A Sustainable Allston

On October 14, President Summers announced Harvard’s adoption of six sustainability principles to govern campus construction and operations. These principles represent the first step in what may become America’s largest effort in sustainable campus design. President Summers has made it University policy that “operating our campus in an environmentally sustainable way is not only the right thing to do as a citizen and neighbor, it is also an economically sound way to conduct our business.”

Last fall, members of the College’s Environmental Action Committee and the Graduate School of Design’s Ecology in Design recognized the unique opportunity for leadership in sustainability presented by Harvard’s Allston development. We formed Sustainable Allston to encourage the University to develop the area sustainably. After Sustainable Allston mobilized students and alumni, President Summers asked the Harvard Green Camps Initiative to establish a committee of faculty, administrators, and students to develop sustainability principles for the entire campus. His one stipulation was that the principles represent a “win-win” scenario for the environment and Harvard’s finances.

The resulting principles include increasing “efficiency and use of renewable resources,” promoting the University community’s health, and improving campus ecosystems, as well as the practical aspects of developing the required planning tools, research, and indicators. These fairly abstract principles have left many wondering what they mean for the Harvard community:

Why do they seem so broad? Instead of establishing fixed standards for “green” buildings, as Duke has done, we chose instead to develop principles that would last throughout the next few generations as Harvard develops Allston. Under the guidance of students, faculty, and administrators, the specific indicators and goals can adapt to incorporate improved technologies and knowledge about sustainability, as well as the know-how of Harvard staff implementing the principles.

Shouldn’t these opportunities for cost savings already be realized? When members of Sustainable Allston met with President Summers, he grimaced at the inefficiencies in Harvard planning and operations. Simply put, Harvard builds and operates irrationally. Harvard’s construction is a classic case of the principal-agent problem. Building planners (the University’s agent) pay insufficient consideration to subsequent operation costs, and the University (the principal) is saddled with inefficient buildings, unnecessarily harming the environment and wasting money.


Why haven’t planning and operations already been integrated? Two reasons. First, inertia. Harvard is extremely decentralized, and changing this behemoth is tough. Lacking another motivation like environmental stewardship, little has changed. And second, the up-front costs. Economists now recognize that people often irrationally discount the future; the University behaves similarly, choosing small cost reductions now over large cost savings in the future. The sustainability principles are an attempt to behave rationally—for the University to incorporate into its planning “life-cycle costing,” which simply means considering all the discounted costs and benefits of operating a building over its lifetime.

These increased up-front costs are small, if they exist at all: The most comprehensive study of “green” building (“Green Building Costs and Financial Benefits” at shows that an approximately 2% cost premium of $3 to $5/ square foot leads to average savings discounted at 5% over 20 years of $5.80 in energy, $1.70 in waste emission and water, $8.50 in operations and maintenance, aside from the large but debatable productivity and health benefits.

How have the principles begun to accomplish these goals of planning for the long-run? First, the planners of the Northwest Lab building next to the Museum of Natural History have immediately committed to be certified by the United States Green Building Council. This could mean redesigning the windows to reduce energy usage, using renewable resources in construction, and incorporating native plants into the landscaping. Second, Harvard has hired sustainability consultants to work with the Allston master planners to ensure that the principles are incorporated. Third, an administrative committee has begun meeting to determine how to institutionalize the principles in their planning practices. Finally, the Harvard Green Campus Initiative will expand training, support, and education to allow the entire University community to participate in addressing the principles.

The original Sustainability Principles Committee will continue, with student input, to develop the indicators and goals necessary to achieve campus sustainability.

What does “responsibility” mean for “win-win” scenarios? If the sustainability principles save Harvard money and go no further, then “responsibility” is meaningless. To maintain incentives to save money through reducing resource use while meeting Harvard’s obligation of environmental stewardship, one common-sense solution is to reinvest 50% of cost savings—which result from sustainability measures—into research on campus sustainability or environmental mitigation efforts, like the Kennedy School of Government’s use of 100% wind energy. This solution is still “win-win,” but goes beyond the rationality of saving money to the responsibility of environmental stewardship.

Nevertheless, the primary message of Harvard’s adoption of the sustainability principles is: To a degree far beyond what is currently actualized, environmental stewardship and cost-effectiveness are mutually reinforcing. There is still the question of those small up-front costs—which, surprisingly, tend to be not for materials but rather for sustainability research and planning, which cannot be fully funded through reinvestment of cost savings. We will need investments in rigorous research into innovative planning and design alternatives on everything from renewable energy to on-site water treatment.

And where to get funding for sustainability research? In Sustainable Allston’s effort to persuade President Summers, alumni showed a surprising interest in campus sustainability. There is a large community of environmentally-conscious alumni likely willing to contribute to campus sustainability research. Harvard should begin a dedicated fundraising effort for campus sustainability research. The earlier we begin this research, the more our new campus in Allston will save money, while fulfilling our responsibility as stewards of our planet.

Zach D. Liscow '05 is an Environmental Science and Public Policy concentrator living in Dunster House.

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