Principal, Ayers/Saint/GrossDirector, Campus Planning Studio

Luanne Greene, AIA, LEED AP, is the Director of the Campus Planning Studio at Ayers/Saint/Gross (ASG), an architecture and planning firm specializing in campus planning for colleges and universities. With 25 years of design and planning experience, she has been a strong advocate for smart and sustainable campus planning strategies which address both the campus and local community’s needs.

Luanne has worked with numerous colleges and universities throughout the Baltimore area and across the nation, including: Johns Hopkins University; the University of Maryland, Baltimore; the University of Delaware; the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Wake Forest University; the University of Georgia; Washington University in St. Louis; and the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Luanne is a member of the American Institute of Architects, the Society for College & University Planning, and the Greater Baltimore Committee’s Leadership Program, and the board of directors of Live Baltimore, a non-profit organization focused on education and marketing outreach to promote city living. Luanne is a registered architect in Virginia and a LEED Accredited Professional. She received both her Bachelor of Science in Architecture and Master of Architecture degrees from the University of Virginia.

Ayers Saint Gross’s history dates back more than 90 years, but in the 1980s, the firm’s leaders decided to focus on non-profit institutions, specifically in higher education. What led to this decision?

In those almost 100 years, public work was always part of the strength of the firm. In the 1980s, the firm’s leadership reflected on the success of our projects in higher education, our satisfaction with that work, and the overall quality of those projects.

Can you describe your client base?

The most striking characteristic of our clients is how diverse they are. We work for large public institutions like the University of Wisconsin-Madison with over 40,000 students, as well as small liberal arts colleges, community colleges, and everything in between. That’s  one of the things we love about it – the diversity of the project type, client type and physical characteristics.

In general, how far into the future do most colleges/universities look when master planning (5 yrs, 10 yrs? Is there an average?)

Our ethos, which I think works well with a lot of colleges and universities as well as cultural institutions, is that they are there to stay. They are not going to pick up and move to another city. They are going to stay in place. We typically will establish a vision for the next, say 50 years, but then implementation strategies within five years – those are projects you’re actively planning to build – and ten years – the next group of projects. So it’s near term (five and 10), mid-term (10-20) and then beyond. We usually provide two or three snapshots of how the vision would come into place.

For a firm like ASG, what is the greatest challenge to balancing sustainability with the hard and fast realities of a campus, such as the need for parking, classrooms, labs, etc.?

We are definitely believers in integrated planning. All of the issues have to be blended together. One of the characteristics of higher education institutions is that they are mission-driven. The generic mission of a university is: teaching, research, and outreach/service. We’re helping them find the balance to make it all work together.

Is this demand for sustainability new in campus master planning?

I would say that over the last five years, it has become a key issue. Before that, you’d be more likely to need to explain why an institution would care about sustainability. Now they come knowing it’s important and needs to be incorporated as a core planning value.

What do you think is the primary factor motivating colleges and universities to strive towards sustainability? (The American University College and Presidents’ Climate Commitment? Pressure from students? Alumni? Budget? Regulatory requirements?)

It’s absolutely all of those things. It’s also that it makes sense. It is an important issue for recruitment and retention and it is a common sense way to save money and resources.

Sustainability is defined so loosely, in so many different ways, with so many components. When it comes to campus planning, what components of sustainability seem to be no-brainers to your clients and what components are hard sells?

One of the key aspects of sustainability we think about is compaction and density – that you should disturb as little of the land as possible and create a lively, intellectual community at the same time. A compact footprint that works with the land and the surrounding context is key to the form of the campus. So, utilization of resources – how many classrooms we have and if they are being used wisely and intensively – is, in fact, an issue of sustainability. It relates to energy use in terms of cost as well as climate impact.

Probably ten years ago, concern for integrated stormwater strategies was an area that was a harder sell. That’s much less so now, and I think changes in regulations have done a lot to make that happen. Today, institutions are seeking out new strategies for managing their important resources.

Another thing that is not so much a hard sell, because it’s very logical, but is challenging because it requires individual changes in behavior, is transportation. Getting people beyond the mindset of one person=one car is a very personal shift for people and usually requires a lot of  leadership. Usually a suite of options rather than one single solution works best with that challenge.

Are there common threads of sustainability that can be woven into any campus’ master plan, regardless of regional differences such as climate, land use patterns, political relationships, etc.?

