Efficiency and Cost Control

“Demonstrating that sustainability isn’t just a cost but also provides payback, especially financial payback, is crucial to establish early,” Dave Newport suggests. As you look to build momentum for sustainability efforts on your campus, it will be critical to identify what energy, water, and resource savings projects have already been undertaken at your institution, and then to prioritize your key projects — “low-hanging fruit” that will show rapid returns in the form of cost savings. The key is to begin a cycle of cost savings and reinvestment of savings in further sustainability efforts. “You can’t do everything. Focus on finding those early wins that allow you to generate support for more robust efforts,” Dave Newport advises.

While inventorying current efforts and identifying the next several projects that will generate financial returns, make sure to integrate opportunities for student learning and student engagement into efficiency and cost control initiatives:

  • Connect efficiency programs with faculty and student efforts (for example, invite students to take part in a lighting efficiency project, or involve an architecture or engineering course in the process of designing your next LEED facility)
  • Prioritize tangible projects that you can show to current and prospective students as a real example of your work in sustainability

Look for “Early Wins” Beyond Just Energy Efficiency

Most institutions have undertaken some energy efficiency effort, though these efforts may range in scope from upgrading light bulbs in a few facilities to a campus-wide facilities retrofit. However, Matt St. Clair emphasizes that it’s important to recognize that there are other “low-hanging fruit” opportunities, as well. For example:

  • Achieve utilities bill savings through reducing water consumption, or reducing solid waste that must be sent to a landfill
  • Sell recyclable materials to a recycling vendor (which both saves on the costs of transporting solid waste to the landfill and also adds income)
  • Audit university purchasing and go paperless with as many processes as possible; where paper is necessary, find ways to use less, such as investing in duplex printing and encouraging faculty and staff to use duplex printing for drafts
  • Identify ways to consolidate equipment; “Does every department needs its own vehicle,” St. Clair asks, “or can vehicles be shared between offices? Does every office need a printer, or can you network printers?”

Note that it’s possible to create new problems if you aren’t careful; “make sure that your services aren’t compromised by the efficiency effort,” St. Clair warns. To cite one example, staff who regularly print confidential material may resist networked printing for valid reasons. You may need to establish exceptions for them — or invest in a technological solution that will require staff to input a code prior to receiving their print job.

The “CURB” Approach: Leveraging Energy Savings

Nearly two decades ago, the University of Wisconsin-Madison established CURB (Concentrated Upgrade and Repair of Buildings), an initiative to achieve long-term savings in facilities repair and renovation by using energy and water savings garnered through efficiency projects (most of which saw a four- to five-year payback) to fund maintenance efforts. Faramarz Vakili, UW-Madison’s associate director of the physical plant and the head of the project, recognized that energy savings represented a significant and untapped source of funding that could be leveraged to both carve into the deferred maintenance backlog and fund further sustainability efforts. In short, he generated savings that could be used to tackle a longstanding and expensive campus problem; the average cost of CURB was $4.62/GSF, compared to $200/GSF for new construction.

“We needed to change from a reactive mode of operation to a proactive one,” Vakili notes. “To reverse the facilities deterioration trends on campus, a systematic approach to reconditioning facilities was a must. We had to bring the facilities to a desirable condition before increased preventive maintenance activities could prove beneficial.”

For institutions hoping to replicate the approach, Vakili advises concentrating on one building at a time; this both makes the effort manageable in scope and allows you to build support and scale up in a phased effort.

Here’s how it works. For each building on campus:

  • Identify and document all deferred maintenance needs of a building and investigate all energy and water conservation opportunities for that building
  • Allocate concentrated maintenance resources to repair and upgrade what you can in-house (in other words, assign a percentage of maintenance personnel to the project)
  • Document and prioritize the remaining problems for future external funding
  • Follow up and execute effective preventive maintenance procedures to maintain the upgraded buildings in good condition in the future

Besides the financial benefits of the effort, a building-by-building green upgrade and recommissioning — bringing each facility to a desirable state — also contributes to the occupants’ pride in their campus, and allows for you to make a powerful case for a culture of facilities stewardship and energy conservation. “When I go to a building where I did this project,” Vakili remarks, “I talk with the deans, the faculty, and the staff with my head up. I tell them: ‘You now have a well-maintained facility, you have state-of-the-art air control in the labs, new fume hoods, a new coat of paint on the wall. Now let’s talk about how to change behavior. You can wrestle with that thermostat all day long, but if you don’t understand how your HVAC system works, it won’t do you any good.'”

“Educate occupants about how to live in the newly renovated facilities. They have to see that you care about this, and that you are working hard to create a sustainable and attractive environment.”
Faramarz Vakili, University of Wisconsin-Madison

“Celebrate your successes,” Vakili suggests. “Solve one problem at a time, be proud of it, and don’t be shy about telling the story.”

Full Cost and Benefit Evaluation

Cost savings highlight the early return on sustainability efforts and allow you to build reinvestment and political commitment, but as you scale your efforts up, accounting for non-financial return on investment will become increasingly important because it will inform how you identify where investments in sustainability could add the greatest value to your institution, as well as how you promote your efforts.

Examples of non-financial ROI that need to be accounted for include:

  • Increased recruitment of green-conscious students
  • Lower carbon emissions
  • Donor-affinity/increased giving to green projects
  • Town-gown relations

Early on, sustainability champions need to coordinate closely with the business office to develop and pilot a full cost accounting tool.


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