Beyond Green: A Spectrum of Sustainability
"We're trying to communicate that saving electricity is not just about saving money. It's about understanding where your electricity comes from. That means coal, which means mountaintop removal."—Melanie Bonds, EcoReps coordinator
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In a small office on the ground floor of the Highsmith University Union, a group of students meet to coordinate a campus-wide recycling campaign.
Meanwhile, in a utility room in the renovated Rhoades Hall, an HVAC specialist from the Facilities Department meets with a contractor to monitor the still-new geothermal heating and cooling system.
And across campus, a student mixes compost made from campus food waste into the soil of a community garden located near W.T. Weaver Boulevard.
The signs are everywhere. Sustainability isn't just an idea at UNC Asheville; it drives campus-wide habits and purchasing decisions, and it plays a strong role in planning how the campus grows. Sustainability, whether it is social sustainability, environmental sustainability or economic sustainability, is a subject that pops up in classes ranging from biology to economics. In fact, sustainability is a pillar of the university's strategic plan and a part of everyday life on campus.
In the classrooms, professors from different disciplines across the university incorporate sustainability into their curriculums and courses. As Ed Katz, associate provost and dean of university programs, explains, "It is common now for courses in economics, literature, philosophy, health and wellness, and many other disciplines to engage and examine sustainability in a very multi-faceted way. The strategic plan helps us to focus on economic sustainability, social sustainability and environmental sustainability."
Katz explained that sustainability goes beyond being green. For example, the university has a goal of increasing its social sustainability standard by building a respectful, vibrant, responsible and inclusive campus community. And the university is committed to economic sustainability by setting a goal of increasing private funding so that it can fulfill its commitments to provide a top-quality education to generations of students and citizens of the state.
The strategic plan also challenges professors to look at their courses from a new perspective. Katz says faculty in programs that don't normally cover sustainability began to look for ways to engage such issues in their courses. "In many cases, what resulted were innovative courses that brought new disciplinary perspectives to the complexities presented by sustainability in its many dimensions."
In many ways, the subject of sustainability meshes well with the university's multidisciplinary curriculum. Spend some time with volunteers and interns at the Student Environmental Center (SEC), and you'll meet undergrads majoring in subjects that seemed unrelated 10 years ago but are perfectly aligned today.
Take Melanie Bonds for example. Bonds is a junior pursuing a double major in environmental studies and economics. She's also the coordinator for EcoReps, one of the Student Environmental Center's biggest ongoing projects at this time. The program uses interns who live on campus to create sustainability and energy-efficiency campaigns within their residence halls.
Bonds notes that since most campus residents have only recently moved out of their parents' homes, this is a crucial time for them to create smarter habits when it comes to consumption. "We're trying to communicate that saving electricity is not just about saving money," she says. "It's about understanding where your electricity comes from. That means coal, which means mountaintop removal."
Lately, SEC has been deeply involved in increasing recycling across campus. Not content with just collecting bottles and cans, SEC members have connected with alumna-owned Charlotte Street Computers to recycle electronics such as old computers, phones, and printer cartridges. Their goal is to set up drop-off points in all the residence halls.
This isn't the only recycling project SEC has handled. In recent months, they worked out a plan to collect compostable materials from the dining hall. Some of the material is composted for use in the gardens across campus, and the rest is taken by Danny's Dumpsters, a locally owned commercial composting company.
In Rhoades Garden (another project managed by SEC interns), the compost is used to teach students about gardening and food production. The garden hosts students and community groups like Kids at Work, an after-school program that introduces at-risk teens to the culinary arts.
Kristen Emery, a junior and one of the student directors, says the SEC's list of ongoing projects runs a wide and sometimes unexpected spectrum. They include: having a beekeeping instructor visit campus, creating a DIY bike repair station, encouraging students to attend sustainability networking events around town, researching the effectiveness of the university's shuttle bus system, and even having a student measure the brightness of electrical lights in order to help "de-lamp" areas that are using excessive electricity.
"Just because something is green, doesn't mean it's not economically viable as well," says John Pierce, vice chancellor of finance and campus operations. "When those two things combine, you have a very powerful force."
Take Overlook Hall, for example, the modern new residence hall that recently won a design award from the American Institute of Architects. The building features geothermal heating and cooling, motion-controlled lighting to reduce energy use and a plan for solar water heating in the future.
Alan King, facilities mechanical engineer, says the state construction office had doubts about the building plans and shared horror stories of other geothermal systems that didn't work properly. "But we did it in a thoughtful way, and it works for us," he says. "The system is unique in that every dollar you spend on electricity moves four dollars worth of heat. No other system does that—it's hugely efficient and effective."
"The system is unique in that every dollar you spend on electricity moves four dollars worth of heat. No other system does that—it's hugely efficient and effective."
—Alan King, facilities mechanical engineer
The geothermal field by Overlook Hall also will serve some neighboring residence halls. David Todd, director of facilities management and planning, says the goal is to bring maximum efficiency to the residence halls. After all, the buildings are used 24 hours a day by more than 1,000 people.
Todd also points to the Rhoades Hall renovation as an example of building reuse done right. The project brought one of the oldest buildings to the forefront of modern efficiency standards. In the planning, the university decided against spending money to pursue a LEED certification, but rather focus on long-term performance and savings. Smart lighting systems and thermostats (connected to the campus' first geothermal system) keep the building's energy footprint small.
"This university has certainly led the way and broken a lot of ground," says Tom Baldwin, LEED certified facilities electrical engineer in the office of design and construction. He also serves as adviser to the Student Environmental Center. He and other university staff have been working for two years on a new project to bring solar water heating to UNC Asheville. According to Pierce this is the first project of its type—solar thermal, funded by a third party—to be approved by state government.
"We're still working through the details of it, but the idea is that we lease space on top of Overlook," says Pierce. "Outside private investors who help fund the panels will receive the tax credits—we can't get tax credits since we're a public university. But by using investors, we can finance the addition of this type of technology and increase our sustainability profile. This is where UNC Asheville is finding seriously creative solutions and proving to be thought leaders."
With so many sustainability initiatives happening across the campus—and being developed across so many groups—the university is creating a Sustainability Council to better coordinate these efforts. The intent is to keep stakeholders communicating with each other about projects, goals and findings. This prevents the duplication of efforts as well as creates opportunities for groups with similar goals to share ideas and best practices.
"What's so cool about UNC Asheville is that since our resources are limited, we can't just throw a lot of money at these ideas," Pierce said. "We have to be creative in making these things work." 4