LEED buildings support campus sustainability goals

Eight years ago, a campaign launched by two Duke students helped change the way the University constructs buildings.

As sophomores, Justin Segall and Anthony Vitarelli—both Trinity ’05—created the Duke University Greening Initiative, an effort to increase the University’s environmental responsibility and sustainable building practices. Their presentation to the Board of Trustees—in which they encouraged the University to implement the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards into the University’s master plan—led to a decision in 2003 to require all new buildings and renovations to meet LEED standards.

LEED, which is administered by the U.S. Green Building Council, promotes sustainable construction in the American building industry by awarding points to construction projects based on environmental building criteria. Today, the outcomes of DUGI— which was founded as part of an enterprising leaders public policy course—have exceeded all expectations, as the University now has 33 LEED certified buildings.

“Our big, audacious goal at the start was to get Duke to commit to only build green buildings in the future, and we were stunned at how quickly the University committed itself to that objective,” said Vitarelli, adding that Duke approved the idea within a year of the initial proposal.

All new projects have received at least Certified, the most basic LEED standard, but many have received Silver status, a few have achieved Gold and one has attained Platinum. Buildings are evaluated in categories including sustainable sites, energy and atmosphere, water efficiency and indoor environmental quality. The Certified standard requires at least 40 points out of a possible 110 —Silver requires 50, Gold requires 60 and Platinum requires 80.

“Justin and I saw universities as unique environments in which green buildings were likely to be created, because they have long-time horizons when making decisions,” Vitarelli said. “So we thought Duke... would be interested in a more sustainable campus and buildings that were cheaper to maintain in long run.”

President Richard Brodhead said the LEED certification system is an integral part of the University’s commitment to environmental consciousness.

“We have done a ton of building, and every choice you make, you can make in a way that promotes the goals of sustainability or that is taxing to the environment,” Brodhead said. “The point of the LEED movement is just to make us mindful of the choices we have and the differential impacts of those choices.”

Executive Vice President Tallman Trask said Duke currently has 21 certified LEED buildings and 12 going through the certification process. This adds up to 2.5 million square feet of LEED certified space, which places Duke in the top ranks among American universities, Trask said. Other top institutions include Arizona Statue University, Harvard University, the University of Florida and the University of Washington.

Duke currently has more than two dozen Certified and Silver buildings and two Gold—the East Campus Steam Plant and the Ocean Science Teaching Center at the Marine Lab in Beaufort, N.C. The single Platinum building is the Smart Home—which became the first residence in the world to gain Platinum certification in 2008.

Trask noted that because buildings generate a major portion of the University’s carbon footprint, sustainable construction and operation plays a key role in keeping those emissions down.

“It’s more avoidance of new [carbon emissions] than reducing existing [emissions],” he said. “The buildings are the biggest carbon emitters there are, so being able to hold those numbers down on new buildings doesn’t get us toward neutrality, but it doesn’t make the problem worse.”

Sustainable architecture also has financial benefits for the University— especially when energy is used more efficiently. Cash Davidson, manager for planning and engineering for Facilities Management, said that Certified and Silver buildings are especially cost effective. He noted the additional construction cost for these projects can run as low as 2 percent and that this is recuperated in energy savings in the long term.

“Duke is not a developer,” Davidson said. “We’re here for the duration, so our buildings are expected to last 50 to 75 years. So, certainly over the 50 year life of a building we’ll more than pay back any additional cost of Certified and Silver.”

Davidson explained that planning for LEED certification begins early in the design process for a building, with engineers and designers dividing the possible points on the scorecard into categories of Yes, No and Maybe. The engineering team then runs a cost-benefit analysis of the Maybe points, to determine whether or not they should attempt to meet those requirements. At the end of the day, Davidson said the University focuses on the points within the LEED program that will provide a sound payback.

Trask noted that, in any building project, the University must balance possible environmental savings with additional building costs.

“At the Gold and Platinum levels, it’s a fairly expensive proposition and the payback is less clear if not uncertain,” Trask said. “At Certified and Silver levels it’s both environmental and economic.”

Upcoming LEED construction projects include Duke’s new Kunshan, China campus, which Trask said is on track to receive Silver certification, and the recently announced renovations of Page Auditorium, West Union and Baldwin Auditorum, sponsored by an $80 million grant from The Duke Endowment.

“This is not a marginal concern of ours,” Brodhead said. “It has become one of the essential things we consider when we make architectural choices.”

Joanna Lichter contributed reporting.


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