Challenges and Opportunities

Wind Turbine at University of Minnesota Morris Photo Credit: University of Minnesota Morris
Wind Turbine at University of Minnesota, Morris
Photo credit: University of Minnesota, Morris


Because of the extraordinary, exponential growth in the population and the technological and economic systems since the mid-20th century, and despite all environmental protection efforts, all living systems are declining at an increasing rate. We are severely disrupting the stability of the climate, giving rise to a multitude of social, economic, security, and public health challenges worldwide. This is happening with 25% of the world’s population consuming 70-80% of the world’s resources.  Higher education plays a unique and critical role, often overlooked, in making a healthy, just and sustainable society a reality. Colleges and universities prepare most of the professionals who develop, lead, manage, teach, work in, and influence society’s institutions, including the business and building sectors and the basic foundation of the K-12 education.


Buildings account for an estimated 40% of greenhouse gas emissions, a major contributor to global climate change. In the higher education arena, many institutions are constructing high-performance, healthy facilities that reduce or eliminate harmful emissions and waste. At the same time, these facilities increase quality of life and productivity for their occupants.

However, many colleges and universities are facing hurdles. Often the barriers to green building are not purely financial; studies show that the construction costs can be comparable to traditional designs, and operational savings from green building are significant. Many financially under‐resourced institutions lack financial support for construction and renovation because of small endowments.  Their dependence on tuition is low because these institutions often cater to first generation and minority students, and they have limited access to other funding sources. These institutions are also in great need of renovations and retrofits to their facilities because their physical plants are aging, and old technology is proving inefficient. A Second Nature study indicates that many under-resourced institutions face some or all of these challenges:
  1. Isolated colleges and universities are members of peer groups that have few green building projects to date. They may not be aware of the resources that are already available to assist them in their green building endeavors.
  2. Some institutions are stuck in myths because decision-makers perceive green building to be too expensive and/or not of the same quality as traditional construction. 
  3. Some institutions are housed in historic buildings with old infrastructure that may be more expensive to renovate.
  4. Schools interested in green building may be unable to afford the learning curve that can arise from a lack of in-house technical expertise and a limited choice of building consultants charging high premiums for green building. 
  5. Among those institutions moving forward with green building, some are encountering obstacles to gaining the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification (LEED®, a green building rating system developed by U.S. Green Building Council). These may include the additional expenses attached to hiring a LEED® accredited professional, managing and completing the LEED® paperwork, and paying the US Green Building Council certification fees.
  6. Some institutions find that LEED® does not meet their specific needs for a variety of reasons, including conflicts with local building codes. 
  7. Some institutions have built green but find that their buildings are under-performing, mostly due to operational challenges that reduce the expected energy and water savings from the building.

OPPORTUNITIES: Green Building Practice

Green building can provide significant benefits for colleges and universities by reducing their carbon footprint, while simultaneously reaping the financial, social, environmental, and educational paybacks presented by green building principals. Benefits include:

  • Optimizes life‐cycle economic performance
  • Enhances asset value and profits
    Library at College of the Menominee.
    Library at College of Menominee.
    Photo Credit: College of the Menominee Nation
  • Reduces operating costs significantly with no significant difference in average cost compared to typical building
  • Decreases greenhouse gas emissions significantly
  • Reduces solid waste
  • Conserves natural resources
  • Enhances and protects biodiversity
  • Minimizes stain on local infrastructure
  • Enhances occupant comfort and productivity 
  • Reduces indoor air pollution and protects human health
  • Provides educational opportunities
  • Enhances institutional competitiveness
  • Improves community relations
  • Demonstrates and pilots new innovations

High performance green building includes considerations of building site, water efficiency, energy use, materials use, waste reduction, indoor air quality, and landscaping from an environmental and health perspective. Buildings constructed to green building standards can enhance and protect ecosystems and biodiversity, reduce solid waste, conserve natural resources, and reduce the consumption of fossil fuels. Health and community benefits include: improving air, thermal, and acoustic environments; enhancing occupant comfort and health; and minimizing strain on local infrastructure. Green building can also have economic benefits including reducing operating costs, enhancing asset value and profits, improving employee productivity and satisfaction, and optimizing life‐cycle economic performance (Source: USGBC).