My campus is not green. It has a greenish hue

The University of Guelph, like many campuses I’ve experienced, gives an impression of green. But is the green a veneer? Is it like the tidy mown lawns of newly developed residential neighbourhoods that belie the ecological re-structuring that recently occurred?

Campuses are hotbeds for concern, thought, protest, and action. University of Guelph students are no exception. Guelph Students for Environmental Change—and in particular their Student Renewable Energy Group—recently put words into actions and their dollars behind both. In a campus referendum University of Guelph students agreed to commit more than four million dollars over twelve years to energy conservation on campus. The funds, matched one-to-one by the university, will be directed to retrofitting campus buildings by introducing more efficient lighting, heating, and water systems. The badly-needed changes are anticipated to reduce energy use by about ten percent. The university is likewise engaged in a five-year plan to increase energy efficiency across campus. A pilot project in 2004 to retrofit the Crop Science building for lighting, water fixtures, and heatingventilating-air conditioning (HVAC) sprouted the move.

A substantial challenge that is not unique to the University of Guelph is aging buildings and infrastructure. Projects such as retrofits are overdue: most buildings are still furnished as original equipment. In what could be compared to the twenty-year-old beer-fridge problem that electrical utilities battle, the lighting, plumbing, and HVAC systems of most buildings are beyond the age of majority—their efficiency is circa a building’s age. The deferred maintenance of buildings on Ontario campuses cuts both ways: while care has been trimmed and a lack of upgrades and enhancements have not allowed for improvements in efficiency, campuses have been required to steward the embodied energy of previous eras for as long as possible. The lack of maintenance—and more importantly, improvement—in campus buildings results in a legacy of energy-inefficient structures. At the same time we are wringing every functional bit of life from the infrastructure and keeping the de-constructed bits from the landfill.

While institutions of higher education move minds forward, mine and most universities are not leading in innovative action for conservation and electricity generation. We don’t walk our talk.

In scheming ideas for energy efficiency, a colleague and I co-operatively purchased solar panels, a storage battery, and inverter. After measuring the energy use in his laptop we set to taking his office off the electricity grid and runing it on solar power. Two things worked substantially against the project: the solar panels could not be mounted outside without work orders and more money (for the self-funded project), so the panels remained inside the windows. But the windows eliminate some of the sun’s energy, made worse by their dusty outside film (deferred maintenance). My colleague might have been able to wash the windows himself, but the windows are stuck shut (again, deferred maintenance). Ultimately he gave up and the panels are in my office window waiting for me to figure out a plan B for mounting them on the outside wall. I face the same logistical hurdles. To my knowledge there is no office or lab on campus that uses an independent renewable energy supply.

The university is behind. Elementary and high schools across Ontario are increasingly experimenting with alternative energy. So far the University of Guelph is entirely grid-powered. At the same time that students become more environmentally-literate, their nearly-standard equipment includes laptop computers, MP3 players, digital cameras, and cell phones. Unlike a decade earlier, individual students use a lot of electrical energy to get through a class, assignment, or late-night study session—and all of this energy requirement is provided by the grid and the coal and nuclear power that make the wires hum. While institutions of higher education move minds forward, mine and most universities are not leading in innovative action for conservation and electricity generation. We don’t walk our talk.

My building is home to the only green roof on campus— a small overhang over the front door that was created bravely and somewhat surreptitiously by the department head and some inspired students. New University of Guelph buildings have been erected since green roofs became part of the North American architectural lexicon, but the innovation is absent from campus. While the university has rightfully earned some boasting rights for the green living wall at the University of Guelph-Humber campus in Toronto, the Guelph campus does not demonstrate the novel alternative to lifeless walls. In fact, roof retrofits continue on the many flat roofs on campus, along with the indicative odour of the environmentally unfriendly materials used.

Notable momentum exists at the University of Guelph to improve our walk. Physical Resources has been proactive in attending to greening issues. The university has a sustainability co-ordinator who administers programs for car pooling, waste reduction, recycling, and energy conservation. In the 2007 “Commuter Challenge” the University of Guelph received two of three City of Guelph awards for reducing emissions and traveling more efficiently than any other Guelph workplace. The university is now on GO Transit routes and co-operation with the City has decreased City bus pass costs so students and faculty can affordably use public transit. Bicycle use on campus is encouraged by dedicated bike lanes, parking racks, and a student-run bike repair centre stocked with tools and tips for two-wheeled commuters to care for their bikes at minimal cost.

The university’s current level of spending—$15 million a year—to electrify, illuminate, heat, cool, and run water through the university is a substantial part of the university’s carbon footprint. Physical Resources has implemented lighting retrofits, changed to more efficient building equipment, installed low-flow shower heads in campus dorms, and enhanced computer control of mechanical systems. The sustainability co-ordinator has worked on campus campaigns that provided free or low-cost “action kits” to the campus community with compact fluorescent light bulbs, low-flow shower heads and faucet aerators, and other water management tools and energy-saving tips.

Waste management by Physical Resources aims to divert 60 percent of its landfill-bound waste by 2010. The university has already enhanced recycling, including drop-off locations for the surprising number of alkaline batteries and cell phones that come from across campus. Within Physical Resources is a compost co-ordinator who oversees composting depots around campus and readily provides answers and solutions for compost management questions. Livestock bedding and manure are part of the compost stream generated by the university (and in this case used on a local farm). Some buildings (like mine) have compost bins in student and staff lounges and composters outside—with compost used on our immediate grounds.

