On college and university campuses today, few buildings represent the larger campus community better than sports and recreational facilities. Consequently, it goes to reason that these facilities should reflect higher education’s embrace of green facilities, and in turn that their design and construction should typically warrant high levels of LEED certification. Yet, in actuality, few schools overcome the challenges of designing sports and recreation projects that reach beyond the basic certification level for LEED.

Sports and recreation centers are in many ways unsustainable by default. These facilities tend to be huge, require large quantities of materials to create and operate, typically use great amounts of water and energy, have variable and sometimes unpredictable use patterns, and are often accompanied by expansive, impermeable parking lots. But that doesn’t mean that institutions can’t embark on several relatively low-cost initiatives that not only will allow them to achieve high levels of LEED certification, but will also create a sustainable facility that will save money too.

Work With What You've Got

To start, schools should refrain from building new facilities if possible. The greenest building is almost always the one that is never built. When contemplating a new sports or recreation project, schools should first take stock of existing facilities. Perhaps new programming and performance goals can be met by adapting a current recreation center, saving millions of dollars in the process.

If a renovation or adaptive reuse is possible, focus priorities on enhancing the insulation value in the exterior envelope and upgrade mechanical systems to meet today’s efficiency standards. The renovation of Harvard University's Hemenway Gym actually doubled the annual energy use due to the addition of air conditioning to the previously naturally ventilated building. However, users per week went from 3,000 before the renovation to 10,000 after. Energy use per user, therefore, actually decreased by 30 percent per year. The renovation also negated the embodied carbon and environmental impact from the materials avoided by renovating instead of building new. For any materials you can't reuse on site, work with a salvage company to find other uses for them or recycle them. Over 95 percent of the construction waste from Hemenway's renovation was diverted from the landfill.

Orientation Isn't Just For Freshmen

Large, active athletic and recreational facilities typically use more energy than almost any other building on campus. If a new building is inevitable, then the design of the new facility should start by trying to tame these energy hogs.

Reducing energy consumption starts with the proper orientation and siting of the proposed facility. Keep the building footprint small and explore different building-massing options. Integrate passive strategies such as natural ventilation, solar chimneys, or thermal walls, and create an efficient building envelope to use as little energy as possible in maintaining your interior climate. Reducing solar glare and maximizing interior daylight will dramatically impact energy use. At the University of Arizona’s Student Recreation Center Expansion (SCRE), users benefit from both 97 percent natural daylight and access to views to the exterior for 99 percent of all regularly occupied spaces.

The building's location on campus can reduce overall carbon emissions by eliminating or at least reducing users’ car trips to the facility. To help students integrate the use of a recreation center into their routine, facilities should be placed as close to the academic or social core of campus as possible and should connect with existing circulation routes. The Wildcat Recreation Center at the California State University at Chico was placed in close proximity to the campus, student housing, and public transportation. Alternative transportation is encouraged by the bicycle and skateboard racks featured in the plaza, as well as by additional parking stalls for mopeds and motorcycles.

Learn to Conserve—and Generate—Energy

Conservation tactics include replacing conventional lighting with newer, energy-efficient lighting; adding occupancy and daylight sensors to lights to better manage usage; installing on-demand ventilation systems that will match system performance to building use; and purchasing only Energy Star appliances. By following relatively low-impact solutions such as these, our firm, Sasaki Associates, has been able to reduce energy consumption in collegiate sports and recreational facilities by over 25 percent.

Once energy demand is reduced as much as possible, universities should explore the possibility of generating energy on site. One option is to install photovoltaic (PV) arrays on the roofs of these facilities to generate on-site electricity that will offset the facilities’ demand from the grid. In addition to solar power, explore wind or geothermal energy. Erecting enough wind turbines or PVs on campus to supply your needs is not easily achievable. A promising funding mechanism for renewable energy is to enter into a power purchase agreement where the provider installs, owns, and operates the energy source on the facility and sells the school the energy with the option to purchase the system after a certain amount of time—requiring no up-front investment by the school. Alternatively, many states offer grants for renewable energy that may make this option more feasible. If on-site energy generation is not something that the project’s finances can support, schools can either purchase “green energy” directly from a supplier or indirectly through renewable-energy credits.

At a more reasonable scale, alternative sources could provide enough energy to feed all or portions of the facility’s HVAC system. Geothermal heat pumps installed at Plymouth State University Ice Arena and Welcome Center in Plymouth, N.H., powers the facility’s ice-making equipment while simultaneously meeting the facility's heating and cooling needs. This system will give the school an annual energy savings of $111,000 and has a payback period of about eight years. Using solar thermal to meet water-heating demands is typically a great option for recreation facilities with high water demands. The Wildcat Recreation Center’s solar-thermal array meets much of the heating demand for the building’s outdoor pool.

Watch the Water

With many users and long hours of operation, sports and recreation facilities can use great amounts of water. Reduce usage and save money by adding 0.5-gpm aerators to faucets, replacing standard flushometers with dual-flush flushometers, and replacing standard fixtures with high-efficiency fixtures. By implementing similar initiatives, Sasaki was able to reduce the water use of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s East Campus Athletic Village by 43 percent over a typical code compliant building at no added cost to the client. The firm similarly reduced the University of Arizona’s SRCE’s water use by 47 percent. Water can also be conserved by altering a facility’s irrigation needs. At the Wildcat Recreation Center, strategies included a weather-based irrigation controller to adjust water applied on a daily basis and the selection of drought-tolerant, native species in all planting areas. These efforts helped reduce irrigation water consumption by 51.6 percent from typical campus buildings.

By harvesting the rain that falls on these facilities’ roofs and parking lots, universities can save money on their water bills. Rainwater is collected, stored, and redeployed as needed to meet certain demands of the facilities, such as toilet flushing, field irrigation, HVAC supply, and clothes and dish washing. On the Drexel University Recreation Center expansion project in Philadelphia, the project team installed a rainwater harvesting system that helped Drexel reduce its clean water usage by 30 percent, a reduction that will amount to thousands of dollars in savings. At the University of Arizona’s SRCE, a massive percolation bed under the sand volleyball courts assists the facility in retaining over 30 percent more stormwater on site than the predevelopment condition.

Another water-management initiative is the addition of bioswales to any large surface parking lots accompanying a facility. Bioswales are landscape features designed to capture and clean stormwater runoff. The bioswales installed at the Plymouth State University Ice Arena and Welcome Center filter out silt and pollutants in the water before it enters the ground, greatly reducing the environmental impact of the facility.

With a thoughtful, comprehensive approach to the design of sports and recreation facilities, institutions will find that they can design their facilities to reach beyond the basic level of LEED certification. A recent study by Sasaki found that a combination of good design with passive and active sustainable-energy strategies yielded a 60 percent to 70 percent reduction in overall energy consumption for a project in New England. With this much of an energy reduction and the introduction of PVs for the remaining energy demand, our goal of creating a zero-net-energy recreation center or maybe even a net-positive facility becomes possible. Universities who keep a similar, long-term focus on building and maintaining sustainable sports and recreation facilities will do great justice to their student bodies and further support their images as leaders in sustainable practices.

Tim M. Stevens, AIA, is a principal in Sasaki Associates's San Francisco office, while Bill Massey, AIA, is a principal in its Boston office. Sasaki is an integrated planning and design firm involved in nearly every aspect of design—strategic planning, master planning, urban design, landscape architecture, architecture, interior design, and graphic design—and operating at scales ranging from a renovated building to the design of new communities.sasaki.com