Julia Nagel/Sun Assistant Photography Editor

Building entirely new structures may be more energetically costly compared to renovating an existing structure. Here, construction is in progress on a new dorm as part of the North Campus Residential Expansion.

October 21, 2021

Experts Break Down the Hidden Energy Costs of Campus Construction

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As noise levels and dust particles mark the University’s expansion and renovation of campus, so do concerns over the sustainability of these extended projects.

Between the large-scale North Campus Residential Expansion project, planned renovations of Balch Hall and work on the entrance to the Statler Hotel, construction has long been a constant of campus life — including within the past few months.

The University states that construction projects across campus meet rigorous environmental standards — all large projects since 2008 have been LEED certified, at least at a silver level.

Matt Kozlowski MPS ’17, Cornell’s Green Building program manager, described LEED — a certification system run by nonprofit sustainability organization the U.S. Green Building Council — as a comprehensive review system that evaluates the sustainability of a structure from its construction throughout its lifespan.

The rating, which is a point-based system, evaluates a building’s impact on land and water resources, its energy efficiency, the indoor environmental quality for those who use the space and the constituent materials of the building, Kozlowski told The Sun. 

Along with aims to use sustainable materials whenever possible and to reduce the impacts of increased water runoff and dust during construction, Cornell has earned points across projects by committing to energy efficiency. For example, Cornell uses solar panels and innovative cooling systems that use cold water from Cayuga Lake rather than artificial coolants in its new buildings and renovations.

Despite the benefits of these sustainable measures, architects and sustainability experts say LEED rankings and points are not necessarily the best standard.  

Prof. Greg Keeffe, architecture, explained that LEED certification is not special — it is typical for nearly all commercial buildings to reach a silver LEED certification. 

“I often think that LEED [and other building standards systems] are all about modifying current behavior rather than thinking about the future, so they’re just really sort of benchmark rather than some amazing award for really innovative things,” Keeffe said.

In a stroll around campus, though, many of Cornell’s construction projects are not necessarily as visibly innovative because they are renovations of existing buildings rather than entirely new structures.

These types of renovations are the most sustainable projects of all.

For every building constructed, the “embodied energy” is the initial energy expenditure used to build the structure. This includes the energy used to make the materials, transport these materials to the construction site and power the tools used to assemble the building.

“If you make concrete, then you have to bake calcium carbonate in an oven, so you’re using energy there. If you’re cutting stone and transporting it to site, you’re using energy there,” Keefe explained. “When you [add] all that energy up, it’s about 10 times the typical year’s energy use for the building to heat and cool itself.”

In other words, according to Keefe, by renovating existing structures rather than using and transporting materials to create entirely new buildings, about 10 years of energy expenditure can be conserved.

For recent renovations, like that of nearly 120,000 square feet of the interior of Martha Van Rensselaer Hall from 2001 to 2020, and upcoming projects like renovating Balch, the energy saving of working on an existing structure is compounded by the renovations’ emphasis on energy efficiency.

“Many large structures on campus have had multilevel gut rehabs, which really renews the life of those structures,” Kozlowksi said. “It brings it up to current standards of use and will update all of the systems so that they are operating in a sustainable manner.” 

Despite these steps toward sustainability, the University still must weigh large energetic costs of renovating and expanding campus. 

“We’re just trying to do it in the most responsible, energy efficient, sustainable way we can because that growth is going to happen somewhere,” Kozlowski said.

In the future, Keeffe said he hopes that students from the College of Architecture, Art and Planning and throughout the University will be able to get more involved in these efforts as construction zones remain across campus.

“You’ve got 400 architecture students desperate to change the world,”  Keeffe said. “Along with all the other disciplines, you could have really good interdisciplinary modules.”