Sustainability-focused community college consortium and architect find common ground in creating higher education campuses and buildings that prepare students for new green economy
The economy, according to The Sixth Wave author Dr. James Bradfield Moody, has entered its sixth wave of innovation—resource efficiency, brought on by the 2007-2009 recession.
The Illinois Green Economy Network (IGEN), a consortium of Illinois community college leaders, contends that community colleges can be a major force in preparing the next generation to ride that “sixth wave.” Therefore, IGEN is driving a transformation of Illinois’ higher education system toward sustainability-based education, making students ready for the new green economy. One of the key tools of that transformation is the physical campus, which has the potential to not only educate about the benefits of sustainable design, but also to support the curriculum.
It was with this focus on elevating campuses to “living labs” or “green building demonstration sites” that IGEN recently gave an Outstanding Partner Award to Legat Architects.
Stephen Bell, IGEN executive director, presented the award at the organization’s annual Sustainability Conference at Heartland Community College in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois. Legat was the only corporate partner amid several community colleges that received an award in the Second Annual IGEN Recognition Awards. According to IGEN, recipients “exhibit outstanding sustainability-related work that supports individual colleges and the network as a whole.”
IGEN/Legat collaborations have ranged from energy-related programs at Illinois community colleges to helping a Chinese university system restructure its educational approach toward a sustainable model that emphasizes renewable energy.
Bell said, “Whenever I’ve had a question about green building design and its intersection with education, Legat has always been there to answer my question and offer its assistance.”
“We’re deeply honored to receive this award from IGEN,” said Vuk Vujovic, Legat’s vice president and director of sustainability & energy. “The organization has done an exceptional job in bringing sustainable initiatives to community colleges, and we’re happy that it recognizes our ability to leverage thought leadership and sustainable design expertise to create environments that are conducive to these programs and supportive of a greener kind of economy.”
IGEN: Arisen from the Recession
It was in the midst of the 2007 – 2009 recession when leaders at seven Illinois community colleges assembled. They discussed how to move their institutions forward based on where jobs would be. The group, led by Dr. Jerry Weber, then president of Kankakee Community College, saw an opportunity to help the State of Illinois and its community colleges grow by embracing the intensifying focus on sustainability. In the following years, the members would gather, share resources, and find funding to build a platform. Thus was born IGEN.
Today, all 48 Illinois community colleges have signed an intergovernmental agreement to be part of the organization. Bell believes that “over a third of them have witnessed a change in culture, a third are in process, and a third are still trying to find their way.”
IGEN has obtained grants to help colleges with infrastructure projects that resulted in energy savings. For instance, the organization led a renewable energy initiative involving the installation of solar arrays on 17 different campuses. Operators use a dashboard to track energy use across campus.
A recurring challenge for the sustainability champions at community colleges is to connect sustainability efforts with student success. This has been particularly hard to accomplish in the past several years given the state’s budget issues. Fortunately, many community colleges have sustainability-focused staff.
“As companies realize there is no funding for colleges to spend, they fall by the wayside,” said Stephen Bell. “Legat is always there, working with the colleges and giving advice. That dedication, commitment, and helpfulness is what I hear from our colleagues at sister organizations across the state.”
Architecture Helps Bridge the 4 Cs and Green Jobs
According to Bell, sustainability spans the “four Cs” that drive the organization’s efforts—campuses, careers, curriculum, and community. “We’re asking ourselves, ‘Where are those green jobs?’ and ‘How do we help colleges build the pipeline to give the students the skills that they need to be prepared for those jobs?’”
As it turns out, facilities that employ green features help bridge the four Cs to bring the skills and knowledge to make students employable. When it works with community colleges to initiate programs, IGEN often talks about creating a demonstration site. That means incorporating into facilities everything from energy-efficient lighting and HVAC systems to green roofs and rainwater harvesting.
“The goal is to surround students with the latest sustainable innovations and technology in the built environment so that it spreads across the curriculum and into all disciplines,” said Bell. “A peripheral benefit is that energy-efficient buildings help colleges save money that they can apply toward student success.”
IGEN also understands and tries to take advantage of the extent to which local businesses/job opportunities are embedded in the two-year institution. Through a $20 million Department of Labor grant, IGEN helped create over fifty certificate and degree programs in the green industry sector. Seventeen different community colleges worked together to achieve this, and the curriculum is housed in an open-source online database that any college can access to create its own course.
Legat has designed sustainable facilities that focus on regional career projections. Examples include the College of DuPage’s Homeland Security Education Center and Training Center, Joliet Junior College’s Health Professions Center, and Oakton Community College’s Lee Center for Science and Health Careers. All these facilities integrate curriculum-driven sustainable strategies.
Each year, almost a million students attend Illinois community colleges. Both IGEN and Legat believe in the power of sustainable design to pervade not just environmental science and construction management courses, but also classes in everything from dentistry to fine arts.
“Sustainability can be taught in any building,” said Vujovic, “but if the building is intentionally designed as a teaching tool, equipped with solar panels, wind turbines, daylight harvesting and geothermal systems, recycled materials and drought-resistant landscaping, students will absorb sustainability and energy concepts better and faster and take that knowledge with them to transform our economy.”
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