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Sustainability is key in new UNCG building

by Amy Kingsley

The UNCG Board of Trustees has voted to add a new building to campus. The structure will incorporate classrooms, offices and, if professor Anna Marshall-Baker has her way, a full catalog of sustainable technologies and materials.

Marshall-Baker, in her capacity as head of the faculty senate, has championed the cause of campus sustainability. She and more than 50 faculty and staff members have formed a sustainability committee charged with examining university practices and recommending changes to make the campus more ecologically and socially responsible.

UNCG sits on a 500-acre chunk of land surrounded by residential development. The campus used 156 million kilowatt hours of energy, 330 million gallons of water and produced 1,400 tons of trash in 2002-2003 according to a campus sustainability report. Although several existing buildings have energy- and water-saving features, none yet meet the rigorous criteria for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification from the US Green Building Council. If Chancellor Patricia Sullivan and the Board of Trustees approve, the new building would be the first on campus with such certification.

“It’s a process that assures there is a consideration of environmental and human health when buildings are constructed,” Marshall-Baker said.

Marshall-Baker teaches in the department of interior architecture and said her interest in sustainability grew out of professional concern for how human health is affected by man-made structures. Sustainability as a concept concerns much more than environmental impact, Marshall-Baker said. It involves labor practices and fair trade as well.

“The inequities revolving around sustainability are huge,” she said. “If I turn on a light, I can trace the line that produces that energy back to the coal mines in West Virginia.”

The committee will consider subjects like land use, energy efficiency and waste reduction that have an immediate impact on the environment. But they will also work to change the consciousness of sustainability among students.

“If this is going to work,” she said, “it is going to take a cultural change. What we have here are the stewards of future communities. To have a LEED building is great, but that doesn’t make us successful.”

Enthusiasm for sustainable projects on campus runs high. When Marshall-Baker solicited nominations for the committee, she expected 20 to 25 responses. She received 57, and more than 50 of those have participated in early meetings.

Universities from across North Carolina have already taken the lead with sustainable programs. UNC-Chapel Hill, NC State, Duke and Lenoir-Rhyne College already have sustainable energy projects underway. But the size and breadth of UNCG’s sustainability committee make it unique, according to Jenny Paige, the campus sustainability coordinator.

“I worked at NC State for an assessment and they had an appointed committee of about ten or twelve people,” Paige said. “This is the first voluntary committee I know of and the only one this large.”

The formation of a sustainability committee at UNCG is about two years overdue, Paige said. The sustainability coordinator said she thought the university would form one after completion of the campus sustainability report in 2003.

The sustainability committee has subdivided into nine working groups to focus on areas of concern. Those working groups have not yet met.

A handful of committee members have already traveled to Tuscon, Ariz. for a conference hosted by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. Marshall-Baker said North Carolina was well represented. In one meeting she attended, four out of 20 participants hailed from the Old North State.

“This group started on the West Coast,” she said. “But they’re attracting people from North Carolina. That shows there’s national interest in this.”

Interest in sustainability is also intergenerational. The chancellor and other administrators have been enthusiastic about incorporating sustainable projects, but students have taken the lead. A group called UNCGreen is trying to draft a renewable energy fee to be voted on by the student body.

Investing in energy-efficient technologies makes sense environmentally and fiscally, said Jay Lennartson, a professor in the geography department active with the sustainability committee.

“Universities are finally waking up to the fact that it makes sense to be more sustainable,” he said.

Lennartson studies climate change and likened UNCG’s environmental impact to that of a small city. By next spring, members of the committee plan to present a report with their recommendations for that city to the board of trustees. On Earth Day, they would like to unveil the next steps the campus will take.

“The students are well involved in this,” Marshall-Baker said. “They are well engaged. And they should be. They are the generation that is going to inherit all of these unsustainable practices.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com

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