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If only it was $11,500 we were talking about.

At the same time as our university installed the Solar-Dok, it broke ground on a new student dormitory. This time the stakes are a little bit higher – the dorm is slated to cost $17 million. How is this relevant, don’t we need to build dorms to house students? Yes, but we’ve decided that this building would be built to LEED “Gold” standards – i.e. it’s going to be a “green” building. To make a building certifiably green requires two major expenses – planning and production. The planning costs include the increased costs to design, commission, documentation and energy modeling to meet LEED requirements. Estimates of these costs are evasive – this source indicates that they range from 1.5 percent to three percent of the costs of construction. For example, a Natural Capital center in Portland that is a third larger than our building is estimated to have cost $322,000 in planning alone (3.2 percent of its $10 million in construction costs). Building green also requires a change in the way buildings are constructed and a change in the materials used. The need to label a building green implies that building green is not cheap. The physical expenses include more work at the site itself to prepare it, different HVAC systems, different lighting systems, different roofing systems, different materials, and different places to secure materials from as compared to building conventionally. Estimates of added construction costs are in the three percent to eight percent range.  For example the construction of a Steelcase furniture manufacturing plant in Michigan to LEED Silver standards is estimated to have added three percent to its construction costs. More complex facilities build to higher standards would likely cost more.

Taking a moderate range from the two cost estimates (6 percent of total costs) then building our new dorm to LEED Gold standards is probably going to add about $1 million to the costs of the dorm. Let me ask some reasonable questions.

(1) Is spending an extra million dollars to construct the building going to deliver energy and water and maintenance savings? If so, how much?

(2) Is spending an extra million dollars to construct the building going to deliver the promised environmental benefits? At what cost?

How many of you think I would get clear answers to these questions if asked? How many of you think that someone actually did these calculations? I am sure someone did. Right? After all, we’re talking $1 million. We’re talking valuable resources, someone else’s resources. It’s all just harmless symbolism, right?

Is there any way to address these issues and still be invited to a New Year’s Eve party?

8 Responses to “Turning Green into Gold”

  1. Rod says:

    How many students will be housed in this dorm? Are there dining facilities in it? Can it be built partially underground or into a hillside? Is it important to adhere to Gothic architecture?

    I wonder if the students who inhabit the dormitory will take care not to leave windows and doors open and thereby defeat the theoretical savings of whatever insulation and windows are used in the building. No keg parties where the expensive building materials might get destroyed, either.

    How about re-locating the university in a warmer climate, or having a winter campus and a summer campus? I bet that would attract a lot of students. Why fight the weather in Rochester, NY? Brrrrr.

  2. RIT_Rich says:

    Oh! U of R is finally building a new dorm. 17 million dollars for 150 beds? Incredible. If U of R had crossed the river into the 19th Ward, they could have purchased 38 4-bedroom houses for about 2.5 million dollars. (at about $ 65,000 per house, which in the 19th ward will get you a massive 3-story 6 bedroom mansion) Spend another 1 million to repair and modernize them. This would have provided the same occupancy, for better comfort to the students (they would be real homes), plus would have provided 38 home owners with a nice profit, would have raised property values in the entire area, and would have attracted more businesses to move there (like Boulder Coffee did for precisely that reason).

    Now I know the local Marxists and “community organizers” would be up in arms protesting for months, just like they did when the hotel was build there a few years ago, claiming that rich white kids were pushing working class peoples out of their homes bla bla bla (even though everyone in the area was begging U of R to buy their homes)

    Clearly, before we get to whether 1 extra million dollars will pay off in real energy terms of imagined environmental terms, the question should be asked whether 17 million dollars for such a complex is not extreme. Sometimes I wonder how universities spend their money. For 17 million dollars they could have bought half of the 19th Ward!

  3. Brent says:

    OK… sometimes you do things, irrespective of the cost, simply because it is the right thing to do… in this case, you do it simply because it is the left thing to do…

  4. chuck martel says:

    Making the not-necessarily correct assumption that a new dormitory is actually required, the design of it and other dormitories comes to mind. First of all, why not, if efficiency is paramount, house the university in one big building? Start with a core containing the mechanical necessities and just keep adding space as required. What could be more practical from an energy standpoint?

    Second, designers of dormitories seem to forget one of the most important aspects of the building, the fact that its residents move in and out over very short periods of time, there’s lots of moving. You would think that the dorm would be designed and built to make this process as easy and uncomplicated as possible, but no, they’re built pretty much like public urban housing.

  5. Dan says:

    It’s not your main point, but I wonder if you can clarify what you mean by “someone else’s resources.” I got a little confused here. If PepsiCo wants to build, say, a cider production facility, how do we determine which constituencies to consult? Is high-level management sufficient, or should shareholders be consulted, and possibly consumers as well? Shareholders, however small, supposedly own the company, and PepsiCo might be financing the facility with revenue from sales to consumers. It’s hard to imagine that agents can have a lot of power of their own if they had to consult with every “principal.” Depending on how broadly we want to define it, aren’t all resources someone else’s? If so, how relevant of a point is it to this discussion?

  6. Harry says:

    Dan, interesting point. Pepsico’s board of directors have a fiduciary duty to the stockholders to maximize long-term returns. Part of the way one does that is by not wasting money. Management, who work for the board should heed the board’s wishes.

    Pepsico can do as it wishes, as long as it is legal. That includes wasting its own money. They can build an organic cider plant run by OWS unemployed art history majors, but it should be done for the purpose of profit. (Fun fact to know and tell: Dagen McDowell, Fox Business News analyst, got her degree from Wake Forest, majoring in Art History.)

    I am not sure how the U of R is structured, but I expect it is a corporation run by a board of trustees elected according to rules in the University’s charter. That charter probably gives the board broad latitude to do prudently whatever they want, including foolish things in the name of education. It is their right to finance a $14,000 solar picnic table, and spend an extra million or two on a politically correct dormitory.

    However, I would expect them to respect the traditions of academic freedom and free inquiry, which is different from the FCC’s fairness doctrine. If the professors and students run around supressing unpopular ideas and promote the fad of political correctness, the trustees have the duty to discipline the professors and students by not granting their every wish.

    The dormitories should be built to attract students. Everywhere there are economic compromises: do you build a Ritz Carlton with daily maid service and the nice bathrobes, or do you reserve a little more for the library and the science labs?

    Hey, it’s a free country, right?

  7. […] is spending $17 million on new student dormitories that students will move into next month. We reported briefly on the dorms back at Christmas-time. I've spent some part of my summer learning about LEED […]

  8. […] back to the symbolism. When the best you can do is to appeal to the symbolism of almost everything you do – e.g. […]

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