Rice University
Rice Magazine| The Magazine of Rice University | No. 1 | 2008

Green Grass Roots

The Rice Student Green Building Initiative may have started small, but it has big plans for sustainable construction on campus.

An odd thing happened in autumn 2006: Despite the changing weather and the natural push toward dormancy, something green grew. It was a tiny seed of an idea planted in the fertile soil of junior Stephanie Squibb’s mind. It grew along with Rice University’s Vision for the Second Century plan for a million square feet of new campus construction, until finally, it flourished into the Rice Student Green Building Initiative (RSGBI), a conscientious campus club that gives students the opportunity to help build grassroots awareness of and interest in environmentally friendly building techniques.

“As an architecture student, I have been progressively interested in environmental and sustainable issues,” said Squibb. Her focus on “green” architecture began when she was a student in the spring 2006 Environmental Studies class co-taught by Director of Sustainability Richard Johnson and Professor Paul Harcombe, who has since retired. As part of a team assigned to research green options for a Jones College restroom renovation project scheduled for that summer, Squibb and classmates Niki vonHedemann ’08 and Sabina Bharwani ’07 explored the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System, a U.S. Green Building Council program that provides a benchmark for the design, construction and operation of environmentally friendly buildings.

What these incredibly bright students did next came as no surprise to Johnson.

“When you take three young women like these and give them a fairly simple project,” he said, “they find ways to increase the scope of the project. They get ambitious.”

• Stephanie Squibb  •  
• Niki vonHedemann  • 
• Sabina Bharwani • 

“When you take three young   women like these and give them a fairly simple project, they find ways to increase the scope of the project. They get ambitious.”

—Richard Johnson

The women compiled their research into a PowerPoint presentation and began showing it to friends, as well as to the presidents of Rice’s residential colleges. Before long, they were showing it to Rice’s college masters, too. “They attended a meeting of all the college masters and got them to recommend that the new residential colleges, which at that point were just dreams, be ‘green’ buildings,” said Johnson. Recognizing that the grassroots effort had legs, he and Harcombe invited Associate Vice President of Facilities, Engineering and Planning (FE&P) Barbara White Bryson and Vice President for Administration Kevin Kirby to attend the students’ final class presentation on green building. After the presentation, something special happened: Bryson and Kirby stood up and announced to the class that Rice would build not only the new residential colleges according to LEED standards, but all other future campus structures as well.

“Of course, that’s not the kind of decision you just pull out of a hat, so clearly they had been talking about this already,” said Johnson. “But what Stephanie, Niki and Sabina were able to do is build grassroots awareness and support among Rice students and those faculty members serving as college masters, who were very important in helping decide what was planned for the new colleges.”

Expertise on Tap

Despite the larger scope of the LEED initiative, Squibb, vonHedemann and Bharwani hadn’t forgotten about the Jones College restroom renovation project. Johnson and Harcombe connected the students with FE&P Project Manager Ken Thompson, who asked for the students’ input regarding new faucets. His criteria were that the faucets have a single handle and input line and be well made, ADA compliant and within the price range of $125 and $130. As a result of the students’ recommendation, Thompson chose a more efficient faucet than the one originally under consideration — reducing Jones College’s water usage by around 175,000 gallons per year and saving the university approximately $1,200 annually.

“The purpose of this project was to minimize the lifetime ecological footprints of the products and replacements in as many ways as possible,” Squibb said, adding that the students also suggested that the old sinks and fixtures be reused or recycled instead of being thrown away. As a result, the sinks were donated to a local Habitat for Humanity supply store, and the metal fixtures were recycled as scrap.

Squibb calls her experiences eye-opening.

Glove“I began to recognize the level of student interest in green building and the potential opportunities for connecting students with green building efforts and education on campus,” she said. “I felt that a student group on campus that embraced that focus and was acknowledged by the Student Association would be beneficial.”

Squibb decided to complete independent study courses on sustainable building practices throughout her senior year, during which Johnson and Harcombe encouraged her to pursue her idea of organizing the RSGBI. The club held its first meeting in December 2006, and Squibb offered an introduction to the 10 or so students who attended.

“I explained that the group was a great way to learn about sustainable issues, network with architects and engineers within the community and become more involved with design decisions made about the buildings on campus,” Squibb said. She also discussed ways in which the organization would allow students to be involved in sustainable issues. These included education through guest speakers and organized tours, engagement and input during the design process of new buildings and selected renovations, and implementation by providing labor and other assistance to support the campus’s green building goals.

Ideas Into Action

Rice green shieldThe club held three meetings in spring 2007, further developing its mission statement, electing officers and creating a Listserv that quickly gained nearly 70 subscribers. Squibb, who received her bachelor of arts in architecture that semester, knew she would be pursuing a bachelor of architecture degree at Rice. Since she would be completing her architectural preceptorship in New York at Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, the club elected Alex Tseng as its president for 2007–08.

“Alex has been absolutely great for taking ideas and turning them into actions,” said Squibb, whose plan for a LEED training program Tseng executed. More than 40 students from architecture, engineering and even ecological and evolutionary biology attended the first set of classes, which were taught in spring 2008 by Rice alumnus and LEED-accredited professional Guyton Durnin ’06.

“We started the LEED Certification Class mainly to raise student awareness in sustainability issues and to allow those students who want to gain more knowledge in sustainable design to become professionally accredited,” said Tseng, adding that the U.S. Green Building Council generously provided the class’s training materials. The students who took and passed the LEED for New Construction Professional Accreditation exam before the end of the semester enjoyed the financial support of Rice’s schools of architecture and engineering, the director of sustainability and local architecture firms. This support covered half of the $300 exam fee for each student who passed the exam. Tseng noted that several students have expressed interest in taking the class next year, which not only means that it will need additional sources of funding, but also indicates that its popularity isn’t likely to dwindle.

“I feel that sustainable issues surround us at all levels. The RSGBI allows students to be involved in these decisions and encourages them to help shape the future.”

—Stephanie Squibb

Among the other projects that RSGBI has fostered are the Green Dorm Initiative, which encourages students to adopt sustainable lifestyles in their dorms; the Advocacy Task Force, which helps the club stay connected with other campus environmental organizations; a lecture series that brings architects involved in sustainable design to campus for the benefit of club members; and site visits to green buildings in the Houston area.

Today, seven RSGBI board members help administrate and coordinate “green” events, and 150 members benefit from their efforts. Despite the fact that the club was started with the Vision for the Second Century’s construction efforts in mind, Tseng says that it will still be here long after the last construction worker has left campus.

“The RSGBI has a special status as an organization that seeks to work from the inside out,” Tseng said. “We want to cultivate advocates among the Rice student body who will be equipped to guide future development at Rice and to encourage others to participate.”

Squibb agreed. “I realize this is a pivotal time with all the current construction, but I feel that sustainable issues surround us at all levels,” she said. “The RSGBI allows students to be involved in these decisions and encourages them to help shape the future.”