University steps up sustainability efforts

From the June 5, 2006, Princeton Weekly Bulletin

Behind the blueprints for the myriad construction projects under way on Princeton’s campus is a new set of stipulations regarding their environmental impact.

The guidelines, which advocate for both sustainable building and site design, are part of the University’s continuing effort to consider the ecocultural wake it’s leaving on the area.

“We look beyond what it will cost to construct and run a building,” said Michael McKay, vice president for facilities. “Our focus is on the life cycle costs — both in terms of operating costs and impacts on the environment. We’ve always looked at sustainability, but never quite in as focused a way as we are now.”

Each architect and engineer selected for a major capital construction project or large renovation now receives a set of “Sustainable Building Guidelines” released by the facilities department in March. A shortened version is available for smaller-scale projects.

According to McKay, the University had for several years called for building designs to meet the spirit of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), a standard established by the U.S. Green Building Council.

“LEED criteria, however, do not adequately respond to both the advantages and challenges of a college campus setting, so we elected to develop our own internal standard,” McKay said, noting that the facilities department collaborated with Kieran Timberlake Associates, a Philadelphia-based architectural firm, on the new criteria.

The guidelines take design consultants through a series of steps including goal-setting, benchmarking, modeling and analysis, review and monitoring, and post-construction feedback to implement appropriate choices for materials, building orientation, systems selections and a host of other sustainable design criteria. Decision points are included for evaluating the cost and environmental impact of various options.

“For instance,” McKay said, “if there is a type of heating or cooling system that could be installed that would cost more to begin with but less to operate over time, thus saving energy, it requires an analysis so we can understand the cost-benefit and make a decision. We also are looking at roofing materials, building envelope — the structural materials on the outside of the building — and even things like how you manage waste in the building.”

The guidelines include references to sustainable site design as well. One of the five guiding principles established by President Tilghman as part of the recent campus planning effort is to “develop in an environmentally responsible manner.” According to McKay, this also means looking at “everything that’s outside the building.”

For example, the facilities staff is starting to think about more creative and effective ways to manage storm water. The University currently has two storm water detention basins — one near the Broadmead fields and one near the Hibben Apartments. They hold water following a storm so that the rate at which it enters local streams is slowed and flooding is diminished, and they also allow time for contaminants to settle out.

Despite the fact that this regional approach met and exceeded regulatory requirements, the University is considering other ways to regulate the storm water rather than constructing more detention basins as more buildings come online. These include using vegetation to remove some of the contaminants and looking for opportunities to recycle storm water.

Energy conservation

The establishment of “Sustainable Building Guidelines” is just one of many ways Princeton is seeking to limit its environmental footprint.

Over the last 10 years, efforts have concentrated primarily on energy, recycling and waste minimization, according to McKay.

With the completion of the cogeneration plant in 1996, the University gained a more efficient way to produce its own steam, chilled water and electricity. The advent of the cogeneration plant not only lowered the University’s energy costs, it also significantly reduced the amount of greenhouse gases and other emissions that resulted from the campus operations.

The capability of the chilled water plant, built in 1960, was enhanced last summer with the addition of a thermal storage tank that holds 2.6 million gallons of cooling water. The University now can purchase electricity at a lower cost to operate the chillers during non-peak evening hours and store the chilled water for use during the day for air conditioning campus buildings and cooling specialized laboratory equipment, such as lasers. Administrators estimate that this operation will save $500,000 to $700,000 per year in electricity costs.

More recent work is also focusing on the distribution systems, according to Tom Nyquist, director of engineering. Crews have been adding insulation to pipes throughout the campus and surveying the systems for leaky steam traps. Princeton’s systems have some 10,000 steam traps — devices that hold steam vapor into the pipe while letting water drain out. Their sheer number and the key role they play in the delivery of steam makes their maintenance high on the facilities department’s list.

Nyquist also is coordinating an effort to recommission campus buildings. “We’ve hired an outside firm to come in and survey our heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems to make sure they’re working as they were designed,” he said. “We’re finding lots of small problems that add up to big dollars and are taking action to correct those problems.”

