Campus & Community

The biggest challenge of sustainability: Changing minds

7 min read

In 1999, the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) made plans to move its offices to the Landmark Center, a converted Sears, Roebuck and Co. warehouse in Boston.

Danny Beaudoin — the School’s manager of operations, energy, and utilities — was asked to look into sustainable design for the renovation: a realm of low-emitting paints, abundant natural light, and high-efficiency lighting and ventilation.

“Behind the scenes, I said, ‘No way,’” said Beaudoin, remembering his early skepticism. “We had a program, and it worked. I thought this sustainability thing was all smoke and mirrors. Not the Harvard way.” He wrote a study that argued against the green plan — and won.

Then during his long daily commute, Beaudoin was haunted by doubts. “I made the connection to the (public health) mission of the School,” he recalled. “I said, ‘Jeez, I’m going down the wrong road.’”

That fall, at a workshop on sustainable design held by the U.S. Green Building Council, Beaudoin was still the hardened skeptic, but lost every argument. “Every time I opened my mouth,” he said, “people would put my foot back in it.” By the end of the workshop, Beaudoin was a convert — and ready to reimagine the Landmark Center project.

The green version of the Landmark plan — Harvard’s first sustainable building project, finished in 2001 — cost $200,000 less than the conventional one would have. Today, the refurbished space is 27 percent more energy efficient than code, a savings of $30,000 a year.

“For me, Landmark is the best soapbox,” said Beaudoin, pointing to it as a showcase for added value, accountability, and due diligence for renovations.

The onetime skeptic is now a spokesman for Harvard’s sustainable building practices — which reduce pollution, save money, and boost productivity, he said. “We went after everything after (Landmark). It helped all of Harvard.”

Beaudoin’s story proves that sustainability means more than better buildings and clean energy and recycling. It means changing minds.

“The challenge of sustainability is all about people,” said Tom Vautin, Harvard’s associate vice president for Facilities and Environmental Services. “It’s anchored in the many individual decisions we make every day — in our work and in our personal lives.”

Seven years after the start of the Harvard Green Campus Initiative (HGCI), he said, the University is at a “tipping point,” fully primed to change. (The HGCI is a clearinghouse, service provider, and advocate for campus sustainability projects; its many hundreds of projects save Harvard more than $7 million a year in reduced water, energy, and waste requirements.)

HGCI director Leith Sharp, an Australian-educated environmental engineer, agreed that Harvard has begun to embrace sustainability.

“Now that we have so many talented people on board, we’re addressing the very systems of our organization,” she said. “We’re removing the remaining barriers and embedding the right incentives for continual wide-scale engagement — to make Harvard a global model of campus sustainability.”

For one, said Sharp, look at the gradual shift toward high-efficiency building and retrofits. Harvard Real Estate Services, the Central Administration entity that manages a third of Harvard’s 600-plus buildings, has started to do yearly energy audits, and requires sustainable design for all new structures.

And look at outreach, said Sharp. Undergraduate and graduate peer-to-peer education started from zero five years ago, and now reaches 10,000 students a year — 6,000 of them undergraduates who get regular House lessons on recycling, efficient lighting, and the ecological advantages of brief showers.

Behavioral change programs implemented across campus drew a lot of skepticism a few years ago, said Sharp. But they helped boost Harvard’s recycling rate to over 45 percent and helped reduce energy usage at targeted buildings by around 10 percent.

Meanwhile, the principles of sustainability have reached into every corner of Harvard’s administrative culture, from the folks who drive the shuttles and clean the buildings, to those who make the food, buy the power, teach the courses, manage the real estate, and do the purchasing.

Mary H. Smith, Harvard’s manager of Energy Supply and Utility Administration, said attitudes have changed just in the five years she’s been on staff. “When I arrived, the Green Campus group existed, but there was very little activity regarding renewables,” she said. “Now it’s a very important part of our strategy. It’s a completely different world.”

Last year, Smith brokered a 10-year deal to buy renewable energy credits from a wind turbine operation in Hull, Mass. It will net Harvard 50 million kilowatt hours of renewable energy over the life of the agreement.

Projects and programs on energy usage “are multiplying every year” and will save money, said Jay M. Phillips, Harvard’s director of Building Infrastructure and Operations. Support for cost-cutting green programs comes in part from rising utility rates, he said. Last year, energy rates for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) alone went up $7 million, bringing the total bill to $40 million.

Rising fuel prices — and tightening regulatory demands — have also stimulated change at Harvard University Transportation Services. For the past three years, its fleet of 67 diesel-powered vehicles has run on B-20, a low-polluting biodiesel that blends conventional diesel and soy oil. And the next frontier will be looking at cleaner fuels for Harvard’s fleet of 160 gasoline-powered vehicles. “We’re staying ahead of the regulatory curve,” said manager David E. Harris Jr. “We want to be a world leader in what we do.”

After some initial skepticism about biodiesel, drivers and mechanics have “absolutely” bought into the idea of sustainable fuels, he said. “The culture was very receptive. There was support from the top down to go forward with this project.”

Jason Luke ’94, who manages custodial staff for Facilities Maintenance Operations, sees the same kind of culture swing toward sustainable practices. “The momentum has been building for the last 10 years,” he said.

Green cleaning products a decade ago were on the fringe — hard to get, expensive, and not always reliable, said Luke, whose 250 staffers clean 40 percent of Harvard’s building space. “Over time, they’ve become the accepted norm, the default way of doing things.”

Staff acceptance for low-impact cleaners and microfiber mops comes easily, he added. “We’re not reinventing the wheel here.”

The people Biba Celan Bryant works with in Financial Administration are not reinventing the wheel either, but — in a way — they’re buying a lot of them.

Bryant, a contract manager with Strategic Procurement, is working with the HGCI to modernize purchasing at Harvard’s welter of decentralized faculties and offices.

Current purchasing practices are not very sustainable, she said. In the arena of office supplies alone, Harvard’s disconnected purchasing agents last year bought 15,000 separate items. No economies of scale there, or unifying policies to make sustainable purchases.

“There are a lot of soloists,” said Bryant, a onetime capital markets researcher who is one of four visiting Administrative Fellows at Harvard. “We have incredible resources, and they aren’t being used efficiently.”

But in June, she said, an “eProcurement” pilot program will start at Harvard Law School, parts of Harvard Medical School, and at Financial Administration. Rolling out over two years, the program will test ways to simplify procurement operations, lower costs, increase buying leverage — and improve access to environmentally friendly vendors.

“This will revolutionize the way Harvard thinks about procurement,” said Bryant.

While the University changes the way it does business, sustainability principles penetrate the home life of Harvard staffers. Phillips, the Harvard administrator who influences how millions are spent a year on FAS buildings and energy, finds himself thinking twice about where his own trash goes. “Individual efforts mean a lot,” he said.

And HSPH’s Beaudoin, who changed his mind about sustainable building during a long driving commute, has moved closer to work. He said, “I had to reduce my footprint.”