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Constructing efficiency

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NATALIE YEMENIDJIAN / Bull

The Los Angeles Community College District wants to sell you an education wrapped in a big, “green” bow. Consumer culture is now geared toward environmentally conscious products, and apparently education is no exception.

Just like the label on an Arrowhead water bottle boasts of the 30 percent less plastic it uses, the district has labeled itself a “leader in environmentally responsible construction” on its Web site at www. laccdbuildsgreen.org.

Hence, the district mandated to certify every new construction project with the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. LEED is the U.S. Green Building Council’s building standards that rate each building.

In total, $6 billion in taxpayer money from bond measures Proposition A, AA and Measure J will be spent on constructing new structures on all nine campuses in the district. Pierce College has been authorized to receive more than $719 million of the total bond money. Energizing a campus Not everyone agrees with how the bond money is being used. Much of the criticism of the school district’s building practices surround one of the E’s in LEED: Energy.

“It’s all about energy,” said Craig Meyer, environmental science professor at Pierce College. For a building to truly be eco-friendly, Meyer said, it must be energy efficient. Buildings use 71 percent of the electricity and 40 percent of all energy in America, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. The district spends more than $9 million on energy bills a year, according to Larry Eisenberg, executive director of facilities, planning and development from the LACCD.

“You can design a building, then implement all these components they’re using to conserve energy or use less,” Meyer said. “Or, you can design a building that doesn’t need much energy.” If thoughtful design could wean the school district from unnecessary energy use, Meyer believes there would be no need for costly mechanisms.

The lowest LEED rating is certification, then silver, gold and platinum. The city of Los Angeles also requires every new building to be at least LEED certified, according to the city’s Web site.

The most prominent critic of LEED standards in the U.S., Henry Gifford, asserts certified buildings use more energy then their noncertified counterparts in his report “A better way to rate green buildings.” Gifford, who has worked more than 25 years as a building scientist, cited a study from the New Buildings Institute of Vancouver, Washington.

The institute found LEED buildings to be 20 to 30 percent more energy efficient than a regular building, but Gifford saw cracks in the investigation. The buildings chosen to be in the study were not a random sample, according to Gifford’s report, and they were not built at the same time of the non-certified buildings.

“If you follow LEED you’ll be more efficient than many other buildings,” Meyer said. “I’d like to see LEED say fine, design your way, anyway you want, but make sure structural design and component design are efficient.”

Eisenberg would like the mandated standards to be temporary. “My hope is actually that it is a transitory system and then it goes away,” Eisenberg said. Certification is $4- to $5 thousand a building. Although it is not a substantial price, it can add up.

The licensed buildings save money over time, Eisenberg argues. Originally, he wanted each building to be energy independent; he even wanted buildings in the district to go off the grid from local power utilities. It was a goal too ambitious even for the LACCD.

“I now describe our aim as energy independence,” Eisenberg reportedly said on laccdbuildsgreen. org. “Going off the grid was a tantalizing idea…we could have essentially said goodbye to the power companies and eliminated utility bills entirely. But, if we stay connected, we will have to pay for access to the utilities, even if we find a way to satisfy all our power needs with renewable energy.”

It does not help that the six colleges in Los Angeles Department of Water and Power territory are required to have power generated to it from the DWP, according to Eisenberg. The interim chancellor of the LACCD, Dr. Tyree Wieder, sent a memo to faculty and staff addressing a Los Angeles Times investigation into the district’s use of bond money and the energy program.

“The energy program is very complicated and costly with the proposed end result to reduce energy bills to the colleges,” Wieder said in an e-mail. ” We have an energy task force reviewing the proposed energy plans to see if they are the best fit for each of the colleges.”

The Times is also apparently investigating the LACCD’s use of consultants, the quality of construction management and planning, according to Wieder’s memo.

“I believe really strongly in the idea of continuous improvement and good use of taxpayer dollars,” Eisenberg said. “In a similar way the idea of the Times looking at our program, I welcome that too…If on the other hand, the Times’ interest is to just sell newspapers, I don’t think its really a positive thing.”

Form over function In the district’s pursuit of higher enrollment numbers, aesthetically appealing buildings play a major role. The old buildings looked funny, according to a focus group of students from Los Angeles County who went outside the LACCD for community college. The study was conducted by the school district.

The look of the campuses was a pivotal reason why Los Angeles

residents were going elsewhere for higher education.

At the highest point on campus, in the parking lot of the Art Building at Pierce, solar panels have been contributing to powering nearby buildings. However efficient they may be, they are not very handsome.

“[The buildings on the Pierce campus] all are mission style,” said David Tsao, college project manager with Build LACCD. “You don’t really want to throw solar panels on top of those rooftops.”

Tsao was the former operations manager for the Los Angeles office of Swinerton Management and Consulting, the company that is managing new construction projects affiliated with the bond measures.

The first priority in building is the ability to educate in a functional institution, Tsao said. Next, it is the context of the building to the rest of the college campus. Finally it is the building itself. The latter includes comfort, structure and any efforts to be sustainable.

“You can build a building that stays pretty comfortable all year long, but its going to look like a pretty interesting building,” Meyer said. A truly sustainable building would need to be positioned in a way that may not be so efficient for a college campus.

Windows in the Student Services Building would be more efficient if they could open, but there are safety concerns. “These buildings are not built toward being energy efficient in the design themselves,” Meyer said. “The way they’ve got it planned is not satisfying.”

Although creating environmentally sound structures is a nice concept, it is not first priority. It is about creating new buildings that allow young people to see the future a little more clearly.

“[LEED] isn’t about public relations for us anymore,” Tsao said. “Sustainability is a way of life. I believe in the process.”

 

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