Among the dark marble countertops and heavy wood-paneled doors of the new Ross School of Business building’s bathrooms, the electric green handles on the toilets seem a little out of place.
Coated to resist germs, the handle can be pushed either up or down, creating a high-intensity or low-intensity flush. The dual-flush toilets, estimated to reduce water consumption by as much as 67 percent, are just one example of the eco-friendly features included throughout the building.
The new Tappan Street landmark has been officially open for nearly a month, but the buzz surrounding it has barely dimmed. Its modern, rust-colored exterior sits in sharp contrast to nearby buildings like the collegial, ivy-coated buildings in the Law Quad. And any LSA student must be a little envious of the three-story atrium and 7,500-square-foot fitness center.
But while the bold design and exceptional facilities have garnered the most attention, the most noteworthy aspect of the building might be in its environmentally-conscious features.
Featuring huge skylights above the main atrium, the 270,000-square-foot building takes advantage of natural light while using high-efficiency electricity and daylight-dimming systems. Some of its roof is covered with soil and plants to insulate the building, filter rainfall and improve air quality by trapping impurities.
Receptacles throughout the building are dedicated to recycling cans and paper, and the building also has non-toxic carpets and waterless urinals. The walls are covered with low-VOC (volatile organic compound) paint, which reduces the emission of air pollutants and greenhouse gases.
And from the start, 94 percent of demolition debris and 50 percent of debris from construction was recycled.
Though the paperwork hasn’t yet been submitted, administrators will apply for LEED (Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design) certification and expect to achieve the Silver level. By no means a national stand out — silver is only second out of four levels of certification — the Ross building’s biggest achievement might be to set a new standard for University buildings.
The Dana Building, home of the School of Natural Resources and the Environment, is the only campus building to date that has received a LEED certification, attaining the Gold level.
This latest addition to campus suggests that environmentally conscious construction may now be the norm for University projects. Students and faculty have begun to demand greener standards for campus development — and in the case of the Business School, have succeeded.
“This was a watershed moment in changing how we design buildings at the University of Michigan,” said University alum Brian Swett, who was one of several graduate students in the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise who pushed for the LEED certification of the Business School.
THE MIDDLE OF THE PACK
Prof. Tom Lyon, Director of the Erb Institute, said it’s especially important for business schools to achieve LEED certification because so many of the employers who recruit MBA and BBA students are doing so themselves.
“I think the fact that we got it LEED certified makes a very important statement because it says you’re really on the cutting edge of what businesses should be doing in the future,” said Graham Mercer, assistant dean of the Ross school.
But the national benchmark for green construction has gotten so high that even with the steps it’s taken, the Business School remains far from the environmental cutting edge.
The new Stanford Business School campus, set to open in 2010, is seeking the highest possible Platinum level LEED certification, as will the Glendale, Arizona-based Thunderbird School of Global Management.
MIT’s forthcoming Sloan School of Management will be solar-ready, allowing for the installation of solar panels at a later date, and New York University’s Stern School of Business provides bottle filling stations to encourage students to reuse their water bottles.
“We should not be tooting our own horns, and we’re not taking a leadership role at all,” Swett said, adding that the University of Michigan has a “terrible record of building green.”
Save for the Dana Building, which features solar panels and composting toilets, the University of Michigan has lagged in environmentally-conscious construction. Though its College Sustainability Report Card grade for green building rose from a C in 2007 to a B in 2008 and 2009, schools like the University of Virginia, the University of California at Berkeley and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill each scored an A in the category in the last two years.
Sue Gott, a planner who worked on site considerations for the new building, insisted that green construction is a main priority for the University even if LEED certification isn’t obtained due to administrative costs.
“In anything that we are designing, we look for ways to be energy conscious and we look for sustainability opportunities,” she said.
According to several professors and students involved in the building’s initial planning phases, University administrators, architects and the New York City-based architectural firm Kohn Pedersen Fox initially resisted certifying the building due to the extra expense.
The LEED system faces criticism for not only adding costs in the form of paperwork, extra research and LEED consultants, but also employing a too-rigid point system. For example, the green roofs of the Ross building — while no doubt environmentally beneficial — do not count toward a LEED certification.
Despite its faults, the system is still widely well-regarded because it helps force builders to think more broadly about environmental options. It also serves as an recognizable yardstick for green buildings nationwide. At the very least, a LEED certification generates good publicity.
“It would have been tremendously embarrassing if Ross had opened with less than the Silver, given what our competition is doing,” Swett said.
