The Growing Influence of LEED Certification in Higher Education

Higher education plays a significant role in guiding society towards a sustainable future. It does so through research and community engagement, and by cultivating the knowledge, skills, and attributes of students that will empower a new generation to address emergent ecological and climate crises around the world. Education provides students with the tools to take responsibility for their lifestyles, nurturing a healthy human-nature relationship.

Across the country, universities have recognized the adverse effects of former practices, subsequently overhauling their curriculum, research, estate management, and community engagement to create a more sustainability-directed campus culture. Campus sustainability is no longer deemed a luxury but rather a core institutional value, one that reaches across all domains of campus life.

The built environment has a profound impact on our natural environment. In the U.S., buildings account for 39 percent of carbon dioxide emissions and 71 percent of total electricity consumption. With roughly 240,000 buildings spread across public and private universities—those spread across more than 4,300 higher education institutions—higher education benefits from making green building a central element of sustainability planning. Central to campus sustainability are the continued efforts to design and construct LEED-certified buildings, those which prioritize six key areas of human and environmental health: sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection, indoor environmental quality, and innovation in design. As the nationally accepted benchmark for the design, construction, and maintenance of high-performance green buildings, LEED provides building owners and operators the necessary tools to have an immediate and measurable impact on their buildings’ performance.

Moreover, the social and economic benefits of LEED certification are many. For instance, certification shows the community that the university is serious about adopting environmentally responsible building practices. This not only enhances the university’s reputation with the public, but it also serves as a vital recruitment and retention tool for students, staff, and faculty alike. There are also numerous financial benefits to LEED certification. According to the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), LEED buildings may qualify for a host of incentives, including tax rebates; thousands of buildings save institutions money, using less energy and reducing maintenance costs by nearly 20 percent. Outside of higher education, the USGBC reports that 87 percent of companies which adopted LEED retrofits experienced higher productivity, 81 percent saw better retention rates, and 75 percent reported better employee health. Also, 79 percent of company employees say they would choose a job in an LEED-certified building versus an uncertified one. The same benefits extend to higher education—imagine, for example, the impact of LEED buildings on boosting the desirability and occupancy of student living spaces, classrooms, libraries, and administrative workspaces, among many others.

LEED-Certified Recreation and Wellness Facilities

An ongoing shift in campus-based culture, one set in motion most of all by the desires and expectations of the student body, is located at the intersection of sustainability and recreation and wellness facilities. Students recognize, perhaps inherently, the reciprocal relationship between notions of wellness and sustainability. LEED-certified recreation and wellness facilities accentuate an institution’s commitment to health and wellness, just as they satisfy student concerns about sustainability and climate change. Students care deeply about optimizing their physical and mental health, and their awareness of the dangers of climate change are as heightened as ever. Research shows that students view recreation and wellness facilities as communal spaces, as those which nurture a sense of connection and belonging. These are facilities that are integral to student life, and LEED certification only strengthens students’ sense of togetherness and the feeling of shared values. Studies also persuasively demonstrate the correlation between improved well-being and student achievement in the classroom. LEED-certified learning spaces be a game changer in terms of enhancing student achievement and happiness.

LEED-certified recreation and wellness facilities adopt an ethos that can be summarized as “healthy buildings, healthy bodies.” Central to such facilities are green features, energy-saving lighting fixtures that can be adjusted based on the availability of natural light, and heating and air conditioning units that are run on low-energy usage. The installation of low-flow plumbing systems and waterless urinals further reduces water consumption. Other eco-friendly features may include the use of reclaimed lumber and the incorporation of new technology like biometric scanners, those which cut down paper waste and generate utility savings. Irrigation needs of facilities are frequently met through 100 percent recycled water. For instance, numerous LEED-certified facilities include a pool discharge and on-site greywater system for collecting and treating water for landscape irrigation. Displacement ventilation systems, LED lighting, and photovoltaics offset building energy consumption and energy cost. A common practice in certified facilities also includes robust recycling policies for cardboard, aluminum, plastic bottles, light bulbs, paper, batteries, lost cell phones, even eyeglasses found on site.

Procedures for Earning LEED Certification

While LEED certification is a widely known, internationally recognized sustainable building certification, it is useful to revisit what the acronym stands for: Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. Certification involves a rating system for the construction, design, maintenance, and operations of environmentally responsible buildings. Projects align with several certification pathways: Building Design and Construction (BD&C), Operations and Maintenance (O&M), Interior Design and Construction (ID&C), in addition to Homes and Neighborhood Development (ND). LEED certification works on a points-based system. The higher the score, the more sustainable the building—and therefore, the higher level of certification. Each category has its own rating system. For example, the O&M certification includes points for location and transportation (alternative transportation), sustainable sites (rainwater management, light pollution reduction, etc.), water efficiency (indoor water use reduction, water metering, etc.), energy and atmosphere (minimum energy performance), materials and resources (ongoing purchasing and waste policy, solid waste management, etc.), indoor environmental quality (minimum indoor air quality performance), innovation (LEED Accredited Professional), and Regional Priority (schools, data centers, and so on).

The four LEED certification levels are Certified (40-49 points), Silver (50-59 points), Gold (60-79 points), and Platinum (80 or more points). Despite the challenges, universities are achieving Platinum certification. Consider, for instance, Columbia University’s sustainable design and overall project plan for its 17-acre Manhattanville campus. Columbia earned Platinum status for Neighborhood Development, the first certification of its kind in New York City. Columbia is also home to over 15 Gold-certified LEED buildings. At Georgetown, one of its residential buildings—located a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol and steps away from Georgetown Law and the School of Continuing Studies—was the first at the university to achieve Platinum status. At the University of Miami, the Phillip and Patricia Frost School of Music achieved Platinum certification with a remarkable array of sustainable features: modulated electrochromic glazing on windows that reduce glass and heat; mold and stain-resistant framing materials for air-quality protection; light and heat sensors with override capabilities; active-chilled-beam, energy-efficient air conditioning technology; rooftop photovoltaic panels and rainwater harvesting cisterns that dramatically reduce water and electricity usage; smart glass that can be electronically tinted or cleared to optimize daylight; solar energy; and finally, anti-smog coating on facades, which help to clean the air and make exterior surfaces easier to clean over time.

With an increasingly competitive higher education market, campus-based environmental initiatives remain a major factor in students’ enrollment decisions. As reported by the College Hopes & Worries Survey Report, nearly 70 percent of 10,000 Princeton Review respondents said that having “a way to compare colleges based on their commitment to environmental issues” would contribute to their decision to apply. Higher education has taken note, and the LEED revolution is well underway.

About the Author
David Vinson, PUPN staff writer, has a PhD in English with specializations in transatlantic literature and cultural studies. He is a committed scholar, teacher, husband, and dad. If you ever meet David, avoid the subject of soccer. His fandom borders on the truly obnoxious.