Helping Institutions Move Towards Net Zero

04.27.22 | ALICIA DRUMM | Sustainability

Today it is well-documented that avoiding the worst effects of climate change in the coming decades will involve the radical decarbonization of our world. By 2030 all new construction should be net zero, and all sectors of our economy, industry, and infrastructure need to follow suit. It is a gargantuan task, but it is possible to achieve with the technology that exists today if our government and institutions take action and commit to doing the hard work now.

Many institutions are facing the realization that this change will require many years of attentive planning, significant research and buy-in, and a whole lot of funding. It is a massive undertaking, but it is necessary to secure our futures in the decades to come.

An easy first step is evaluating where and how a campus’ energy is being consumed. In many cases, around 70% of a university’s carbon footprint comes from its building energy use, so a great way to start reducing emissions is to study and commit to rigorous campus planning.

Creating a campus energy masterplan means committing to a multi-phased process that often starts with drafting and enforcing strong green building standards for all new construction and most existing facilities. These standards can include mandating passive house principles in all future designs, meeting 2030 Challenge energy reduction goals, finding ways to make all new construction net-zero, requiring new buildings to be 100% electrified and existing buildings undergo a phased transition to electric, and including long-term operating costs in projects’ financial estimations.

Institutions can also commit to divesting their endowments from fossil fuels and reinvesting in sustainable alternatives, transitioning campus energy sources to carbon neutral energy sources, and purchasing carbon offsets and renewable energy certificates (RECs) that offset any remaining carbon usage.

William Rawn Associates has worked with numerous universities to develop campus masterplans, new buildings, and existing building renovations in keeping with the institutions’ strategic sustainability plans. These universities include, but are not limited to, Brandies Univeristy, Brown University, and MIT.

Brandeis University, located in Waltham, MA, has committed to achieving campus-wide carbon neutrality by no later than 2030. Theirs is an aggressive plan that involves restructuring much of their existing infrastructure, from parking and transportation to divestment in fossil fuels to creating new building standards as the campus expands.

Over the last few years, William Rawn Associates has worked extensively with Brandeis University on proactive campus planning. These plans to renovate existing campus housing and build new, net-zero-ready buildings that can be plugged into the university’s Clean Power Plan are just some of the puzzle pieces necessary to fulfill Brandeis’ ambitious goal of carbon neutrality.

The Skyline Residence Hall, a new dorm that both replaces and grows Brandeis University’s deteriorating housing stock, was designed to meet Net Zero goals and is one of the most efficient buildings on campus. The building is Net Zero Emissions “ready,” meaning no fossil fuels are used on-site, allowing the University to work towards its Clean Power Plan. Through the combination of a geothermal system, photovoltaics, and a high-performance facade, the building uses 50% less energy than a baseline code compliant building.

Many institutions are making the jump now to designing for better, more sustainable campuses through fossil fuel divestment, redefining green building standards, and institution-wide master planning.

Brown University has similarly tackled an institutional sustainability plan, pledging to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 75% by 2025 and achieve net zero emissions by 2040. Their plan involves offsetting all existing on-campus electricity use with the use of off-site wind and solar farms, converting their central heating plant to burn recycling biofuel, and renovating their current building infrastructure.

In 2021, the Brown University Wellness Center and Residence Hall was completed and opened to students. This project, designed by WRA, follows the University’s commitment to eliminating fossil fuel-burning equipment by designing the building to be run solely on electric energy, which will be fully offset by the University’s off-site energy farms in the next few years. In addition to being all electric, the building has also been awarded FitWel, Well, and LEED Silver certification, and incorporates sustainable structural and building materials like cross-laminated timber (CLT) fully into the design.

Many institutions are making the jump now to designing for better, more sustainable campuses through fossil fuel divestment, redefining green building standards, and institution-wide master planning, but it is never too late to commit to a healthier, less fossil fuel-dependent campus.