Green Buildings: RIC, VPAC, & a 300-level Class

By Brooke Canetti, contributing writer

Every day many students at Daemen University walk into the Research and Information Commons (RIC) and find a comfortable spot to do their work under soft natural lighting, with windows that prevent glare so they can study unbothered, and outside paneling to regulate the temperature. What they don’t know is that they are enjoying the perks of a green building—or what a green building even is.

Green buildings are designed to have a minimized impact on the environment by taking measures to reduce waste, use healthy materials, and be more energy efficient.

The official organization behind these green buildings, the U.S. Green Buildings Council’s (USGBC) mission is “To transform how buildings and communities are designed, built, and operated to create thriving, healthy, equitable, and resilient places that advance human and environmental well-being.” 

Some of the features that make Daemen’s RIC green are high-efficiency lighting fixtures with sensors, solar panels on the roof, pumps that use geothermal energy for heating and cooling, window paneling designed for optimal, energy-efficient natural lighting, and occupancy sensors for efficient temperature control.

“I don’t think people fully appreciate why the building is designed the way it is,” Dr. Brenda Young, professor of biology and chair of the global and local sustainability department said.

Green buildings are more than just aesthetically pleasing and energy efficient, but also reduce or absolve the occurrence of ‘sick building syndrome.’ According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, sick building syndrome describes the situation in which “building occupants experience acute health and comfort effects that appear to be linked to time spent in a building, but no specific illness or cause can be identified.” This syndrome is one more often attributed to Daemen’s Duns Scotus (DS).

Instead of the beige-walled offices and classrooms in DS, the colorful and bright feel of RIC’s rooms radiate erases that sick feeling many might get. Exposure to natural environments has been shown to improve mental well-being and cognitive function and reduce stress levels.

While improved occupant experience is another one of the benefits of green buildings, it is not the only one. They are financially efficient, too.

A common misconception of many environmentally friendly options like these is that they are an added expense. In reality, it is the opposite. The costs of operating these buildings are reduced because the technologies in them conserve water and energy used for heating and cooling. Many green buildings like the RIC use natural energy methods, such as solar, hydroelectric, geothermal, or wind.

“Green buildings do cost a little more upfront, but they save you in the long run,” said Young.

The RIC is not the campus’s only green building.

The Haberman-Gacioch Center for Visual and Performing Arts, which most students know as the VPAC, was designed to achieve LEED Gold Status, and did so shortly after the RIC.

The VPAC also uses geothermal technology for heating, has windows similar to the RIC that allow for a lot of natural lighting, and water-conserving fixtures, among many other features. 

LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is the official rating system used by the USGBC that awarded both of Daemen’s green buildings LEED Gold status.

The LEED Gold plaque located on the first floor of the RIC, signaling the recognition of the building as a Gold level green building. Photo by Brooke Canetti.

There are four levels to LEED rating: certified, Silver, Gold, and Platinum. The level of certification a building earns is based on how many points it accumulates from LEED’s criteria. Some criteria are worth more points than others. For example, optimizing energy performance earns 18 points, while including bicycle facilities earns 1 point. Some criteria are also required, such as storage and collection of recyclables, construction activity pollution prevention, and minimum indoor air quality performance. 

The points accumulated do not matter in terms of certification unless it goes through an in-depth review conducted by Green Business Certification Inc. It includes a pre-certification review, a construction review, and a post-construction review.

As commendable as the RIC and VPAC’s Gold certifications are, the buildings might not be considered green by LEED’s current standards. Ultimately, the buildings do not have as many green features as they once did, when they earned their certifications under the 2009 version of LEED. Considering that the buildings achieved their status over a decade ago, both the buildings themselves and LEED’s standards have changed.

“Unfortunately, they’ve actually gone in and made changes to our existing green buildings to make them less green in many ways,” said Young. “They compartmentalized the space; that changed the airflow of much of the building [RIC]. They also did the same thing in the VPAC when they reconfigured it.”

Currently, there are no plans to improve or modify the existing buildings. Although they would not be considered green buildings by the most recent version of LEED, once certification is earned, it does not expire.

Furthermore, while both the RIC and VPAC have features that are designed to conserve energy, there is no way to tangibly prove how effective they are.

“There is no separate electric meter on either of our green buildings, so we don’t know how energy efficient it is,” said Young. “Then, the same thing with water. We don’t really know how much water is being used in various buildings on campus because most of the buildings show the same water meter.”

For several years now, Daemen has provided the opportunity for its students to learn about green buildings like the RIC through the class “Green Buildings” (IND/SUST-326), cross-listed as both an interdisciplinary course (IND) and sustainability course (SUST).

Young, who teaches the course, said she thinks it has helped in terms of student awareness. The course counts to fulfill the ‘Math Exploration’ portion of the natural science credit requirement for students, so the many students who are deterred from math-based courses can instead take IND/SUST-326. It also is one of the possible courses that can fulfill students’ depth discovery requirements, if they declare the topic areas, “Challenges to Human Survival,” or “Building and Disrupting Communities.”

Sophomore physical therapy student, Emma Hill, said that she took the course because it fulfilled her natural science credit.

“I didn’t even know there was such a thing as green buildings,” Hill said.

The course not only introduces students to the concepts of green building design but also explores how Daemen has incorporated them, which allows students to physically see what they are learning about on a local scale—something that most other courses do not offer. 

IND/SUST-326 is designed to “introduce students to the concepts of green building design through the use of Daemen’s buildings as experimental laboratories,” as stated in Daemen’s course catalog.

“In one of the first exercises in the class, I send people to spend time in various buildings,” said Young. “Several people commented this semester they’ve never even been in the art building, so, if nothing else I’m making them aware of that space and the features of the space.”

The course covers a wide range of topics surrounding green buildings such as historical background, human response, and different criteria from LEED such as location and transportation, water efficiency, energy and atmospheric impact, building materials, and indoor environmental quality.

Besides the fact that students can learn about their own school’s sustainability practices, the course also educates on sustainability practices that students can implement into their daily lives and encourages them to do so. 

Students learn in-depth ways to conserve water, recycle, use sustainable materials, and how to minimize their personal energy use. Some of these include alternative landscaping techniques, home insulation materials, and energy-efficient transportation.

 “It’s our role to try to educate them,” said Young.

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