Harvard Public Health Review
Winter 2005



The Greening of the Crimson Campus

At HSPH and across Harvard, eco-friendly buildings are laboratories for healthier living

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.

With a mission to promote health and ecological protection, Spengler and colleagues have become advocates for green design, leading both by the influence of their research and by the example set on campus. Spengler, one of the first to recognize indoor air quality as a public health issue in the 1970s, is widely credited as the visionary behind Harvard's green design programs. "Green design is more than just buildings," he explains. "It's the settings, the surroundings, the connection to the community. We're talking about exercise, productivity, safety, health; all these attributes can be addressed by the built environment."

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.

Using Harvard 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.
The cavernous Landmark Center, a former Sears Roebuck warehouse converted to retail shops and offices in the late 1990s, is a case in point. Here, in 2001, Spengler spearheaded the green renovation of HSPH's allotted 42,000 square feet on the fourth floor. The incremental costs, just $77,000, were recovered in less than a year.
Today, natural light floods the school's offices and hallways, while programmable timers reduce lighting power requirements by 40 percent annually. A sub-floor ventilation system delivers air more effectively and at less cost than conventional overhead systems. Low-flow technology reduces water consumption by 20 percent.

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.

Opportunities clearly abound. A first-ever HGCI survey recently put the University's annual output of greenhouse gases at roughly 290,000 tons, 90 percent of them generated in the supplying of power to buildings. (Since the average 15-gallon tank of gasoline yields 300 pounds of carbon dioxide, that's the equivalent of burning 1.93 million tanks of gas or driving half a billion miles.) The HGCI has been aggressively searching for ways to cut these emissions while achieving more sustainable operations. Their work is paying off: HGCI's efforts to promote lighting improvements, install more efficient heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems, and encourage energy conservation now save Harvard roughly $1 million annually, says HGCI Director Leith Sharp.

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.

Now Spengler and his collaborators are looking ahead to what could prove to be the largest campus sustainability project in the world. Harvard owns more than 300 acres in Allston, on the east side of the Charles River. In a massive expansion, the Allston campus will in time more than double the University's total land area--and potentially be home to HSPH and other schools. Harvard University President Lawrence Summers recently endorsed a set of "sustainability principles" for the campus, which include green building design, clean energy, on-site water treatment and reuse, and biodiversity protections, among others. Says HGCI's Leith Sharp: "The Allston campus represents the most significant design and development opportunity in the history of Harvard University."

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.

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