I think respect for the land is the starting point. One of the first drawings we do on any plan is an analysis of the topography. What is the shape of the land? Where is the vegetation? Where does the rainwater go?  What is the solar orientation? What is the context of the community around it? That’s really where we start.

We often talk about the responsible capacity of the land, which we consider to be the carrying capacity within the culture of the institution and the community. We find that people in an intellectual setting want to be close to each other. A professor in one science discipline wants to be close to another researcher in another science discipline. They want to be close to each other for academic reasons. The head of security wants them to be close together because it makes it easier and safer for campus police because patrols are shorter and faster. The transportation person likes it because the same shuttle bus service might work for both people. So wise use of land and resources is probably the most common theme that runs through everything.

Who among the many members of a campus community (students, faculty, administration, staff, surrounding community) seems to be talking the most about sustainability?

I don’t think there is a single answer to that question. Higher education institutions do have very distinct personalities. We have some campuses where the students – hands down – are the most excited about it. We have other areas where it comes from faculty and others where the administration is pushing it. There is really no single answer, which is exciting.

Sustainability is often talked about as having three pillars – economy, ecology and society. In general, based on your experience, do institutions of higher education tend to prioritize these pillars?  If so, how?

As I mentioned earlier the three pillars of higher education are teaching, research, and outreach. That’s the first lens through which higher education looks – through their own mission and strengths and priorities from an academic point of view. I don’t think they are incompatible with the three pillars of sustainability. I think higher education has always had to balance these lofty, mission driven ideals against very straightforward, common sense [realities such as] implementation, budget, enrollment numbers – the hard facts and figures sustaining their operations. It seems compatible with their approach to problem prioritizing and solving.

When your clients initially discuss sustainability, where does the topic of the landscape and its natural resources fall in the conversation?

That varies by the campus. I think it comes up faster and with great intensity in campuses where they have a unique, beautiful or distinctive land resource. A lot of our campuses do, particularly the land grant institutions. What we try to do, even when working with a more urbanized campus, is really promote that as a distinguishing characteristic. We try to encourage [our clients] to never lose sight of the landscape features. They give a place its identity and character. The larger ecological context needs to be part of the character of a campus, even if it’s urbanized.

Do you find that people listen to that?

They are receptive, even if it’s not always completely intuitive to make those connections. But I think leadership is, in spite of the complexity of the issue, part of what being a college or university is.

What trends to you see in the way colleges/universities involve all stakeholders in discussions of sustainability?

People want to be involved in this discussion. Sustainability is such a broad topic. You’ll find people who are primarily motivated by energy, finances, social justice issues or the ecology of the setting, etc. There is really something for everyone. We rely on a consensus-based planning process so we typically involve all of those stakeholders anyway. Web sites have definitely been a great tool for planning in general. Having a web site for the planning process, and having a way for people to get information and ask questions and connect has been a big plus. But we still do traditional public meetings and face-to-face conversation. The interesting thing about having an open, town-hall style meeting is that you might come with a particular question about energy, and you’re going to get an answer to that question. But the person two seats down from you might have a question about ecology. In listening to that question and answer, you may become aware of an issue you were never tuned into before. You just can’t beat the face-to-face public meetings for bringing people together and helping to balance the sets of issues.

Paul Rowland, the Executive Director of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, believes that the short-term nature of most institutions’ funding mechanisms is actually the greatest challenge to the movement toward sustainability. As someone who works in master planning, a long-term initiative that is funded, I’m curious to know if you agree. If not, what do you see as the greatest challenge your clients face in moving toward sustainability?

I agree that funding is a real challenge. In my experience, it has been more about the compartmentalization of budgets. Where does the money come from and where do the savings go? I do think the complexity and nature of funding for higher education is  a key element to truly integrating sustainability.

For instance, let’s say we have a facilities need that will be predominantly  addressed through fundraising for a new building. A dean will be in charge of raising, say 50 million dollars for this project. They’re going out and working to develop a pool of money that the school is going to use to  pay for the new building. Let’s say that the building need is going to be three stories tall, but the capacity of the site can handle five stories. How is that going to work?  Do you under-build the site?  Is there another pool of resources and users that can be tapped so that full capacity is achieved?

One of the interesting things we’ve been dealing with lately has been height and density. Most mature campuses have been there for 100 years or so, and the easy development sites were probably developed first and early on. Now they’re getting to more and more complex development sites and the preciousness of their real estate resources is a heightened concern. This is causing a very interesting and good debate about height and density, and not wasting sites.

