Building Green at LSU

In LSU’s Atkinson Hall, fifth-year architecture students are designing a building for downtown Baton Rouge that will cut down on carbon emissions and use a fraction of the electricity it takes to power comparable structures. A few classrooms away, a group of fourth-year students is discussing ways to build smarter, more energy-efficient buildings. Even second-year students in intro-level courses are focusing on design with the environment in mind.

It’s all part of a concerted effort by LSU’s School of Architecture to teach students about “building green.”

“When you look at energy consumption and global climate issues, it’s critically important that our students become leaders and take responsibility for designing buildings that are energy efficient and environmentally friendly,” says Thomas Sofranko, interim director of the School of Architecture.

That’s what green architecture is all about. It’s a term that describes economical, energy-saving, environmentally-friendly, sustainable design and development. The concept has been around since the 1970s but has enjoyed renewed interest in recent years, as architects and engineers recognize the threats posed by global climate change and the need to design buildings that will not only stand up to a changing planet but help preserve its natural resources.

Universities are starting to recognize the importance of this movement and LSU’s School of Architecture is among those leading the charge, thanks to Professor Chris Theis. He’s been at the helm of the movement since the late 1970s, and has helped the School develop several courses that teach sustainable design.

“It’s important for our students to be at the forefront of what’s going on out there,” Theis says. “There are just a handful of schools that are actively involved in this and we’re definitely in the top 10 percent of those.”

One of the most significant steps the School is taking to educate students about sustainable design is by requiring them to take a course that, once completed, will lead them to LEED certification. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental and Design) is an organization that provides a set of standards for environmentally sustainable construction, taking into account such factors as water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, indoor environmental quality, and innovation and design process.

LEED certification is becoming increasingly important, as a growing number of clients in the private sector are demanding their buildings be LEED-certified. Several states are also mandating that any new, government buildings meet LEED standards. Even the Louisiana Legislature considered a bill last year that would have required all newly constructed state buildings to meet not only the minimum LEED standard, but the more rigorous silver standard of LEED certification.

“That bill didn’t go anywhere,” explains Theis’ “But bottom line is this is happening all over and our students need to be prepared for it.”

That’s why Theis is teaching the students in his fifth-year comprehensive studio course to design a Visitor’s Center for the Capital Area Complex that is capable of being LEED certified. It’s a lot simpler than it sounds. First, students have to research what LEED certification entails. Then comes the tricky part – figuring out how to implement the items on a lengthy checklist that measures things like how much carbon the building emits, how many electric lights it uses, and how much natural ventilation it has, to name a few.

Access to cutting-edge software helps. Theis’ studio course has a free one-year subscription to Building Green Suite, a computer program that guides users through the LEED certification process, something many professionals in the field don’t yet fully grasp. His students are also familiar with many web-based resources that practitioners are only beginning to realize exists.

“Many professionals and many schools don’t realize this information is out there,” says Theis. “This really gives our students an advantage.”

Fourth-year students are also learning about sustainable design in a studio led by professors Marsha Cuddeback and Frank Bosworth. Cuddeback began boning up on the topic last summer, when she taught a special pilot course on LEED certification. It made her increasingly aware of the need to change the way architects think about how they design. Now, she’s trying to incorporate that new perspective into her fourth-year studio.

“We don’t have choices anymore. The only acceptable choice is to pay attention to how your building is impacting the environment,” she says. “These issues of efficiency and using appropriate materials and the way it impacts economic development is just critical and it’s critical that our students understand this.”

Students are grasping the importance of it. In fact, the course Cuddeback taught last summer, Architecture 4221, came about at the request of students, who wanted to find out what LEED and the certification process were all about.

“I was asked by a group of students last spring to help them find out more about it, and that’s sort of how the course developed,” Cuddeback says. “It was great because I was learning about it at the same time they were and now I’m very interested in it.”

Even second-year students, who are just beginning to study basic principles of architecture, are being introduced to the factors that go into sustainable design. Faculty members are making them aware of issues that would not have been considered even just a couple of years ago.

“It’s the simple things like the orientation of a structure and where the sun’s going to fall on it,” says Sofranko. “As we start teaching kids to think about those kinds of things it makes a big difference.”

It’s making a big difference with practitioners, who are seeking out interns and graduates with a firm grasp of the subject. They need young associates who are up to speed on the latest trend because that’s what the market is dictating.

“Clients are beginning to demand that we become more conscious of the build environment and its impact on other environmental systems,” says New Orleans-based architect Nick Musso. “My client base and most of my peers are beginning to awaken to the fact that we have to address this.”

Musso is impressed by the attention LSU’s School of Architecture is giving to sustainable design, and says the School is one of the leaders in the field.

But there’s still much more that can and will be done to educate not only students but faculty. Theis is involved in several national organizations that promote sustainable design and mandating LEED certification. One such non-profit, Architecture 2030, has issued a challenge to all architecture schools to implement courses on the topic by 2010. While many schools have been reluctant to do so, LSU is already doing it.

Theis, who is also president of the national Society of Building Science Educators, is also leading a conference on the topic in the spring. From that, he hopes to create a series of regional workshops that will be aimed at architecture faculty members who teach design studios.

“It will be a teach the teachers kind of workshop,” he says. Faculty members like Cuddeback are all for it. A recent convert to the importance of sustainable design, she is anxious for the day when the concepts of sustainable design are integrated into everything the School of Architecture does.

“It’s no longer about adding a component to a course that’s called sustainable architecture or green architecture,” Cuddeback says. “It should be fully integrated to the point that it’s hardly recognizable. It should become something that is just done.”