Documenting Change: Lesson Eight – University of Kentucky College of Design
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Documenting Change: Lesson Eight

Sustainability in Higher Education

by Emily Bergeron

Climate change demands a holistic response integrating policy, practice, and equity. As research and teaching institutions, universities play an essential role in responding to the complex challenge it represents. Universities have always been at the forefront of creating and breaking paradigms and educating future decision-makers and leaders. These organizations also have contributed significant emissions to the climate crisis. As the educators of future leaders and laboratories for experimentation, higher education institutions have an opportunity and a responsibility to help overcome these pressing challenges. Universities must lead in actions to limit climate change.

In 2005, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (“AASHE”), the first professional higher education association for campus sustainability in North America, was launched. The following year, presidents from a dozen US schools signed on to the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, setting a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions on their campuses; since then, more than 800 institutions have become signatories. Two years later, the AASHE piloted its first version of its Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (“STARS”), a self-reporting framework for colleges and universities to measure their sustainability performance. These organizations seek to encourage campuses to address climate change by integrating resilience into their curriculum and research and through campus operations – including building operations, maintenance, design, and construction.

For more on Higher Ed Sustainability Organizations, see:

The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education

The Presidents’ Climate Leadership Commitments

UNEP’s Sustainable University Framework

Efforts to make universities more sustainable fall under three categories: Research, teaching, and operations. Sustainability should be recognized as a tool to attract, retain and motivate top students and employees. Funding opportunities for research in the field come from entities ranging from the federal government to university seed grants in areas ranging from environmental science to historic preservation. The three pillars of sustainability – environmental, economic, and social well-being – lend themselves to broad research opportunities across campuses and provide excellent opportunities for trans-disciplinary research.

83% of Gen Z youth “worry about the planet’s health,” according to a 2021 NextGen Climate Survey. Regarding sustainability in higher ed, students expect the topic to be a part of their education. 75% of students say that an institution’s environmental commitment influences their choice of school, according to a survey conducted by the Princeton Review. Teaching sustainability offers similar opportunities for moving across disciplines, and sustainability research and teaching can help unify a campus around a shared sense of purpose.

Teaching sustainability helps students understand the importance of protecting the environment and natural resources for future generations. It provides them with the tools necessary to make informed decisions about their lives and their impact on their communities. Sustainability education can help students to recognize, understand and address social and environmental justice problems. Learning these skills prepares students for career success and responsible citizenship. Sustainability literacy helps empower students to participate effectively in civic dialog. And in preparing their students for the future, universities have increasingly recognized that many future jobs are sustainability jobs. Employers seek candidates with sustainability competencies, making sustainability education crucial to workforce development. Many industries’ fastest-growing segments are sustainability-oriented (e.g., renewable energy, organic agriculture, green buildings, and electric vehicles). In a globalizing world of limited resources, universities play a vital role in preparing students to meet future sustainability challenges through teaching about sustainability.

University operations also play a significant role in helping an institution reach sustainability goals. Many institutions have implemented programs to support such efforts, such as installing recycling and composting stations on campus, reducing paper waste, creating e-Waste drives, instituting moving season donation programs, supporting campus bike use, and constructing renewable energy buildings. This is to an institution’s advantage as sustainability improves organizational efficiency, decreases operational costs, and reduces risk. Energy efficiency, waste reduction, and transportation changes all aid in creating a sustainable university; however, typical US higher-education buildings, for example, consume more than $100,000 worth of energy each year, according to Business Energy. Sustainable campus buildings cost less and have been shown to improve occupant productivity, learning, health, and comfort.

Buildings are generally the largest user of energy and the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions on campuses. Since fossil fuels account for the largest share of consumption and production in the US and many other countries, net-zero campuses can contribute to a more sustainable future. Buildings also use significant amounts of potable water. Institutions can design, build, and maintain buildings that provide a safe and healthy indoor environment for inhabitants while mitigating the building’s impact on the outdoor environment. Whether designing completely new buildings or renovating existing spaces, there are multiple ways to achieve sustainability on campus. Higher education institutions like the University of Kentucky are increasingly committing to sustainability and recognizing that green campuses that reduce the environmental impact of buildings and grounds can positively affect health and prepare students to be global sustainability citizens. Institutions use rating systems like LEED, Parksmart, PEER, SITES, TRUE and WELL certification to improve their facilities programs and infrastructure. And adaptive reuse projects like the Gray Design Building are helping universities meet their sustainability goals.

University campuses often hold high-quality ‘baukultur,’ characteristic architecture designed by well-esteemed architects of different epochs. This German concept, pronounced baw-cool-tor, is preserving and developing quality, sustainable, and culturally relevant buildings and cities. Many university campuses take pride in refurbishing and maintaining their architectural heritage. Hundreds of colleges and universities in the United States have already built preservation into their facilities management strategies. New buildings, while often designed to meet “green” standards, are limited by economic and environmental considerations, requiring that higher education institutions take advantage of the opportunities presented by older, existing buildings, which provide not only architectural and historical significance, but also a crucial path to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Further, retrofitting existing buildings to meet current standards typically results in comparable performance to new “green” buildings without the added expense and emissions outputs involved in construction. Any institution seeking to reduce its carbon footprint significantly must rely on retrofitting, renovation, and adaptive reuse.

Tree campus image

The University of Kentucky has been designated a Tree Campus USA by the Arbor Day Foundation each year since 2011. Photo by Mark Cornelison | UKphoto

At the University of Kentucky

The University of Kentucky has incorporated sustainability into a variety of planning activities. According to the University’s Sustainability Strategic Plan, the institution “strive[s] to ensure that the activities of our campus are ecologically sound, socially responsible and economically viable; and that they will continue to be so for future generations.” The integration of sustainability into University operations began in 2014 with its adoption as one of the seven core principles of the Campus Master Plan. It has been a component of all planning documents adopted since, including the Transportation Master Plan, the Campus Landscape Guidelines, and the Utilities Master Plan. The University’s latest iteration of a Sustainability Strategic Plan includes its mission to “Design, construct, operate and maintain spaces that support the mission of the University while promoting environmental stewardship and the well-being of the community.” Sustainability is part of decision-making and strategies for new construction, building maintenance and operation, building renovations, grounds maintenance and function, and urban forest management.

To date, nearly all new construction on campus targets LEED certification from the United States Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. The University opened its first LEED-certified facility, the Davis Marksbury Building, in 2010. Including projects currently under construction for which certification will be sought, the University will have over 25 LEED buildings, more than 15% of the total building stock. This includes 14 new residence halls that average 60% more efficiency than their predecessors. The University grounds also promote the institution’s sustainability efforts. For example, the Arboretum, created in 1991, is a resource for environmental and horticultural education, research, and conservation. Its Urban Forest Initiative advocates for the value and perception of and seeks to enhance urban forests in the Bluegrass.

Additionally, the Robinson Forest, 14,800 acres managed for teaching and research, is one of the largest in the eastern United States. And the University has been designated a Tree Campus USA by the Arbor Day Foundation each year since 2011. The efforts to create a new space for the College of Design in the Gray Design Building will enhance the University’s sustainability portfolio and push the institution in a positive direction.

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