Leila Knowles has always been interested in the environment, but she never expected to be a leader in the "green building" movement on the University of Nebraska–Lincoln campus.
Knowles, a junior civil engineering major, and Jeremy Emerson, a graduate student in architecture, founded the Emerging Green Builders in 2005. The group has students from architecture, engineering and interior design.
"We want to educate and inspire students to become leaders of the green movement and promote sustainable buildings on our campus and our community," Emerson said.
The Green Builders found a platform when UNL students voted in March to raise student fees by $12 per month to pay for half of an $8.7 million addition to the Nebraska Union. If approved by the Board of Regents, the addition will house the Culture Center, which has outgrown its headquarters at 333 N. 14th St. The university or private donations will pay for the remaining costs.
After the spring student government election, the Green Builders began lobbying administrators to build the Culture Center according to standards established by the U.S. Green Building Council. The nonprofit group's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design designation is the official U.S. rating system for environmentally friendly buildings. Those with LEED certifications are evaluated in five areas: sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection and indoor environmental quality.
Green buildings have several advantages over traditional buildings.
Knowles said strategically placed windows bring in as much daylight as possible, which saves energy costs. Landscaping with native plants also reduces the amount of irrigation needed, she said.
Emerson said certain building materials are better for the environment because of what is used to make them or how they're manufactured. Green buildings also are healthier for people who work in them, he said.
Students have supported the Green Builders' ideas. The student senator from the College of Architecture introduced a bill before the Association for Students of the University of Nebraska to support construction of an environmentally friendly building. It passed unanimously.
Knowles said one potential obstacle stands in the Green Builders' way.
"Almost everyone likes the idea, but they want to know how much it's going to cost."
The Culture Center proposal includes a line budget item for LEED documentation. A building can get a basic, silver or gold rating depending on the design features and the materials used. Those that receive the highest rating are typically more expensive to build.
"Once they (university officials) build this, I hope they see that spending more money upfront will cost less in the long run because of lower energy costs," Emerson said. "Hopefully potential donors and students will see that too."
UNL Campus Architect Howard Parker said LEED certification is a growing trend across the country. He said earning the basic certification is within reach, but at this point, he's unsure whether a silver or gold rating is possible. No existing UNL buildings have LEED certification, but the university also is considering it for the International Quilt Study Center on East Campus.
"We have limited funds for all these projects and we'll do the best we can to build sustainable buildings with limited funds," Parker said.
He said UNL recognizes that in the long run, environmentally friendly construction may reduce utility costs, which have strained the university's budget in recent years.
Nebraska Union Director Charlie Francis said the Green Builders had presented "a wonderful idea" and university officials will make the architect aware that UNL is interested in LEED certification.
The Board of Regents will decide Nov. 3 whether to move forward with the Culture Center addition. Francis said if the Regents vote in favor of the project, UNL will select an architectural firm in spring 2007. The design phase could last until 2008, when UNL would solicit bids and begin construction. The building could open in early 2010.
Emerson said when the Green Builders began talking to administrators, the group only expected to raise awareness about environmentally friendly design. Now the administration is using the group as a resource, he said.
"We're the link between professionals, solid research and the administration," Emerson said.
Knowles said that network doesn't exist yet because the green building movement is still new to Lincoln.
"People need to be communicating about what can be done and how will it be done," she said.
In addition to Parker and Francis, the Green Builders have received support from Juan Franco and James Griesen, the current and former vice chancellors for student affairs and Cecil Steward, emeritus professor of architecture.
Knowles said it is too soon to tell if the Green Builders have been successful.
"It's really early in the process, and that's why we need to stay involved and keep pressuring the administration and talking to them to make sure things get done," she said.
Emerson said the process has been a valuable learning experience.
"This has taught me that small groups can make a difference, but it takes collaboration and cooperation between lots of people."