold is 39-51points and Platinum is 52- 69 points.

Weinstein Hall, which earned 26 points, was the first project to come out of the master plan, as well as the first building in the Richmond metro area and the second higher-education building in the state to become LEED certified, McBride said.

Gottwald Center for the Sciences, was the next project and a number of the sustainable building practices were used, although its score in the low 20s was not high enough for LEED certification, he said. The applications for LEED certification for the renovated and enlarged Heilman Center and Weinstein Center will be submitted later this year and the application for the Lakeview dormitory, still under construction, will be submitted sometime next year, he said.

"Compared to our existing resident halls or any of our other buildings, Lakeview will be our highest scoring building," McBride said, who expects the certified level at minimum. Some highlights are 30 percent reduction in water usage via dual flush toilets, no irrigation system for landscaping, and low-flow shower heads and lavatory faucets, he said. In addition, there will be a monitoring system for energy usage.

Ten percent of all materials will be made of 10 percent recycled content, and 20 percent of all materials will be manufactured within 500 miles of the job, he said.

There are also plans to make current buildings greener. "Starting in December, Freeman Hall will be the first of five existing residences halls (Freeman, Jeter, North Court, Thomas and Robins) that will undergo a complete make-over, transforming them into suite or apartment-style residence halls," he said. "The LEED EB (existing building) rating system will be used as we design the alterations and we will apply for LEED certification where possible," McBride said.

Every project the school works on uses the LEED standard, he said. "It stays on the table throughout the design process and only drops off once we have determined that LEED certification is impossible," he said.

A College Sustainability Report Card by the Sustainable Endowment Institute provides a comprehensive grade breakdown of aspects of the university's sustainability in addition to its buildings. The overall grade UR received was a C-, which is the average grade of the administration, climate change and energy, food and recycling, green building, endowment transparency, investment priorities and shareholder involvement grades.

According to UR's report card posted on the Sustainable Endowment Institute's website, UR received a C in administration because a full-time position for a sustainability coordinator has not been developed and a D for climate change and energy because the university has not pursued renewable energy. The grade for food and recycling was a C and it is stated that the university's dining services department has made a commitment to sustainability in its practices. A B was given for the green building grade, because of the LEED certification of Weinstein, the LEED strategies used for Gottwald and three other registered buildings that are seeking LEED certification.

The investment priorities grade was a B, and it is stated that the university prioritizes investing to maximize profit and is also exploring renewable energy investment funds or similar investment vehicles. Lastly, the endowment transparency and shareholder engagement grades were both an F because the university's proxy voting record and list of endowment holdings are not public and its investment managers handle the details of proxy voting.

An aspect that is not analyzed in the report is conservation efforts by students on campus. There are two student-run clubs on campus that strive to incorporate more conservation policies at the university. The first one that was established on campus is the Sierra Club, an organization devoted to improving the environment and spreading awareness of environmental issues here on campus and in the community, as stated on its website. It has about 12 core members, Treasurer Ashley LeClare said.

LeClare said that her involvement in the club was natural since she was a member in high school and her major is environmental studies. "The whole topic interests me," she said. "I want to be involved in programs with that focus."

Its current project is an effort to have the school purchase Renewable Energy Certificates (REC). LeClare said that the government had established something called tradable emissions. This allows power companies to emit a certain amount of Greenhouse gases and other noxious chemicals into the atmosphere. If the companies don’t fill up their emissions quota, they can sell their unused emission slots for profit, she said.

"Obviously wind farms aren’t releasing any such things into the atmosphere, and thus have a lot to sell," LeClare said. "They sell their RECs to energy companies, such as Pepco, who them sells them to us. Wind and landfill gas are examples of renewable sources.

"Thus indirectly we are pumping funds into renewable resources," she said. "We’ll buy the equivalent of how much atmospheric contaminants we release." Members are proposing a student tuition raise from anywhere between $9 and $60. Members will conduct a survey to evaluate student interest in the project.

Wind costs a little more than coal, said Chris Stevenson, the Sierra Club faculty adviser, Environmental Awareness Group (EAG) member and chemistry professor. "We would be giving a donation so that they can sell power at the same cost as coal," he said.
In effect, UR would be helping to subsidize local wind power plants or landfill gas.
Virginia's statewide grid for energy is the coal, Stevenson said. Therefore, UR has to use coal or create its own energy, he said. "Campuses wrestle to have the right fuel sources that don't cost too much," President William E. Cooper said. "UR uses coal because it's cheap," he said. "In the long-term we might have to shift."

Some Sierra Club members are also involved in the group Environmental Residents, which was created last year by a Sierra Club graduate. The group has tried to get an RA position to promote environmental awareness in the dorms. In addition, group members have given current RAs information about environmental conservation to put up on the bulletin boards in their hallways.

Stevenson said that the plan for Environmental Residents was on the Residence Hall Association agenda last year, but the RHA didn't seem that interested. The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education website lists schools that that have a system in place for peer-to-peer sustainability outreach campaigns, known as Eco-Reps.

Columbia, Duke, Johns Hopkins, Princeton, Smith, University of Dayton and Yale are some examples.

"A lot of what they do is education, such as programs to talk about eco-friendly living," Stevenson said. This could include a water-savings themed month, "Don't run your shower" posters and competitions among dorms, he said. "This was the origin of the petition that the EAG is doing to monitor energy," Stevenson said.

