Queen’s Centre needs more green

Building designs should set the environmental bar higher than LEED Silver certification

Evan Sterling, Sci ’08
Evan Sterling, Sci ’08

If Al Gore or David Suzuki had visited Queen’s campus a few weeks ago, I think they would have been fairly impressed. They could have talked to the AMS election candidates about their plans to institute organic composting in residence, seen some three-dimensional advertisements for Waste Reduction Week in Stauffer Library and taken a tour of the vermicomposters at the Tea Room. Everywhere you look, Queen’s seems to be getting greener. But there’s one large part of campus that still has a green question mark hanging over it: the gaping hole that will become the Queen’s Centre over the next six years.

Why should we care about yet another environmental guilt trip? There are at least three good reasons.

Firstly, buildings are one of our biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions—more than 30 per cent of U.S. emissions, according to a 2007 McKinsey and Company report—and the Queen’s Centre will doubtlessly be the largest energy consumer at Queen’s. No other project will have a bigger impact on the university’s collective footprint, be it positive or negative, than this building.

Secondly, like it or not, the Queen’s Centre will be our biggest legacy to this campus. It will be there for upwards of 50 years, consuming energy at roughly the same rate it did when it was built. Shouldn’t we want the class of 2058 to have the most up-to-date and energy-efficient building possible in 2008?

Thirdly, our $71 Queen’s Centre fee (soon rising to $141) makes us one of the project’s funders. Although we may not be able to demand changes to the design or withhold our financial contribution, as one AMS candidate team proposed, we have the right and obligation to regular updates on the project’s status, just as major private donors do.

To be sure, we’ve been told the University is pursuing a LEED Silver certified rating for environmental performance and has hired a sustainable design consultant from Ottawa. Though that may sound impressive, it doesn’t necessarily mean as much as we might hope. The LEED green building rating system has caused a big rise in the number of environmentally efficient buildings over the last few years, but even fans such as myself would admit it’s not a perfect system and one LEED building isn’t necessarily as green as another.

For example, the Queen’s Centre would receive a point towards LEED certification merely because of its proximity to local bus routes, without making any improvement in the design at all. Recognizing that the LEED Silver standard is no longer a sign of true environmental leadership, other organizations such as the federal government and the University of Calgary have raised the bar by requiring all their new buildings to meet higher LEED targets.

The presence of a “sustainable design” consultant isn’t especially confidence-inspiring, either. This firm has limited experience in major new construction projects, according to the selected firm Arborus Consulting’s online portfolio of completed projects. In my limited experience, truly sustainable design doesn’t require a separate consultant because the architect and engineers are already thinking green from the start.

I don’t think Queen’s is trying to “greenwash” the student body; projects such as the cogeneration plant by Kingston General Hospital and the photovoltaic panels on the Integrated Learning Centre show some forward thinking. But I suspect that if fundraising isn’t able to match rising project costs, the green features some architects and engineers still see as costly add-ons will be the first to be axed.

So what can we do as a student body when the project is already well underway? We can request more specific details on the centre’s green plan (such as, for example, how much energy use will be reduced from a comparable “non-green” building’s consumption) and we can request regular updates on the project to ensure these features aren’t lost during design changes.

Energy-efficient windows and roofs may not be as sexy as hybrid cars or organic composting, but by being informed about and advocating for them, we show the Gores and Suzukis of the world, and ourselves, that environmentalism is a cause we’re committed to for the long haul.

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.