You can’t force clients to make the right choices, but you can introduce them to projects, ideas, individuals, and institutions that are making a difference.
Arizona State University (ASU) wants to green the desert. An early conceptual plan by the university and Phoenix-based Studio Ma for the new Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Building Number Seven (ISTB7), which is now out for RFQ, explores the possibility of the Tempe campus’s greenest building yet, with a large wastewater treatment plant that would recycle graywater and blackwater for both the campus and city, and carbon-sequestering façade tiles that would help scrub the surrounding air. But ASU’s ambitious sustainability initiatives go far beyond a single building: University architect and assistant vice president Edmundo Soltero, FAIA, explains how the school is working toward a carbon-neutral future, and offers tips on how other organizations can reach green benchmarks quickly, without blowing their budget.
What is the university’s long-term plan, and how does it factor as a priority for new projects?
Sustainability initiatives are very much a part of the mantra of the university, and we’re aspiring to achieve climate neutrality by the year 2025 (with the exception of transportation). The portfolio that I manage—development of the capital improvement projects—certainly is going to have a large impact on that. We are actively exploring energy-use reduction but also carbon footprint reduction. For example, if we’re building something that has the main infrastructure built out of concrete, we analyze how much of the carbon footprint we could reduce if we did it with steel or cross-laminated timber. We also track our waste. When we built our new student pavilion, we diverted roughly 95 percent of the waste away from landfill. We do virtual modeling and computational fluid dynamics of all our facilities, and we review those from the programming stage and set the goals that are important to us. In schematic design, we assemble a committee of faculty that are recognized leaders in sustainability in our design and engineering school. We go through the design, the operations, the maintenance—anything that’s going to have an impact on the carbon footprint.
Do you measure performance after projects open?
We are actively trying to do post-occupancy evaluations. In our student pavilion, we track the energy used by lighting and HVAC—we’re able to see those metrics, aim for some very high goals, and see how we’re actually tracking. A lot comes down to occupant behavior: We built a Prius, now we’ve got to teach the kids how to drive it like a Prius, and not a Mustang. We’re installing a dashboard in that building that will have real-time analysis so students can see the impact of leaving the lights on all night or in a room they’re not using. We also have a website called Campus Metabolism that tracks the daily global energy usage of all campus buildings and pushes updates to the students on their iPhones. We are also looking at energy conservation measures in existing campus buildings. We’re trying to build a quasi-religious process about looking at all the systems. Some buildings actually are very difficult to improve—it’s hard to upgrade the envelope, for example, where you don’t allow the Arizona heat to come in. We try to offset energy penalties as much as we can with new construction.
For example, with ISTB7, we’re trying a more comprehensively sustainable approach where we track more than energy. We are thinking about refrigeration systems used to cool the buildings—now, we literally just dump millions of gallons of condensate straight down the drain. We started small—catching some of that condensate and using it to wash balls in the athletic department—and now we’re looking to see if we can change the pH balance of the water so that we can use it for irrigation. We’re also looking at a partnership with the City of Tempe because ISTB7 will be in a location where a lot of the effluents from the city move to sanitary waste facilities. We have the opportunity to take some of the waste from our campus and theirs and make an industrial-scale waterworks. The discussion about actually treating the blackwater for uses such as flushing toilets and urinals in the new building has just started.
How much water would you be able to treat?
Probably a third of the campus, and a large quantity from the city. And if we’re able to actively create a fruitful relationship between ASU and the city that’s going to have a big impact. The larger metro area doesn’t manage water very well, but we could start teaching people how to behave responsibly with such a valuable asset in the desert.
For ISTB7, you worked with a design firm to create a conceptual design for the project before you even opened the RFQ for the project. Why?
We have found that if we’re able to create a physical embodiment of the abstract ideas that we’re trying to pursue, it engages the design community and really raises the bar. We’ve done this for a couple of projects now, and it really has an impact on how we move the design initiative forward. We’re looking for people who are thinkers. Typically, we’re able to hire design professionals directly for this part of the process, and if the design fee’s almost $100,000 that gives me a bit of latitude to explore planning concepts and visualize some of the key challenges. It also allows me to look at the budget, to understand those dynamics, and to make presentations to leadership. It is a very good investment. It’s almost a pre-planning session and allows for a fertile cross-pollination of ideas.
How do you find ways to be creative with a tight budget?
Cost is an undertone in everything we do. We’re very careful about that. Lots of interim meetings with our CFO happen even during the course of these conceptual design developments. But for public institutions, state funding is dwindling. We look to grants, and to issuing a combination of bonds and debt and being very careful to manage our debt-equity ratio. Our auxiliary projects, mainly the student union or residence halls, are managed through a public-private partnership so that we can maximize the use of our funds for buildings that will support the educational mission directly. And obviously we seek donations.
As a client focused on sustainability, what advice would you give to institutions that say they can’t afford it?
We try to engage people from many different disciplines and establish a common language. We collect all the ideas for a building and see how those would manifest in square footage and specific infrastructure early on, and run a budget analysis. So even two weeks in, we’ll know how much over budget we are and be able to start the paring down and prioritization process. It’s different than a design-centric approach. We are always looking for excellence in design, but the first conversation we have with any architect for any project is about this collaborative process where everyone down to the facilities department is going to be engaged—and their input is equally important.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. This is an expanded version from what appeared in print in the November 2017 issue.