Northwestern: Chicago's greener leader

    Photo by the author.

    Sometimes the most important sustainable efforts are those you don’t even notice. The door you walked through was made from certified sustainably-forested wood. The walls around you, made from recycled and regional materials. The cool air on your face is courtesy of a chilled beam system installed in the ceiling.

    You’ll find all of these at Northwestern’s Silverman Hall. The new building won a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design gold rating this summer from the U.S. Green Building Council.

    For a university, LEED certifications put a name and legitimacy on what is nebulously referred to as “green.” The certification grants the building a certain prestige, and it adds accolades to the university, which for some students — those who are aware of it — could be a selling point.

    The USGBC graded Silverman in six categories: sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, indoor environmental quality and innovation, and design process. The building is constructed from 25 percent recycled materials, including structural steel, reinforcing bar, crushed concrete, drywall and composite wood. And more than half of the building materials came from within 500 miles of campus, keeping down costs and carbon emissions.

    Silverman was not the first LEED certified building on Northwestern property. First came the Ford Motor Company Engineering Design Center, which was awarded LEED Silver certification in 2006. In comparison with other schools in the Chicagoland area, Northwestern has had an early start — and it’s collecting LEED certifications faster than others. But it still took many years, from the start of LEED ratings, for Northwestern to catch on.

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    The first LEED rating system was born in 2000. Since then, colleges and universities have constituted a large part of the LEED certified buildings. Kristin Simmons of the USGBC says that due to the nature of universities and colleges, it pays to build right, since the schools will be owning and occupying the buildings for a long time.

    The process begins with a conversation, with what the USGBC calls an integrated approach.

    “[The university] would bring any stakeholder that will be testing whatever goes on in the building,” Simmons says. “Architects, engineers, faculty, facilities people…students, those who will use the building. You bring them all into the room and once you bring them all together, you can have a conversation on priorities in terms of use [and efficiency].”

    The LEED review process, done by the Green Building Certification Institute, begins and ends with documentation. Each university registers by providing information on the project plans. Then both midway and then at the end of the project, the university must submit documentation for review by the GBCI. Then, the GBCI determines whether the building receives a rating from one of the four levels of certification: certified, silver, gold or platinum.

    LEED certification doesn’t come for free, though. The registration fee for each project is $450 for USGBC members and $600 for nonmembers. And once the construction is complete, the certification fee, which varies depending on the project size, is on average $2000.

    Due to the costs of the actual certification process, Marshall Eames, the sustainability director for Loyola University Chicago, thinks the certification isn’t what is most important. “We’ve agreed to build to LEED standards, which I think is what universities should do,” Eames says. “I don’t necessarily think that they need to pay the money to get the plaque.”

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    Photo by the author.

    But the plaque could be a selling point for prospective students, showing in a tangible way that the university is literate in and committed to sustainable practices. According to the Princeton Review’s 2010 College Hopes and & Worries Survey, 64 percent of 12,000 college applicants and their parents would value knowing about campuses’ green practices. Of that percentage, 23 percent say the information would very much impact their decision to apply and attend a school.

    Simmons says having the actual certification then shows a sense of commitment and environmental literacy, even if it is just a surface appearance. She adds that a USGBC study found schools did better and were happier when they had a certification standard.

    Cindy Klein-Banai, associate chancellor of sustainability at the University of Illinois-Chicago says her school can’t afford to build green. “We don’t have a whole lot of new construction going on because of state funding, so mostly our focus is on renovations of older space,” she says.

    In terms of funding for UIC, Banai-Klein says that there is a debate. But in general, if there are life cycle costs in doing a project, and eventual payback, those things are taken into account.

    Building green used to be a much more expensive endeavor, spending a premium on low- or no-VOC paints, special fixtures and appliances and specific materials. But Simmons says this is no longer so. She says on average, people are now paying 1 or 2 percent more for LEED certified buildings, but in many cases, it can be built for the same cost or less.

    “[The USGBC is] trying to promote responsibility and sustainability, but also promotes work for architects and engineers,” Eames says. Afterall, the USGBC is a business, which could explain the prices behind the service. NPR, in a recent story has referred to the LEED rating system and the USGBC as the “Kleenex” of green building. That is to say, that LEED has become synonymous with green building.

    Allison Juster just completed her master’s degree in mechanical engineering at Northwestern and has also just finished the LEED accreditation process to receive her green associate degree. She’s always been interested in green building, but sees the practical importance of getting accredited as well.

    “Nowadays, a lot of new construction is for LEED buildings and LEED accreditation helps you get jobs,” she says. “It says that you can oversee a LEED building, you’re familiar with all the credits you can get and you’re familiar with how to build a sustainable building.”

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    At the very least, Simmons says, LEED rankings have created a “common language” among schools trying to go green.

    Northwestern is trying to speak that language. It requires at least a LEED certification for all new buildings and major renovations. Harris Hall, Rogers House and the Tech Infill additions are all expected to receive LEED silver ratings.

    “If the university is taking the initiative to do something like that, I think it sends a really positive message to the community,” Juster says. “It says we’re committed to doing this.”


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