A survey of Fine Hall, for example, found that potential annual energy cost savings of $16,000 could be achieved through repairs such as recalibrating sensors on air handler units and sealing leaks in ductwork. The surveys also take the next step of recommending energy conservation opportunities that require more costly capital investments. “We’re looking at these recommendations and seeing if they make sense. When they do, we implement them,” Nyquist said.

Other energy conservation efforts are continuing on campus, including the long-term project of replacing bulbs and ballasts in lights and exit signs with more energy-efficient products and replacing lighting systems. In addition, Nyquist and his team are always looking for other opportunities, such as more energy-efficient replacements for the 500 fume hoods used in Princeton’s laboratories. Despite many years of implementing conservation measures, new opportunities constantly arise as a result of new technologies becoming available — particularly in the area of lighting — and increasing energy prices making some conservation investments more attractive.

Dining services and recycling

Sustainability issues also fall into the areas of dining services and recycling.

“Our approach is to promote a healthier relationship between dining and the environment,” said Stu Orefice, director of dining services. “We attempt to raise awareness of issues and identify responsible practices in food purchases as evidenced by our ocean-friendly seafood program, Everyday Organic menu items and Jersey Fresh local produce initiative. Our challenge is to make educated choices within our existing resources.”

The seafood program involves purchasing from well-managed, wild fisheries and fish farms in order to do the least amount of environmental and ecological damage. With the organic effort, dining services purchases more items from farmers who use techniques that avoid environmental damage. Through the Jersey Fresh initiative, dining services purchased more then 25,000 pounds of produce from local farmers during 2004-05. Not only does this provide fresher products during those times of the year when New Jersey produce is available, but it reduces the energy investment in transporting produce that might otherwise be grown in states much farther away.

Dining services also continuously seeks ways to reduce the amount of waste produced on campus and to increase its recycling efforts. Since 1993, it has sent food waste to a local company, where it is sanitized and fed to pigs. In addition, a software system enables the department to track food use and waste and to make adjustments accordingly.

In addition to food, the University makes a concerted effort to recycle everything from paper to grass clippings. Princeton recycled 38.5 percent of its waste stream in 2005, keeping some 2,033 tons of material, including paper, cardboard, cans, bottles, food scraps and scrap metal, out of landfills.

Excluded from that figure are recycled items such as construction debris, grass clippings, leaves and stumps, and computer parts. When those are included, the University’s recycling rate swells to 87 percent or 20,208 tons.

The recycling percentages have remained fairly steady over the past few years, according to Jon Baer, director of building services. “One of the things we learned, or confirmed, during our participation in the 10-week RecycleMania competition with 90 other universities this spring is that we recycle more than many, but less than some,” he said. “We probably rank a good solid ‘B,’ which says we’re good, but need to do more.”

This time of the year presents one opportunity to step up recycling efforts, and the University already is responding. When students move out of the dorms each spring, they leave behind items ranging from unopened boxes of cereal to couches too large to transport. “In the last few years we have aided the student body in increasing furniture donations and reuse, clothing donations and food donations,” Baer said.

New sustainability coordinator

Since 2002, sustainability efforts at the University have been coordinated by the Princeton Environmental Oversight Committee, a group of faculty, staff and students that meets once a month.

“The PEOC is a great forum in that fresh ideas and initiatives come together and are considered by the members from both a practical perspective as well as considering the social implications,” said McKay, who chairs the committee. “This committee has produced several policy and procedure changes, but has been frustrated by a lack of full-time support to perform the analyses of and carry out the implementation of ideas generated in that forum.”

In some cases — such as the relatively new policy requiring that all departments use paper that contains 100 percent post-consumer waste — the impetus came from students and the implementation by the purchasing department. “Unexpected but fortunate outcomes from this PEOC-recommended policy included a flurry of inquiries from other institutions asking how we managed to do this and even some changes in the paper supply industry when suppliers realized that a greater market demand would help lower prices,” McKay said.

A new position being filled this summer is intended to provide the critical support needed for continued progress. A “sustainability coordinator” will join the facilities staff in late June and will be charged particularly with working with departments and individuals “most able to affect the University’s environmental profile.”

“This will put some full-time attention on these initiatives and create a champion for these issues,” McKay said.