Decarbonizing The Campus of The Future

By Julian Astbury, Patrick McCafferty and Erin McConahey

The COVID-19 crisis significantly impacted the world of higher education, affecting cultural, societal, and institutional norms in unprecedented ways. As campuses begin to recover from this disruptive period, colleges and universities are faced with a choice: try as best they can to get back to the old “normal,” or seize the transformational opportunities that the pandemic has revealed by fundamentally changing the way they design, adapt, and engage campuses for an increasingly demanding and discerning student body while working towards aggressive climate-centered goals.

Presently, forward-thinking schools are seeking to make a significant, positive impact to a critical sector of the global real estate market. With the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently warning that, “while we can’t predict exactly when or where the next epidemic or pandemic will begin, we know one is coming,” (CDC, 2022) facilities managers are adopting new and innovative techniques to ensure the wellbeing of their students and faculty – with special attention being paid to creating safer, more flexible, and more sustainable gathering environments.

Due to COVID-19, the last few years in higher education have also been characterized by a phenomenal sector-wide pivot from hundreds of years of in-person instruction to the now common practice of online and hybrid learning. With disruption to both learning and auxiliary spending by students on campus, institutional revenue has been negatively affected – putting pressures on both time and budgets. In this environment, it may be hard to see how asset decarbonization factors into the immediate future, especially considering ongoing public health crises. Additionally, in response to the deafening crescendo of demand from inspired student bodies, campus planners are looking to revamp outdated design standards by embracing sustainability, resiliency, and innovative energy solutions.

However, faced with hard budgetary realities, administrators are often forced to do more with less, specifically looking to maximize the functionality of existing building stock, even as regulatory standards for improved energy performance and carbon neutrality demands increase. But the repeated “hacking” of many aging assets has made it increasingly more difficult for facilities staff to maintain operations necessary to support the core missions of research and teaching. Quite often in academia, donors support new construction but do not endow the ongoing upgrades necessary to keep a building modernized and running at peak performance. With constrained annual funding, the key question on the ground is now: “How does one fit decarbonization of assets into an annual budgetary cycle so that funding can be planned for the future at the speed to meet public commitments?”

Taking a step back to gain perspective, it is evident that decades of student advocacy and faculty research have established many universities as centers of excellence for sustainability. To support this sector-wide effort, the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP) published a roadmap to carbon-neutral institutions in 2017. From the report, it is clear that many campuses have already initiated climate action planning, utility masterplanning, and energy procurement strategies with reduction trajectories for carbon emissions and all other forms of waste management that may burden future generations. Colleges and universities can demonstrate their leadership among both internal and external communities by acting in concert with a commitment to these science-based goals, especially as utility energy masterplanning has become a key sector focus.

In a recent case study, Arup partnered with UCLA on their decarbonization masterplan, working together to understand how they could meet aggressive University of California goals to decarbonize their campus energy network. Our multidisciplinary approach considered a range of options including cogeneration, renewable energy, and high efficiency distributed energy resources. By implementing Arup’s recommended conservation measures and renewable energy scenarios, UCLA could save up to 40% on carbon emissions and 34% on a 25-year life cycle.

Likewise, renewable energy procurement is a major focus across universities when it comes to decarbonization. This focus is clearly demonstrated by Arup’s multidisciplinary design of Cornell Tech’s Emma and Georgina Bloomberg Center on Roosevelt Island in New York City. Working alongside our design collaborators at Morphosis, this project showcased how an innovative design team and forward-thinking owner can push the boundaries of active design to create a large-scale net-zero energy building. The Center anchors a new concept for an academic campus and innovation hub. The team’s integrated design approach produced an exemplary green building that incorporates sustainability and smart building goals – using half of the operational energy of comparable buildings with the added benefits of solar power.

When examined as two possible models, the solutions developed at UCLA and Cornell University offer actionable insights for other colleges looking to set more aggressive energy goals in their long-term, strategic development plans.

As academic institutions become increasingly influential in the real estate sector, a critical next step is

to develop clear climate action plans and sustainability guidelines that speak to their unique needs, challenges, and financial constraints. To fully capitalize on this transformational moment, maintenance and system upgrades must be integrated into annual budgets in balance with executive climate commitments. In addition to addressing the needs of students, faculty, and other stakeholders; a typical sustainability assessment should also evaluate each asset including the age of the equipment, current energy sources, the energy demands of each building, and the availability of proposed efficiency measures. While complex, deep efficiency is available at the building level, universities both big and small are already working towards ­­­­­and achieving near net zero energy using only renewable energy sources. Some institutions have even achieved the highest levels of recognition for their efforts. Arup has been extremely proud to have contributed to the recent success of Colby College’s Harold Alfond Athletics and Recreation Center and Bowdoin College’s Roux Center for the Environment – both which garnered LEED Platinum certification. At Northeastern University’s LEED Gold-certified Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex, the Arup-designed systems outperform Massachusetts’ rigorous Stretch Energy Code requirements for new buildings by 30%.

The global pandemic caused a tidal wave of disruption – impacting cultural, societal, and institutional norms in unprecedented ways­­­ among the nation’s institutions of higher education. These challenges notwithstanding, the pandemic has revealed transformational opportunities with the potential to fundamentally change the way we design – leading our industry down the path towards greater climate-resilient buildings.

Authors: Julian Astbury, Principal, Arup; Patrick McCafferty, Americas East Education Leader, Arup; and Erin McConahey, Arup Fellow.