Growing Green

Harvard aims to help save the planet

Landscaping at the Blackstone building features native plants and “no-mow” grass.Photograph by Rose Lincoln/Harvard News Office

In an unprecedented move that raised the bar for environmental standards, University leaders in September agreed to cut the greenhouse gases emitted by new buildings on the Allston campus to between 30 and 50 percent below the levels required by national standards. Initial focus would be on the four-building Harvard Allston Science Complex—a 530,000-square-foot structure that includes ground-level retail space and a central yard that echoes the quads of the Cambridge campus.

Although the agreement is related to fledgling state policies aimed at reducing emissions from large-scale real-estate development projects, it is also the latest sign of Harvard’s long-term commitment to responsible growth. According to Christopher M. Gordon, chief operating officer of the Allston project, “Harvard’s Allston campus ultimately will be the University’s greatest expression of environmental sustainability.”

Within the last decade, the University has steadily built on a series of “sustainability principles” ( that dictate sweeping changes aimed at reducing waste and conserving energy across all of its campuses and schools. The Harvard Green Campus Initiative (HGCI)——was funded in 2000 to implement those principles. The office now has 20 full-time professional staff members and 40 student employees working with many Harvard schools and service groups on a diverse set of projects, such as operating buses that run on a mix of diesel fuel and soy oil; running a pilot kitchen project where food waste is reconstituted as fertilizer and cooking oils are recycled; using stored rainwater to clean University vehicles; and ramping up the recycling of school supplies and dormitory furnishings.

Photograph by John Chase / Harvard News Office

Shuttle buses are powered by biofuel and are equipped with easy-access bicycle racks.

“The biggest challenge is coordinating such a wide range of stakeholders and efforts, so that we make the most of every opportunity to share lessons learned; leverage successes to expand commitments; and generally make sure that we are being strategic with the way in which we are greening this enormous, decentralized organization,” says HGCI director Leith Sharp, an environmental engineer and educator. “Harvard is known to have the most extensive green-campus initiative of any university in the country.”

HGCI, for example, facilitates the certification process of the 26 buildings (new or retrofitted) at the University that have been or will be submitted for consideration as LEED structures. (LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a series of standards for sustainable structures set by the U.S. Green Building Council, a nonprofit building-industry consortium.)

Michael Guarino and Sandy Lacey / Harvard University Planning Office

An overview of Harvard's LEED structures.

The glass-fronted library-services building at 90 Mount Auburn Street, in the heart of Harvard Square, is the latest LEED-certified structure. Not only was nearly all of its construction waste diverted from landfills and its water use reduced far below Environmental Protection Agency requirements, but the 30,405-square-foot structure relies on a ground-source, or geothermal, heat pump that uses the earth’s natural temperatures to warm and cool inhabitants. The former steam plant at 46 Blackstone Street in Cambridge, which was renovated as offices last year—fittingly, it houses University Operations Services—has earned the platinum LEED rating, the highest ranking available. Energy use in the 40,000-square-foot building is half that of conventional designs, and water consumption is reduced by 40 percent. (For other LEED buildings, see the map above.) The Allston science complex, already slated to emit record-low greenhouse gases, will also have a ground- source heat pump and other state-of-the-art energy systems.

Photograph by Rose Lincoln / Harvard News Office

Landscaping at the Blackstone building features native plants and "no-mow" grass.

Very important, Sharp notes, is the fact that most of HGCI’s programs and strategic projects use an entrepreneurial business model: they are paid for through the money they save. To date, she says, the initiative has saved the University about $7 million a year in reduced utility costs. One highly successful venture is the $12-million Green Campus Loan Fund: “We have funded close to 150 projects, investing $9 million over the last five years to produce an average rate of return over 30 percent,” she notes. “Our biggest contribution to the international campus sustainability movement is our work to prove that this makes as much sense business-wise as it does environmentally.”

Other HGCI endeavors include teaching 9,000 students (graduates and undergraduates) how to reduce the waste of food, paper, energy, and water in residential environments; conducting long-term peer training for the more than 500 employees in Harvard Dining Services and Facilities Maintenance Operations focused on improving building operations; and conducting assessments that have reduced energy use in targeted buildings (by up to 30 percent so far) and have instituted more than 200 conservation measures for fiscal year 2008. The initiative also promotes a campus-wide green cleaning service, to reduce reliance on harmful chemicals, and supports the Commuter Choice Program, which subsidizes public transportation and enhances bike services.

Sharp and others agree that much of the work involves changing human habits—and that requires consistent marketing and outreach, along with singular efforts. “As we consider the various forces that influence the quality and sustainability of our environment,” asserts Thomas Vautin, the University’s associate vice president for facilities and environmental services, “it is clear that most come from the multiplying effect of the many seemingly insignificant decisions and actions made by each of us every day. We are all consumers in one way or another simply as a result of our very existence on this planet. Thus, individually, we are ultimately responsible for the use of energy in our buildings and transportation, and our personal selection and consumption of products and services has an enormous effect on global resources and production of waste. The challenge is that in order for us to make truly informed choices (and perhaps change some old habits), we must have a full and unbiased understanding and awareness of the real consequences of our actions—even though we may not personally see or experience them as they occur.”

Read more articles by: Nell Porter Brown

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