Campus & Community

Harvard takes the LEED in green buildings

5 min read

If you could fly in a small plane over Harvard, looking down wouldn’t tell you much about the University’s sustainable buildings.

You’d see a few “green roofs,” the engineered vegetation that slows down storm water and enhances cooling and heating.

You’d see the shiny solar array on the roof of Shad Hall at Harvard Business School, which on a sunny day can turn out 36 kilowatts of renewable power.

But for the most part, even at ground level, it’s hard to tell a sustainable building from any other. Energy-saving geothermal power systems are packed into basements like any heating and cooling hardware. The deep wells they rely on, just inches across and up to 1,500 feet down, are invisible to passersby.

And even the outward signs of sustainable building design — nontoxic paints, renewable wood flooring, recycled carpet, and dual-flush toilets among them — are hard to distinguish from older technologies, which are more environmentally costly to make, install, and use.

Harvard owns more than 600 buildings; 23 of them are LEED registered or certified — more than any other university. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, the set of standards for sustainable buildings and interiors established by the U.S. Green Building Council. For building green, LEED is the gold standard.

Twenty-three may not sound like a big number, but in 2001 there were no LEED projects at Harvard — and getting to 23 so fast is a mark of “exponential growth,” said Thomas Vautin, associate vice president for facilities and environmental services.

Look at that growth another way. In 2001, the Harvard Green Campus Initiative (HGCI), which among many services offers advice on LEED projects, had one staffer. By this summer, there will be 20, along with 40 students working part time on peer outreach.

Or look at the way sustainable buildings save money and reduce pollution. Education, advisement, and energy-reduction programs at HGCI saved Harvard about $7 million last year, up from $400,000 in 2002. The LEED buildings and interiors already in place also contribute towards Harvard’s achievement of reducing greenhouse gas pollution by 90 million pounds of CO2 a year.

Anywhere you go, buildings exact the highest environmental cost because of all the energy and material it takes to build and maintain them. So bricks and mortar are at the heart of any attempt at sustainability. (In a nutshell, sustainability means living in the present in such a way that resources are conserved for the future.)

LEED details can turn quickly dense and technical. But a good way to summarize sustainable buildings is to use a saying already familiar in medicine: First, do no harm. You can also add: Use less stuff.

Harvard’s first LEED-certified new construction, an Allston graduate student housing complex known as One Western Avenue, was designed to be up to 50 percent more energy-efficient than required by code. It has a thermally efficient white/high-albedo roof that reduces the solar heat radiating from most dark, flat city roofs — a weather-altering phenomenon called “heat island effect.”

Waste heat is recovered from bathroom and kitchen exhaust at One Western Avenue, making the 15-story complex more efficient to heat in the winter. Inside, low-emitting adhesives and sealants used on flooring improve indoor air quality.

Along with ecological benefits, “human health is an equal imperative,” said HGCI founder and director Leith Sharp, an environmental engineer. “It isn’t all about green buildings. It’s about people.”

One Western Avenue is managed by Harvard Real Estate Services (HRES), which in 2001 started a Sustainable Buildings Program in partnership with HGCI. For a sustainability ethic to grow at Harvard, that’s a significant commitment. HRES manages almost a third of the University’s portfolio of buildings.

Unlike One Western Avenue, nearly half of Harvard’s LEED projects are renovations — most often “full-gut” schemes that retain only floors, walls, and roofs.

The three-building complex at 46 Blackstone St., finished a year ago, earned the highest (platinum) LEED rating for a renovation. (It houses the offices of University Operations Services.) In the shadow of a Harvard-owned steam plant near the Charles River, 46 Blackstone’s century-old structures are now a showcase of sustainable building practices. (Engineering, health, design, and other classes often meet there.)

“It looks so ordinary, but it really isn’t,” said HGCI co-chair John Spengler, Harvard’s Akira Yamaguchi Professor of Public Health and Human Habitation.

The building’s air is cooled by a geothermal system running deep underground; ventilation, heat, and light are controlled by occupant sensors; carpeting, furniture, and other interior materials emit no chemicals from adhesives; and high-efficiency lighting is supplemented by daylight.

The 40,000-square-foot renovation at Blackstone costs Harvard no more than a conventional one would have, said Vautin. But it is designed to use half the energy and to reduce water usage by over 40 percent compared with a conventional building.

Other renovations at Harvard spell out the advantages of sustainable construction. In the combined Dunster/Mather kitchen — the first LEED kitchen in the nation — high-efficiency machines compost food waste, recycle cooking oil, and reduce water usage by 200,000 gallons a year. High-tech sensors knock down energy costs.

For years, Harvard has made strides in other areas of sustainability, like recycling rates and hazardous waste management, said Spengler.

But sustainable buildings take that a step further, and make best practices visible, said Spengler. “Buildings are symbolic of our values.”