Mispronouncing a name or acronym during an interview is a common fear – I lived it. I found out after the fact that the acronym I mispronounced happens to silhouette students’ experiences at UW-Madison, in places such as Union South and the newly-opened Wisconsin Energy Institute. Without making that mistake, I would have never learned of this campus’ recent strides toward sustainability.
The acronym of my mispronunciation was LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, pronounced “lead”, v.) which is a point-based building certification issued by the United States Green Building Council. Recently, LEED certification has come under scrutiny for a handful of points that are relatively easy to obtain and those that are achievable through additional financial investments.
Despite these controversial undertones of the certification system, the pursuit of LEED certification at UW-Madison has been positively transformative. My fellow Badgers, LEED has provided UW-Madison with baselines, tools and fresh perspectives towards building. As any student can tell you, it’s not about the knowledge learned in class – but how it’s applied to life. If LEED certification is a sustainable exam for buildings, it’s only a seed for sustainable ideas throughout the building’s lifespan.
LEED certification isn’t the end-all to our goals, but it will open up the conversations we need to have about sustainability. With the push that LEED certification gives, architects, engineers, contractors, owners and building managers can find motivation in ways beyond their typical sustainability approach. In a time when financial cuts are prevalent, it’s easy to push the responsibility elsewhere. In the publication industry, the “New York Times” announced in January that it would be closing its environmental reporting desks in favor of having the responsibility fall on other departments. If anything, we need to find ways to create conversations on sustainability as a central issue, not as a sidebar. In the design and construction of a building, using LEED at least reserves a chair for sustainability that everyone at the table must acknowledge exists.
Here on the UW-Madison campus, we pursue a minimum of LEED silver certification on most major projects. Today, we have four buildings on campus which have achieved LEED certification of varying levels with ten additional projects working towards future certification. The Wisconsin Energy Institute, which opened its doors January 2013, is one of the next slated for certification for LEED efforts. The Wisconsin Energy Institute, was designed with a 30% water use reduction, solar panels with an educational outreach area and native vegetation including biofuels, all of which gain points needed to reach LEED certification.
No other place demonstrates the seed of growth that LEED can become more than Union South and its story of the Sun Garden tables. When the building opened, students flocked to the compressed sunflower seed shell table-tops manufactured in Minnesota. Shortly after, the tables started to wear away at the edges, putting them up for replacement. It would have been easy to choose generic replacements for the tables because the LEED documentation was complete. Instead, wooden tables crafted from the Amish community were selected, moving the sustainability of the building beyond LEED certification.
Besides the Amish hand crafted tables, sustainability continues today at Union South into post LEED certification through various programs. Sustainability is kept active through a green cleaning effort, a (pre- and post-consumer) composting program and a green roof monitoring project for writing vegetative roofs into future building specifications. Now that’s moving forward.
Along with the continuing evaluation of sustainability, post-occupancy brings challenges. Metering and monitoring of a building’s energy and water usage are among the hurdles on the horizon. Hopefully, our campus leaders and building managers are up to this task and the many others which lie ahead.
It’s likely I never would have mentioned sustainability in that interview, or penned this call to action without UW-Madison’s pursuit of improving sustainability on campus. It got me talking.