So what happens if you have a chunk of money from Pot A and a chunk of money from Pot B and we want to pull those resources together and really see the true capacity of the site come to fruition? How does that work? We are dealing with a need for creative problem solving on the funding side, absolutely. Universities don’t usually have a pot of money just lying around to top off that dean’s fundraising efforts to put in swing space that’s going to be university “owned.” So how can they develop those resources? Of course now is an extremely challenging time for all funding issues in higher education.

How can firms that focus on ecological planning better understand the challenges faced by higher education institutions?

I certainly found that the ecological context of the physical setting can be one of the most powerful and compelling components of any plan, but it’s complex and  not simple to explain. It’s not the same as doing an analysis of how many people work here and how many theoretical parking spaces we need. It’s interrelated to a wide variety of issues.  Most Americans know how to drive a car and understand how to park it.  Not that many people have a working knowledge of the components of ecological planning.  So first there’s an education component, then the problem solving.

I would recommend you do anything you can to break those complex and often nuanced relationships down so they can be understood. Understanding how those components work together and why they are important in the first place is the first piece in making sure those components are valued, protected and enhanced.

Can you give a few interesting examples of how some of your clients have incorporated sustainability into their master planning efforts?

The story of the [University of North Carolina’s] Carolina North campus has been one of the real success stories of how the ecological planning really created consensus about where development should be on a parcel. A series of parcels were assembled by a professor named Horace Williams. In 1940, he gave this property to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It’s about a thousand acres – an incredible site, located about a mile and a half from the University’s main campus. Up until now, it had many uses. It served as a regional airport and an interesting collection of unrelated University and municipal support functions.

For a long time, through the 1960s and 1970s, the main campus had enormous capacity, and could accommodate the surges of growth related to enrollment, research and patient care. In the 1980s, there  was a heightened awareness of Carolina North, and the University started planning work on it. There was a plan done at that time, which conceptualized development at Carolina North around transportation nodes. By the 1990s, the main campus capacity was getting tight and people started talking about Carolina North from a programmatic point of view – what programs will go out there and how will  it work?

In 2006, Chancellor James Moeser identified  that the challenge for Carolina North was to create a model of sustainable community. He was talking about how Carolina North will be built and framed the challenge in a very distinctive way. Consequently, one of the first things we did,  in early 2007 (with Biohabitats’ assistance) was an ecological assessment of the parcel. That analysis resulted in every acre of the land classified on a spectrum from “most appropriate for conservation” to “most appropriate for development.”

Not surprisingly the areas that had already been disturbed (such as the airport) were the areas that were appropriate for development. They also happened to be the areas that were  adjacent to existing streets so they were  accessible. So it made a lot of sense and became the underpinning that led us to the creation of different concepts of how  the plan would fit together, programmatically and physically. That process of refinement kept building  until we ended up with the plan we have today, but the University and the Town of Chapel Hill have used that plan as the basis for their work together to create new zoning and a development agreement for the next 20 years that was adopted in June 2009.

The foundation of the campus plan for Carolina North is rooted in the ecological aspects of the land. Because the site is so beautiful in some areas, there’s a real love of the place and a desire to not lose that.  Working Landscape will connect the existing natural areas of Carolina North to the developed areas of the campus; color and texture will vary with the seasons.”

This project was really successful. One of the really satisfying moments of the project came during a public meeting. The ecological assessment had been done and we were developing land use concepts, which involved a lot of public meetings. We’d hand out comment cards at the beginning of the meetings and then collect them at the end. I can remember reading one from someone who said, “I still don’t want Carolina North to be developed, but this is a good plan.” In other words, this person was still politically against the development, but was appreciative of the effort, thought and logic that had gone into the creation of the plan.  I think that appreciation began with the ecological assessment. People could understand the starting point.

Do you believe that colleges/universities are truly integrating sustainability into their whole institutional framework, or is there still work to be done?

There’s still work to be done. For some institutions it has been a big shift. For others, it hasn’t been as big. But I think we’re still in transition.

Anything else you’d like to say to Leaf Litter readers about sustainability in the campus master planning process?

We often talk about our plans  striking a balance between the visionary and the realistic. In other words, a plan that doesn’t have a clear and exciting vision is not likely to be implemented because it can’t rally enthusiasm. Yet if it isn’t realistic, it won’t be implemented for different reasons. Really, what you’re trying to do is find a balance between those two ends of the spectrum. Integrating all these issues of sustainability with the mission-driven aspects of the institutions is really what we’re trying to do.

Got an idea?

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