On its surface, Grand Valley's shiny new academic building, Lake Ontario Hall, looks like a standard university structure with classrooms and offices. But it's more than that. It's the latest example of a new way of building at Grand Valley -- a method that aims to create healthy facilities for their inhabitants and the environment.

"We now have begun to look at the buildings themselves, to make sure that they are as environmentally friendly as we can get them," said James Moyer, assistant vice president for Facilities Planning.

The $12 million building was built to LEED specifications -- that's Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design. LEED is a certification process instituted by the U.S. Green Building Council, a coalition of corporations, builders, universities, government agencies and nonprofit organizations working together to promote buildings that are environmentally responsible and healthy places to live and work.

The LEED rating system awards credits for satisfying green building criteria in categories like site selection, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and indoor environmental quality. There are higher levels of LEED certification -- silver, gold, platinum -- for buildings that earn even more points.

Lake Ontario Hall was designed to pass LEED muster. The review and certification process can take six months or more. It is located on the south end of the Allendale Campus on what was part of a parking lot -- a site that is more ecologically responsible than building on open land.

Here are its LEED features:

  • Lake Ontario Hall is near a bus stop, giving students, faculty and staff alternatives to driving;
  • The interior and exterior lighting was selected to minimize light pollution;
  • There are outside views from virtually everywhere, and the offices and corridors are bathed in natural sunlight;
  • There's a lack of light switches in favor of light sensors;
  • The plumbing uses low-flow fixtures, and the urinals are waterless;
  • Many of the materials used in the building were recycled, and more than 80 percent of the construction waste generated was recycled.

Even the air in the building is energy efficient. Project manager Ray Vanden Berg said the carbon dioxide in the air is constantly monitored, and fresh air is brought in when needed. In other buildings, there's a set percentage of fresh air content maintained at all times, and that air needs to be heated or cooled depending on the weather. This new method brings in the outside air when it is needed, providing a healthier environment and saving energy.

Moyer said the university made the decision more than a year ago to build all new university structures to LEED standards. Subsequently, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm issued an executive order saying new state-funded buildings must be built to these same standards.

The first LEED-certified Grand Valley building was the Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center in Muskegon. MAREC is a business incubator and research and development center for alternative and renewable energy technologies. It also serves as a major demonstration project of those technologies and uses a fuel cell, photovoltaic cells, a nickel metal hydride battery system and microturbines to power itself independently from the grid. MAREC recently earned gold LEED certification.

"There's no doubt energy conservation is going to be more and more critical as the years pass on," said MAREC's Executive Director Imad Mahawili. "I think this is a start. I think everything in this facility is a demonstration and a test of what a start is. Our power equipment and LEED certification -- this is a new experience to all of us. After that, it depends on economics."

Government mandate or market-driven?

And part of the economics of a building is the energy conservation, he explained. "If it works for the economics, then energy conservation is going to be repeated and used. So we've been using this test now for a lot of these things, and if it applies, then, yes, it's going to be successful and it will spread," Mahawili said.

The debate pits free-market supporters against those who think the government should mandate stricter environmental protections.

Figuring out the economics is part of MAREC's mission. The center was established as a SmartZone created by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation in 2001 as part of an effort to promote and attract high technology business development in the state. It functions as a business incubator for companies working on developing commercial applications for alternative and renewable energies.

Mahawili used the example of catalytic converters in cars.

"Converters are very expensive pieces of instrument invented and developed to be installed in the automobile for environmental and health protection," he said. "Now it's standard equipment. But it took a government mandate to make it a standard equipment. Whereas if you left it to the individuals, I don't think they'd go and choose it based on economics."

That's the debate right now -- do we put government mandates in place or should it be left to market forces?

"If you let it be, we will make selections based on economics. It will take longer. Therefore, the answer pegs it to the oil prices or the gas prices or the coal prices," Mahawili said. "But if you mandate it, it takes a different direction. And there are really valid grounds being fought right now for those two arguments."

Moyer noted that it is only natural for Grand Valley to be at the forefront of these questions.

"Traditionally in this country, universities have been leaders on many fronts. When you look at any social change or economic change in this country, you'll find some university or several universities who believe that something has to be done," Moyer said, comparing growing environmental awareness to the anti-war and civil rights movements of earlier generations. "That's the type of change that's out there." Ultimately, Moyer said, the question boils down to sustainability.

"We've got people asking some fundamental questions. Not, 'Is that right or wrong,' but 'Can we sustain our current way of life?'" he said.

In the end, sometimes the best course of action is to let nature take more control. That's the approach the university has taken to storm water.

"I know I can continue to sink money into storm water management systems," Moyer said. "But Mother Nature took care of it before I got here, so let me see if I can help out a little bit, do things a little bit differently. Grow trees, grow plants that take advantage of the water and save the energy in the process. I don't have to manicure that lawn."

Page last modified July 20, 2011