Higher Education - Is LEED Flunking Out?

Higher Education. In 2009, there were 4,500 higher education institutions in the United States, enrolling more than 20 million students. Assuming about 75 students per building, that would total more than 260,000 buildings. From 2010 through 2015, LEED certified fewer than 1,500 higher education buildings (Figure 1), representing less than 0.7 percent of total higher education buildings.16 Registered proj­ect numbers have ranged between 450 and 550 per year since 2010, with only 422 projects registered (and 393 certified) in 2015. In other words, there has been basically no growth in LEED’s use in higher education over the past six years.

Consider that 685 college and university presidents have signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment and 539 colleges and universities have submitted Climate Action Plans, and you might conclude that there is only a weak connection in the minds of most universities between using LEED and their choices for carbon reduction initiatives. The bottom line: LEED is only marginally relevant to higher education’s carbon emission reduction efforts.

For my forthcoming book, Reinventing Green Building, we interviewed Richard Michal, Executive Director and Chief Facilities Officer at Butler University, a private mid-sized university in Indianapolis, Indiana. He acknowledged that while campus sustainability has green building as a key component, operating cost savings are critical.

The nice thing about Butler is we’ve been committed to sus­tainability for a long time. I think it’s important not to get hung up on rating systems; we try to look at things from a life-cycle standpoint. Part of that is just being pragmatic, be­cause I’ve got a staff of 100 folks; our 40 campus buildings total about 2.1 million sq. ft. The pragmatic side is that we’re not only worried about the first cost of building — we recog­nize we have to maintain these buildings in the future. Butler University was founded in 1855. We’ve been on this campus since 1929, and I don’t think we’re going to move.  

We know the cost of maintaining our buildings, and we want to make sure that as we’re designing these buildings we’re thinking of the life-cycle cost. We want to make sure that we maintain that balance between keeping the first cost under control, but not at the expense of the long-term sus­tainability of the building. So, we look at sustainable build­ing more globally; it’s not just about carbon-emissions; those are important, even critical. But for us, just as important are the long-term life-cycle cost and the functional operation of campus buildings.

 Will anything change this picture? Not likely, as higher education is quite sensitive to costs, both in new construction and in continuing operations. In addition, most institutions are quite capable of distinguishing between pursuing sustainable outcomes and using third-party certifications to “prove” that they’ve done the right thing.