What Harvard fund yielded a remarkable 37 percent return on investment last year? The answer: the little known Green Campus Loan Fund. In 2003, this fund proved the wisdom of putting money into energy-efficient, public-health-promoting technologies and materials used in construction across Harvard's campus, most notably at HSPH.
The fund isn't your typical investment vehicle; rather, it's a pot of money available at zero interest to administrators interested in saving money by cutting the costs of building, renovating, and operating Harvard laboratories, residence halls, classrooms, and other facilities. Applicants can obtain loans for capital projects, and pay them back over time with the substantial savings reaped from reduced lighting, heating, cooling, and other expenses.
According to Jack Spengler, Akira Yamaguchi Professor of Environmental Health and Human Habitation at HSPH, the fund demonstrates the long-term value of what environmentalists call "green design." This eco-friendly trend cuts air pollution indoors and out by slashing electricity requirements for buildings supplied by power plants that generate pollution and greenhouse gases, mostly carbon dioxide and methane. For Americans, who spend 90 percent of their time indoors, building green can also curb myriad health problems, from cancers caused by chemicals in construction materials to mold-induced respiratory disease.
TAKES THE LEAD
Spengler has spent much of the past 25 years studying the relationship between indoor air quality and health. His research shows that indoor environments contribute to greater cancer risks than outdoor environments, mainly because they contain higher levels of carcinogens, such as volatile organic carbons, solvents, and formaldehyde. Owing to modern construction techniques that render indoor spaces airtight, buildings tend to trap these compounds, as well as moisture. Add to the mix infectious agents, pest dander, molds, and other substances, and the result may be health problems for occupants--including asthma, which has reached epidemic proportions worldwide.
as a living laboratory, Spengler and his colleagues are methodically
documenting how green designs reduce energy use, save money, and improve
productivity and quality of life for staff and students.
Meanwhile, HSPH has engaged Harvard's eight other schools in a broad array of sustainability efforts, ranging from improved energy efficiency, to alternative fuels, and behavioral changes that promote conservation. Much of this activity is channeled through the Harvard Green Campus Initiative (HGCI), a program Spengler launched in 1999 with Tom Vautin, Harvard's associate vice president for Facilities and Environmental Services. The HGCI is striving to make Harvard's campus among the most environmentally sustainable in the world.
In a major initiative this year to curb greenhouse gas emissions, HSPH, the John F. Kennedy School of Government, and Harvard Real Estate Services began purchasing electrical power from a national system that makes greater use of an important and inexhaustible energy source: wind. HSPH's purchase, 48 percent of the total, has cut carbon dioxide emissions by 10.3 million pounds annually, the equivalent of taking 900 cars off the road each year.
Central to the HGCI's efforts are projects financed by the Green Campus Loan Fund (see sidebar on page 29). Established in 2001 with a modest $3 million from the University, the Green Fund bypasses what Spengler and colleagues say is a huge barrier to green design: the reluctance among institutions to spend dollars up front in order to reap savings down the line. For the most part, accounting practices discourage increasing capital expenditures for the sake of long-term efficiency savings.
Another barrier to green design, Spengler adds, is a lack of expertise among architects and builders, and an unwillingness to take design efforts into unfamiliar territory. "It's this anti-Star Trek thing of not wanting to go where no one has gone before," he says.
The Landmark Center renovation underscores the challenge. HSPH Manager of Operations for Energy and Utilities Danny Beaudoin admits that when Spengler first approached him with a green concept for the renovation, his instinctive response was to reject it. "These were radically new and different technologies that I had never heard of, and quite frankly, didn't agree with," Beaudoin recalls. Why? "Because in operations we have to maintain these systems and fix them when they break down." Beaudoin wasn't the only naysayer; his engineering and architectural contractors also balked at Spengler's ideas in favor of traditional approaches.
Beaudoin says his position softened as he thought more about HSPH's role and the mission of the HGCI. Wanting more evidence to support the green design or argue against it, he paid the engineers to explain on paper why they felt the green design was infeasible. As it turned out, the engineers' research led to the opposite conclusion: They found the design was in fact viable; moreover, they generated fresh ideas about how it could be deployed. The architects came on board soon after, and Spengler's renovation plan went forward. Today, the contractors routinely tout their green capabilities, valuable assets in a growing sustainability market.
VISION FOR ALLSTON
Just how far will Harvard take this opportunity? Spengler and Sharp acknowledge they are on the front end of a process whose outcome is unknown. The optimal green campus would not only yield zero greenhouse gas and wastewater emissions, but generate more energy than it consumes. "Places all over the country have aspired to this ideal," Spengler says. "But no one has ever done it on this scale."
Lessons learned at Harvard could have wide impact on environmental and human health as they transcend campus boundaries and filter out to the rest of the world. Within 100 years, "What we now consider the built environment globally will have to be doubled," Spengler predicts. "And we can expect a need for hundreds of millions of new housing units in China and India alone. It's not far-fetched to imagine that the built environment and the burdens it imposes on both the earth's resources and the public's health will be truly incredible. The only way out of this is to apply new technology, and build smarter."
Charlie Schmidt writes for Popular Science, Technology Review, Environmental Health Perspectives, Journal of the National Cancer Institute, and other publications.
Photos courtesy of Danny Beaudoin/HSPH
page is maintained by Development Communications in the Office of Resource
To contact us with suggestions, comments, and questions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright, 2005, President and Fellows of Harvard College