Sustainability in Higher Education: 3 Steps to Reinvest in Sustainability

This post is based on research that informed the definitive report on sustainability in higher education, “State of Sustainability 2016: The Life Cycle of Higher Education Facilities”, from Sightlines and the University of New Hampshire.  Download the report here to see complete findings. 

Many higher education campuses now face growing capital need in their facilities as major life cycles from the 1970s building boom come due. In the Sightlines database, annual capital reinvestment need has climbed steadily since 2010 and is projected to reach $6 billion by 2027, a 50% increase against current levels. Sector-wide, the accumulated need will be even greater.

As campuses replace aging building components, there are opportunities to upgrade to more efficient systems and improve sustainability performance. But according to a recent report by Sightlines and UNH, few institutions systematically capitalize on this chance: only 14% of all LEED-certified projects in US higher education focus on improvements in existing buildings.

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Sustainable reinvestment is largely informal

Institutions do show signs of reacting to growing need. Historically, capital spending across the Sightlines database has focused on new construction rather than existing space upkeep: in 2007, less than half (49%) of total dollars went to existing space. By 2015, the share of dollars reinvested into existing buildings rose to 57%.

However, attention to sustainability during reinvestment is rare. Use of the LEED sustainability schema for existing buildings is uncommon relative to new construction. LEED BD+C, which governs new construction, accounts for 86% of all LEED certified projects in higher education. Meanwhile, LEED ID+C, which governs interior spaces only, accounts for 12% of projects. LEED O+M – which includes capital upgrades to improve existing building performance – accounts for just 2% of projects.

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Without a guiding framework like LEED, sustainability considerations play a largely informal role in reinvestment decisions. Sustainability principles may not be fully integrated into planning and design, and the perceived price premiums for sustainable choices can make them vulnerable to cost cuts. Consequently, institutions miss the opportunity to maximize the impact of their reinvested dollars.

Reversing this trend will be crucial as capital needs grow and reinvestment becomes a higher priority on campuses. Institutions can take three steps to start “reinvesting” in sustainability:

1.  Formalize sustainability for existing buildings projects. Mainstream adoption of LEED for new construction is evidence that formal sustainability policy can drive better outcomes. 80% of Second Nature Carbon Commitment institutions have policies requiring new construction on campus to meet or exceed LEED Silver standards. As a result, LEED for new construction is popular sector-wide: to date[1], higher education has over 2,700 LEED-certified new construction projects. According to Heather Finnegan, Sustainability Product Manager at Sightlines, “If frameworks for existing buildings gained similar recognition, a sustainable approach to reinvestment could quickly become regimented on college campuses.”

2.  Consider life-cycle ROI. Price premiums for sustainable alternatives may evaporate when considering lifespan, risk, and total cost of ownership, including maintenance and disposal costs. “Systems installed today will remain on campuses for decades,” says Finnegan. “Make reinvestment choices based on how they will impact the long-term ability of your facilities staff to do their jobs efficiently, effectively, and in budget.”

3.  Track incremental improvements. Measuring real sustainability outcomes from reinvestment efforts allows sustainability officers to both identify successful practices and course-correct as needed. Recently, USGBC and GBCI launched Arc, a LEED-integrated digital tool for real-time performance tracking to help existing buildings make incremental progress toward becoming more efficient, healthier, and regenerative spaces. (For more on this, please check page 26 of the Sightlines/UNH report.)

[1] Based on US & Canadian projects certified 2015 or earlier