Several Erb Institute students started a petition for the Ross building to achieve LEED certification and set up meetings with Ross administrators to make their case for it.
“We just kind of took it on as a personal mission that we wanted to convince the leadership of the business school that they should consider making the building LEED,” said University alum Bryan Magnus, who was one of the first Erb students to begin researching sustainable options for the building. He said they approached the administration with “literally a binder of resources.” The student team of “rabble rousers,” as Swett called them, wanted to prove to the administration that the price premium for achieving the certification was not prohibitively high. Though some contend the cost of LEED certifying a building can be up to 25 percent of the total cost, Lyon, with the Erb Institute, said those estimates are far off base, with extra costs usually being less than one percent.
“The numbers are not huge,” said Prof. Andy Hoffman, an associate director of the Erb Institute. In a paper he co-authored, Hoffman cited several recent studies showing that when lowered operating costs are taken into account, the construction and certification costs of green building and standard buildings are negated by savings in energy costs within years.
Mercer said the cost of certifying the Ross project was one percent of the $110 million total construction cost, which would mean a hefty $1.1 million.
In meetings with Ross administrators, the Erb students presented case studies, best practices and options for materials. One student took Business School Assistant Dean Graham Mercer, who headed the project, on a tour of the LEED certified Ford Rouge plant in Dearborn.
After a few meetings, Magnus said the administration shifted from being “skeptically interested to sincerely interested” in pursuing the certification.
“The Erb students were the instrumental factor in moving the school to go for LEED certification,” Lyon said. Magnus said the administration “definitely hadn’t considered” achieving the LEED label.
“To their credit, the deans at Ross really listened to what the students had to say,” Lyon said. “Once they decided to pursue LEED certification, they’ve been very enthusiastic about it and really followed through.”
Mercer said that although the administration was “still debating” whether to certify the building when the Erb students first approached them, greening the building was a stated objective from the start.
“Our goal was always to make it an environmentally-friendly building,” he said. “We wanted to make some sort of statement that this is important.”
Mercer said a reason they decided to follow through with the certification was so students and employers would know the extent of the building’s green features.
“You can throw an awful lot of money into a building trying to get to some esoteric level with not a lot of gain,” he said.
SETTING A NEW STANDARD
Of course, a lot of the decisions on what could and couldn’t be made green came down to money. Swett said that by the time he got involved in the project, there were significant budget constraints.
“The costs very quickly were running out of control,” he said. “They were open to suggestions, but not at added costs. From a green perspective, it inhibits a little bit what you can do.”
But Mercer said that when plans had to be shifted around budget crunches, environmental features were never scrapped.
“We said we’re not doing it because that’s a big part of the building, a big part of the design — we’ve got to leave it alone,” he said.
Unless two separate plans had been drawn up — one with LEED certification and the other without it — one could only guess at how much of the building’s price tag the green attributes actually made up.
“It definitely costs you money — there’s no doubt about it — but you really don’t know how much,” Mercer said.
The dean acknowledged that cost concerns inhibited their flexibility to take extra environmental steps. However, several of the Erb students said that scrapping the expensive architectural firm, New York-based Kohn Pederson Fox, that doesn’t specialize in educational or green building would have allowed for considerably more wiggle room in the budget.
Swett said that instead of hiring a “starchitect” — slang for a high-profile and high-cost architectural firm — he would have focused more on using local, recycled materials for the building.
The Ross building’s environmental plan could have gone further, according to Erb Institute Prof. Andy Hoffman, by including an energy-saving geothermal heating and cooling system and solar panels.
Third year Erb Institute student Jackie Pitera, who helped research eco-conscious carpet options for the building, said that while she liked how the environmental aspects merged well with the aesthetic design of the building, she wished the administration had taken more steps to make the building a national example.
“If they’re going to go through the efforts of making a green building, it would have been nice if they had taken it a bit further so it could have been a demonstration piece or learning tool,” she said.
But Swett said that given the initial resistance, he was pleased with how the building turned out.
“Do I think we made a lot of progress? Yeah,” he said. “And is it a good building for the university? Definitely.”
Swett and others are quick to point out that lobbying efforts have also resulted in plans for the C.S. Mott Children’s and Women’s Hospital to achieve LEED certification, and possibly the Law School expansion as well.
Administrators haven’t announced any plans for North Quad, the residential hall set to open in 2010, to achieve certification. According to a November University budget request, the complex aims to exceed code-minimum energy requirements by about 40 percent and will have maximum insulation.
“If the business school building going LEED Silver sets a minimum bar for future (University of Michigan) buildings, then that’s a great accomplishment,” Swett said.