Some future solutions seem relatively obvious. Office paper use has soared with computers and laser printers and the many drafts required to gain approval from a committee, peer-reviewer, or editor. The office paper that typically stocks the University of Guelph is 30 percent recycled; that’s 70 percent virgin ingredients! It’s branded an “environmental choice,” but is it? One hundred percent post-consumer recycled paper is available. The office printer capably prints on both sides of the page, a no-cost, no-emission way to cut paper use by up to half. In what I compare to the assumed donation of human organs referred to as “compassionate consent”, our computer printers should default to double-sided printing: “compassionate conservation”…opt-outs available.

The University of Guelph boasts some impressive open space. The heart of the “College on the Hill” is Johnston Green. Beyond it are 90 more hectares of open space and over 6,000 trees. However this open space has diminished as the campus has expanded its student population in recent years. The greenness has declined. The university retains an impressive 165 hectare arboretum as part of the campus where gardens, forests, and myriad wildlife offer nearby nature for restorative as well as research purposes. The campus grounds—except for sports fields and high-profile gardens—receive relatively few pesticides or chemical fertilizers and in fact some areas (like parking islands) escape all manner of care including mowing. The deferred maintenance leads to frugal management that might mitigate some detrimental alternatives. In 2008 the campus is planned to be pesticide-free.

This winter the university announced its participation in a Zerofootprint program, launched by our President, Dr. Alastair Summerlee. University of Guelph community members can join the program and use a web-based calculator to measure the size of their carbon footprint—including emissions from their home, travel, and food choices. The program reports an individual’s footprint relative to Ontario and Toronto averages and provides suggestions for how to reduce your carbon footprint based on your answers to behaviour questions.

Faculty research and teaching demonstrates environmental leadership to improve not only our campus but also the communities we serve. Assistant Professor in the School of Engineering, Dr. Khosrow Farahbakhsh has been engaged in research to make rainwater harvesting part of innovative building and site design. His work with LEED-certified homes (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) in Guelph illustrates how practical solutions are within the grasp of thoughtful students. The Guelph Institute for the Environment, (GIE) led by former federal environment minister David Anderson, is a connector of environmental research and teaching on campus and a clearing house for environmental research projects involving university researchers and scholars. With the many disparate disciplines engaged in environmental research and teaching across campus, facilitators like the GIE and the Environmental Sciences Research Initiative encourage information flows. The Environmental Sciences Research Initiative provides seed money for collaborative projects on community energy planning, biodiversity mapping, corporate social responsibility, and designs for the world’s first pollinator park on a former landfill site in Guelph.

Student initiatives include the mundane. The Bullring, a distinctive campus building that originally served as a livestock pavilion, now serves as a popular student-run coffee shop. In its seamless way, The Bullring decidedly operates partly on wind power purchased from a local utility on a per-student levy. It is the only location known on campus to purchase alternative power.

Universities ought to be places for innovation, leadingedge thought, field experimentation, observation, and reporting. I currently advise a student who is critically exploring the contribution of green rooftops to the amount of impervious surfaces and urban stream quality. My campus includes no places for him to observe the relationship in practice, but an outdoors store in Toronto does. The possibilities for university campuses are myriad. The campus landscape is typically open—it could capably capture wind and sun energy to offset energy requirements. The roofs of campus buildings are dramatically flat—and non-green—when they could be green, alive, cool, and highly-insulating. Their rainwater runoff could be captured to run through toilets. Oberlin College in Ohio has an environmental studies building that is measured, monitored, reported (in real time, online) and made with the life-cycle of the building, its equipment, and its occupants in mind. The eight-year old building is connected to the landscape and is part of the teaching environment—not a value-neutral carcass. My alma mater, the University of Michigan, retrofitted its School of Natural Resources & Environment building and received a gold LEED rating in 2005. The building features recycled building materials, composting toilets, and super-insulated walls. The University of Guelph’s Science Complex, opened in 2007, earned no LEED rating.

In its composition the university has every potential to be greener—it has the structure, the people, and many of the furnishings to achieve energy and material efficiency in everyday ways.

There is a definite verdant tint to the University of Guelph. The gray world is the reality upon which I and others increasingly seek a green heart. In its composition the university has every potential to be greener—it has the structure, the people, and many of the furnishings to achieve energy and material efficiency in everyday ways. Students, the driving forces and frequent inspirers of change have the drive and tenacity to make the changes happen.

Challenges, of course, remain. The immediate response might be citing the usual refrain of limited campus funding— we need government support to make change happen. Yet the most accessible and responsible may be behavioural changes like printing less and double-sided, shutting down the power bar, and using a desk lamp instead of overhead lights. Each small change incrementally increases the intensity of the tint, and eventually the veneer that can obscure the truth will have a truly green core. AM

Robert Corry is an associate professor of landscape architecture in the School of Environmental Design & Rural Development, University of Guelph where he received the 2007 CMHC Award for Excellence in Education. Like the university, he too has a greenish hue, at least some of which is veneer. Dr. Corry commutes 70 kilometres to campus and drives a car that uses 4.5 litres per 100 km driven (62 miles per gallon). He lives in a selfbuilt, 968 square-foot highly-insulated strawbale home made with straw grown on his farm. He harvests rainwater for watering livestock, flushing toilets, and laundering clothes. The off-grid house is powered by solar and wind, and uses propane (for hot water and cooking) and a diesel generator for winter back-up electricity. Dr. Corry’s farm includes riparian buffer strips and an acre of planted tallgrass prairie habitat. He raises grass-fed beef