UW must adopt green campus housing to achieve sustainable future

Innovative energy, building technologies invite opportunity for greater environmental responsibility

· Aug 13, 2022 Tweet

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Abby Cima/The Badger Herald

While to an extent “sustainability” has become something of a buzzword in climate change discourses, it actually represents a critical step in preserving a livable global environment. Broadly, the Environmental Protection Agency defines sustainability as a balance between human needs and natural resources that can be maintained for future generations.

This concept applies to countless human activities and student housing is no exception. Accommodating a large student population does not always translate into environmentally responsible development.

For one, the number of enrolled students at the University of Wisconsin has been increasing for years. A record high was reached in 2022, with more than 46,000 students enrolled. The freshman class, 90 percent of which lives in campus housing, has nearly doubled since 2018. 

Naturally, housing a growing student population becomes a challenge when UW is also tasked with keeping costs relatively affordable. Already, UW-Madison is the most expensive school in the UW system, so housing prices are a point of concern for incoming students. Unfortunately, the tradeoff with readily available energy, appliances and utility systems is that they are not always the most sustainable options.

Another issue comes with the age of many UW residence halls. The oldest dorm on campus was built in 1913, and while these buildings have seen some cosmetic updates, installing more efficient systems could require deep retrofitting, which can be technically challenging.

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To be fair, UW Housing is not inattentive to issues of sustainability. Ongoing initiatives set standards related to water use, waste reduction and energy efficiency. According to the housing website, UW employs several strategies to emphasize the “stewardship of resources” on campus.

May 19, the UW Office of Sustainability announced its second Silver rating in the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System (STARS). The system measures several categories of sustainability and assigns participating institutions an itemized score based on their active initiatives in environmental responsibility. 

UW earned an overall score of 59.88 of 100, claiming notable advancements from 2007 to 2020 in building energy efficiency (22% reduction in source energy use) and waste minimization and diversion (27% reduction in total waste generated), as well as achievements in areas of research and scholarship.

The full STARS report, however, reveals several areas in need of serious improvement.

From 2007 to 2020, UW reduced its carbon emissions by about 300,000 metric tons. Nonetheless, the Greenhouse Gas Emissions rating on the STARS report was just 2.41 of 8. This discrepancy can be attributed to the lack of carbon offsets and the failure to meet a minimum performance threshold of emissions per square meter. 

Even more concerning was a rating of zero in the Clean and Renewable Energy category. STARS uses a unit called the Metric Million British Thermal Unit (MMBtu), which is a common measure of the heat energy in a certain volume of natural gas. Compared to the total energy consumption (4,733,834.82 MMBtu), UW generated a negligible amount of renewable energy (232 MMBtu)—nowhere near enough to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

In the Building Design and Construction category, UW earned 1.25 of 3 points because there are 2,383,149 square feet of buildings constructed within a green building framework, though without any official certification. 

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Interestingly, the Operations page on the UW Sustainability website touts Leopold residence hall as a “green building,” citing the achievement of a Gold certification from Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) in 2013. Second only to Platinum, a Gold rating indicates a project with a high level of innovative sustainability.

The STARS assessment, however, reports no Gold LEED certified buildings in 2022. According to the LEED website, certification only lasts three years, and must be re-certified accordingly. Leopold residence hall was last certified almost 10 years ago, making the Gold LEED rating invalid.

Clearly, UW has room for improvement in the investment of sustainable student housing. Despite the challenges, green student housing is certainly possible. Granite Pass residence hall at the University of California Merced is a stellar example.

UC-Merced received the highest rating possible—Platinum—in its 2022 STARS report, previously attaining one Silver and two Gold ratings. All new campus buildings are required to be Gold LEED certified or higher. Granite Pass has a Platinum LEED certification.

The student housing facility has several sustainability accomplishments, with some of the most notable ones in areas of “Water Efficiency,” “Energy and Atmosphere,” “Materials and Resources” and “Sustainable Sites.” 

For example, the building uses efficient plumbing fixtures that reduce water use in toilets, faucets and shower heads. Also, at least 13% of the building’s energy is renewable and produced on-site with solar panels. At least 50% of wood materials used in Granite Pass are certified with the Forest Stewardship Council to ensure sustainably sourced lumber. Finally, the building was developed so as not to disturb important geological features and to restore native vegetation after construction.

Of course, the latter two accommodations would be difficult—if not impossible—to achieve in existing structures. But water efficient plumbing and increased solar power generators could be realistically retrofitted. Whether these sustainable features are included in new or existing structures, they all represent feasible goals for the future of UW housing. 

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Naturally, concerns may arise over potential expenses. Students have every right to worry about how the implementation of innovative technologies may impact tuition or housing costs. 

In the long-term, however, sustainable development actually reduces energy costs, because we wouldn’t have to depend on diminishing fossil fuel reserves. A transition to renewable energy would lower costs for everyday Madison students and Americans alike. Ultimately, sustainability, when viewed as the way to guarantee a future of life on earth, is our only option. Not only can we afford it, but we have to.

UW clearly has intentions to operate more sustainably, and housing improvements are a concrete, necessary step in making lasting change. As a highly ranked university on both a national and global scale, UW has an obligation to lead efforts in environmental responsibility. With concerted efforts moving forward, student housing lends itself as a meaningful opportunity for a more sustainable future.

Celia Hiorns ([email protected]) is a sophomore studying journalism and political science.

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This article was published Aug 13, 2022 at 2:08 pm and last updated Oct 10, 2022 at 8:52 pm

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