Vassar College must adopt Green Building Guidelines

Solar panels were installed on the roofs of the Vassar Barn in 2018 as a part of the College’s commitment to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030. These solar panels generate enough electricity to power the Barn, in addition to other buildings on the Ecological Preserve. Courtesy of Karl Rabe/Vassar College.

In 2016, Vassar committed to reaching carbon neutrality by 2030. However, the current building construction, maintenance and renovation process does not yet fully incorporate this goal. In order to meet carbon neutrality, Vassar must commit to being sustainable at every level of the building process. Establishing Green Building Guidelines will demonstrate what is possible for Vassar and set a standard for building efficiency and technological innovation. Green Building Guidelines are a set of recommendations that create a path for anyone working on an institutional building or renovation project. The group currently working on the guidelines for Vassar intends for these to be a more specific and effective set of standards that are more useful for the college than a general standard like the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standard. These guidelines are also essential for creating buildings that meet sustainability goals while remaining cost efficient.

In order to receive recognition for its efficiency and sustainability, a building must have specific certifications that require a variety of qualifications. While the most commonly known certification is the LEED standards, the more stringent Living Building Challenge certification has a targeted approach to sustainability that establishes carbon neutrality as a major goal. As a result, it has recently grew in popularity due to its stricter regulations. At the moment, Vassar has achieved a LEED Silver in The Bridge, New England and Sanders Physics. We are hoping to build upon these achievements by incorporating various aspects of the LEED and Living Building Challenge standards into the Green Building Guidelines.

EVConnect charging stations located near Josselyn House provide free charging for electric cars. With 85 percent of the equipment cost covered by NYSERDA, these charging stations were implemented to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030.
Courtesy of Jackson Hardin ’19/Vassar College.

Over the past several years, Facilities Operations has begun to implement sustainable practices throughout campus. Vassar has received grants from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) to replace all outdoor lighting with LED bulbs. This switch will not only cut electricity usage in half, but the new LED bulbs will last for fifteen years, compared to just six months with conventional bulbs. Vassar has also worked with NYSERDA to build two public EVConnect electric vehicle charging stations located by Josselyn House for anyone to use. Additionally, facilities now follow an energy conservation policy which “outlines steps to conserve energy and reach the energy and sustainability goals of the campus.” The energy conservation policy aims to ensure lights, heating/cooling elements and any other power drain on campus are turned off when the building is unoccupied. As a result, this protocol provides building heating and cooling set points for both daytime and nighttime, which vary between the residential, academic and administrative buildings. Another part of this policy discourages the use of personal space heaters. In addition, Facilities Operations has installed some low-flow toilets in several buildings on campus in order to reduce water usage.

There are also plans to convert the central heating plant from natural gas to biofuel, which would lower the College’s carbon emissions. This particular project has a four-to-five year payback time and sets up the college for a gradual shift to a geothermal heating system. As a heating system that uses thermal energy stored in the earth as a renewable resource, a geothermal system would not contribute to Vassar’s emissions. Geothermal would ultimately lead Vassar’s transition from a traditional, centralized heating system to decentralized heating, where each new building would generate its own renewable energy. This change would then reduce the burden on a central heating plant as well as prevent significant heat lost caused by distribution.

The above image displays the breakdown of Vassar’s emissions as part of its Climate Action Plan in 2015. It serves to categorize the sources of the emissions to guide the College community in the proper direction for improving sustainability.
Courtesy of Green Building Guidelines Working Group.

More recently, Vassar has been working to purchase renewable electricity. Fifteen percent of the electricity (0.8 megawatts) which the campus purchases comes from BQ Energy, a community solar project in Esopus, NY. Another ten percent of the electricity Vassar purchases is hydroelectric, originating from Gravity Renewables in Beacon, NY. Additionally, solar panels were installed during the summer of 2018 on the roof of the Vassar barn, after being proposed by a group of students. These panels completely meet all of the barn’s energy needs while providing energy to spare for other buildings on the Ecological Preserve. The array of 290-watt panels will reduce our annual fossil fuel emissions by 24 metric tons of carbon dioxide and produce about 33,000 kilowatt hours per year (Vassar Stories, “The Barn Is Now Powered by the Sun,” 10.3.2018).

Despite progress on renewable electricity purchases, building efficiency and emissions reductions, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done for building sustainability. Vassar’s building stock is comprised of mostly historic structures that lack efficient envelopes, which shield the inside environment from the outside conditions. Building envelopes help regulate the indoor climate by enclosing the space inside the building, controlling the airflow while still taking the form and use of the building into account. Historic buildings require constant renovation to ensure they are fit for use, yet they still lack effective insulation. Thus, the College needs to focus on decreasing energy use in buildings by retrofitting and planning energy-efficient methods for all the buildings before construction. More efficient energy processes and tighter insulation will allow the buildings to operate on less energy. With clear goals and a streamlined planning process, building projects can achieve sustainability goals with little to no extra cost (Bard College, “New Construction and Renovation Policy,” 02.2017). Thus, energy efficiency and sustainable heating technology should be as high of a priority as other important building considerations, like cost and design.

We encourage Facilities Operations to take sustainable initiatives throughout the design process in all campus construction projects. For example, life cycle cost analysis can determine the costs and savings a building will accrue both initially and across its entire lifespan. This is especially important for building renovations. With new buildings, highly efficient construction often costs just two to three percent more than conventional construction, while renovations of existing buildings can exhibit a much greater cost difference (Bard College, “New Construction and Renovation Policy,” 02.2017). Although a more sustainable building project might have higher upfront costs, elements like tightly sealed building envelopes or highly efficient heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems will contribute to reducing building operating costs in the long term. On the other hand, investments in the most cutting-edge, green-building technologies don’t always pay off. Conducting proper life cycle cost analysis on sustainable building options will help Vassar maximize its green potential within the parameters of its budget when it comes to building renovation and construction.

As a group of students concerned about the sustainability of Vassar’s campus, we created an independent study to further develop the Green Building Guidelines for the college. Our goal is to create a collaborative final document by the end of the semester that is both attainable and meets the campus’ need for eliminating our carbon footprint. Implementing Green Building Guidelines is not only essential to create truly sustainable buildings, but Vassar will also benefit from taking a lead on environmental stewardship.

Authors: Melissa Hoffmann, Jameson McLennan, Jack Oliver, Isabella Rico, Kathlyn Doroski, Ethan Murray, Sonali Deshpande, & Mary Ann Cunningham

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