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The University Magazine

Sustainable Shelter

The solutions to the world’s energy shortage and greenhouse gas emissions could be close to home.

In February, RIT students completed construction of the first RIT-sponsored Habitat for Humanity home, a dwelling designed to be environmentally friendly on a budget.

President Bill Destler and his wife, Rebecca Johnson, were on hand for the wall-raising celebration when construction on the RIT-sponsored Habitat for Humanity home began in November.

RIT’s University Services Center and Center for Student Innovation received LEED Platinum certification.

In February, RIT students completed construction of the first RIT-sponsored Habitat for Humanity home, a dwelling designed to be environmentally friendly on a budget.

The idea originated with President Bill Destler, who issued the challenge to the members of the Habitat for Humanity club. They joined forces with RIT’s Engineers for a Sustainable World student chapter, and many volunteers from all corners of campus joined weekend work parties to build the house in Rochester. Construction began in November.

“Our primary goal was to focus on repeatable features that were not super extravagant and to reduce the energy cost of the home owner,” says Alex Ship, a sixth-year mechanical engineering B.S./M.S. student from Needham, Mass. “We focused on any aspect or any feature that would pay for itself in the first 10 years. There are features that we could have done like geothermal heating where it’s really efficient and quote-unquote green. But for a project like this where you have low capital in the beginning, you can’t spend half your budget on the heating system.”

The students decided to incorporate elements including a ventilation delivery system designed to minimize heat loss, a 95 percent energy-efficient furnace, an air-lock entry system, tankless water heater, soy-based foam insulation, pipe insulation, natural lighting, a roof allowing adequate summer shade and solar panels.

One house in an older Rochester neighborhood may seem like a small step on the road to a sustainable future. But it’s a step in the right direction: The construction, operation and maintenance of buildings are responsible for as much as half of global greenhouse emissions. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, buildings account for 36 percent of total U.S. energy use and 65 percent of total electricity use.

Interest in sustainable construction has increased noticeably in the past decade, says Mark C. Coleman, co-manager, RIT Clean Energy Incubator and senior program manager, Golisano Institute for Sustainability. “Sharp and swift energy cost increases have caused people to look more closely at sustainable building. Consumers are looking for homes that are more energy efficient, cleaner and require less maintenance.”

And more programs and choices are available. Many builders of new homes offer an Energy Star home option, which features energy-efficient heating and cooling systems, appliances and other products.

Some states offer incentive programs to help owners of older homes pay for upgrades that improve energy efficiency. The Obama administration’s proposed Home Star program – widely known as “cash for caulkers” – is also drawing attention to the need to make homes more energy efficient. The program would offer subsidies for the purchase of services, like roof insulation, as well as products, like efficient windows and furnaces. A second part of the program proposes incentives tied to overall reductions in a home’s energy usage.

Beyond saving money on energy costs, corporations and organizations such as universities have other incentives for pursuing sustainable building practices, Coleman says. The public and shareholders are increasingly concerned about companies’ carbon footprints. Plus, says Coleman, “Industries project that what is voluntary now may become regulatory in the future.”

The federal government and growing number of states and cities already require that new public buildings meet the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED or other standards. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification provides third-party verification that a building’s design incorporates strategies aimed at improving performance across categories including site selection, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, indoor environmental quality, and innovation and design process.

RIT has made a commitment that all new buildings on campus be constructed to LEED standards. The University Services Center and Center for Student Innovation, which opened last summer, received LEED Platinum certification, the highest designation. In 2008, the College of Applied Science and Technology building was designated LEED Gold, second-highest level of certification.

In addition to the LEED certification program for buildings, the U.S. Green Building Council also has developed standards for certification of professionals such as contractors, architects and designers. It’s becoming an increasingly important credential.

“A growing number of alumni are earning certification,” says Nancy Chwiecko, associate professor, interior design. The department is currently offering its first course in LEED certification for interior designers. “Many employers are looking for this,” she says.

Chwiecko recalls first hearing the term “sustainability” in 1992. “Early on, it was a buzzword.” Many of the principles are not new, she points out: minimizing waste, use of long-lasting materials, avoiding products that might cause pollution either in production, use or disposal are factors designers are trained to take into consideration. She adds that there’s no such thing as 100 percent sustainable. “You look for the best choice, not the perfect choice. And budget is always a factor.

“We believe that good design is sustainable design,” says Chwiecko. “We incorporate sustainability into all our courses. It’s part of what students learn naturally.”

Ellen Schott, a senior interior design major from Canandaigua, N.Y., says Chiwiecko’s course in specifications taught her to keep sustainability in mind when choosing materials. “For one thing,” she says. “I look for companies that are considering recycling.”

Shawn O’Hara, a senior interior design major from Rochester says, “I was pleasantly surprised to see how well sustainability and green design was incorporated into the program at RIT.”

McKenzee Fisk, a senior interior design major from Scottsville, N.Y., says that viewpoint extends beyond her department. With an academic focus in environmental studies, she is taking classes in several RIT colleges. “Everyone is thinking about sustainability.”

In fact, RIT offers a growing number of sustainability-related academic options, including Ph.D. degree programs in sustainability, computing and information sciences (environmental informatics focus), and microsystems engineering (alternative energy or energy efficiency).

For more information on these and other aspects of “Sustainability at RIT,” visit

Now that “sustainability” has entered the popular lexicon, students are also learning that concern for the environment needs to be tempered with a healthy dose of skepticism.

“There are a lot of claims,” says Charles Lewis, professor, interior design, and an architect. “We use the term ‘green-washing.’ Things that are trendy actually can be wasteful. You need to look for good design that will hold up for years, even generations.”

Look around, says Lewis. You see buildings sitting empty, old buildings being torn down to make room for new construction. Even if the new buildings are more energy efficient – more sustainable – there’s still a huge cost in land and resources.

Alex Bitterman, also a trained architect and an associate professor of graphic design, offers this definition: “Sustainability means leaving the world a better place than we found it. And that’s a challenge,” says Bitterman.

“Can we continue doing what we’re doing? The answer is no.”

Bitterman says that meaningful change will come only when consumers embrace a new way of thinking about the way we use resources.

Think about compact florescent light bulbs, for example. They may last longer and use less energy than conventional electric bulbs, but they are more difficult to manufacture and recycle and contain reasonably significant amounts of mercury and other heavy metals.

“Which is better?” asks Bitterman. “The answer, perhaps, is not to need to use so much artificial light.”

Kathy Lindsley