It is not a big group and the Sierra Club gets more done, LeClare said. When asked about her opinion of student concern for the environment, she said, "We're definitely lacking the activist part. I'm not sure if it's the lack of interest or lack of time."

LeClare's involvement in environmental action on campus doesn't end with her commitment to the Sierra and Environmental Residents clubs. LeClare and fellow member Christie Lencsak, also an environmental studies major, are the UR interns for the Schools Association of Colleges for the South. They keep track of the environmental action that takes place on campus and organize it to give to the association, which keeps a record of the environmental activities of many colleges in the south, LeClare said.

A recent project is the EAG's proposal to buy monitors to show how much energy, water and waste a dorm uses, Stevenson said. The EAG and Professor Steve Nash put together a proposal for this information to be displayed on a screen outside a couple of dorms, he said. They asked the company Dominion Power, an investor-owned electric utility, for money to fund this project since it awards grants to schools, he said.

"The goal is to have all the dorms monitored that way," he said. "We're starting with energy because Dominion Power will be interested in that."

The group RENEW (Richmond Environmental Network for Economic Willpower) was established this year by junior Jason Levinn and is also currently working to make UR dorms greener, by promoting student support. Members sat at a table in the Commons for the month of April, asking students to sign their UR's Green Dorms Petition. Their goal was to obtain 1,000 signatures by April 20, member Sarah Johnston said. RENEW surpassed its goal by getting 1052 signatures, including 18 faculty members.

Students have been willing to sign the petition, Johnston said. "Once you explain what it's about they think it's a cool idea, but I don't know how much more than a signature they'll be willing to give," she said. There are about 75 people on RENEW's email list, but only six to 10 attend the weekly meetings, Johnston said. A component of the petition is getting the school to hire a sustainability coordinator, Johnston said. This sustainability coordinator position is the same one that the Sierra Club has proposed. The lack of one is what the College Sustainability Report Card based the administration grade on, which was a C. This person would be someone to assess and oversee all campus projects, such as building dorms and major landscaping and construction to make sure they are sustainable to the environment, she said.

"Only a few other schools have a sustainability coordinator, but it is something that is becoming very popular and would put Richmond ahead of the curve," Johnston said.

"Unfortunately, a sustainability coordinator would be highly expensive to hire and therefore the university will most likely not support this point of our petition."

Levinn presented the petition to the incoming president, Edward L. Ayers, at a Presidential Welcoming Committee dinner. This committee comprises faculty and students who bring concerns and suggestions to the president. A Microsoft Excel printout of the breakdown in petition names by class year was included in the Presidential Welcoming Committee White Paper Appendix, Levinn said.

"Ayers was informed about the petition when I spoke with him and I think he will be eager to meet and discuss it when things are a bit less hectic for him," Levinn said. "The petition itself is not all that important though, it was really just a vehicle to gauge and incite student interest in environmental developments on campus, and I am confident that we will see some great changes in the coming school year."

An additional project RENEW is working on is finding out whether there's a program that Information Services (IS) can use to shut computers off when they are not being used for an extended period of time. Having them on constantly wastes energy and wears down life expectancy, Johnston said. Another way to save energy that RENEW has discussed is buying CFL light bulbs, which have a longer life, use less electricity and are cheaper than most regular light bulbs.

Furthermore, members have an idea to make electricity in the dorms available by plugging in a key card or students' Spidercards. For instance, before someone leaves the room, he would pull the card out of some sort of plug and the electricity would turn off in the room while he's not there, Johnston said. The student would simply have to plug it back in for the electricity to go on. "I don't know how expensive or feasible this is, but it's a pretty cool idea," she said.

Although Sierra Club and RENEW members are a small percentage of the student population, students who are not directly involved with environmental activity on campus are becoming aware of the importance of environmental conservation. Sophomore Bailey Leuschen said that before a geography course she took in the fall, she had never thought about green issues. Now, she is aware of the effect humans have on the environment, "especially our generation and how much pressure we're putting on the world's resources," she said.

She is glad that the school is making efforts to work toward environmental sustainability on campus. "One of the things I'm really excited about is that the new washers will conserve water," she said. "I also really like that in the library there are certain lights that only come on when people walk through the bookshelves."

Nevertheless, we come from a very consumer-driven culture in our school, specifically the business school, Leuschen said. She learned in her macroeconomics class that a measure of society's happiness is its consumption, she said. "I'm conflicted, because I'd like to see more computers in the library, which would require more energy."

Leuschen believes the only way people will change their ways and not become overwhelmed in the process is through making small changes. "I think the key is baby steps; making change in increments," Leuschen said. "Thinking too much about it leads to a state of paralysis in which you think you can't accomplish anything."

As for the future, there are two things that matter on campus in regard to promoting environmental sustainability, Cooper said. These are political activism and engineering solutions to the problems. "The most important thing students can do is come up with better energy sources," he said. "There should be a fearlessness about solving these problems," Cooper said. "I want to see a solution."

In regard to comparing the greenness of UR with other schools, Stevenson said, "We're roughly middle-of-the-path." The reason is a combination of student apathy and lack of administrative support, he said.

Nevertheless, Stevenson believes that having a green campus is not the ultimate goal. He would rather educate people here about eco-friendly choices than have an ecofriendly culture, he said. "What's really important is that every year we graduate 800 students," Stevenson said. "Having a green campus will help but the end goal is to teach students about these issues."

This entry was posted in Environment, News writing. Bookmark the permalink.