Elmhurst College: Becoming "Green": Beyond the Trees

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Becoming "Green": Beyond the Trees

Elmhurst College looks every bit what one would imagine for a college whose name means “Elm woods.”  The College campus, set in the wooded parks and manicured lawns of central Elmhurst, was established as an arboretum nearly 40 years ago. Squirrels and rabbits inhabit the malls and lawns around the campus buildings, which date to the 1870s.  Free to the public, the arboretum is a teaching tool for students and the community.  More than 3,000 trees and shrubs of approximately 650 labeled species are scattered over the 38-acre campus.  

New building initiatives, however, have given this suburban liberal arts college a chance to make the campus buildings themselves as green as the lawns, hedges, and trees that surround them.

When the College began planning to redevelop its campus in 2005, a decision was made to acknowledge the arboretum as part of the spiritual identity of the College. Sustainable, “green” design became a pillar of the new campus master plan.  

College President Bryant Cureton explained that, in the model of the old arboretum, sustainable design at Elmhurst College was envisioned as an educational resource, as well as an efficient and ethical practice.  “Our mission,” Cureton said, “is to develop our campus as a model of sustainable design that will be a hands-on educational resource for our students and the community.”  

These days, though, being “green” doesn’t simply mean plotting your building in the shade of an elm-spotted grove; it means using state-of-the-art design practices and technology to reduce ecological waste and cut energy costs.  

For nearly 30 years, the facilities management department of the College has actively engaged in ongoing efforts to minimize energy consumption, reduce air and water pollution, recycle waste and control utility expenses.  The recent popularization of the term “going green” gives a name to what have long been standard design and operational practices at the College.

A case in point is West Hall, a 170-student residence hall scheduled to open next fall as the first building constructed as part of the new campus master plan.  The building will showcase an array of “green” features, thanks to cutting-edge design and construction and a savvy pursuit of government grants to defray set-up costs.

As part of its commitment to sustainable design, Elmhurst College is pursuing LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) status on the building.  LEED certification is the U.S. Green Building Council’s widely accepted scoring method for measuring the sustainability of new construction and renovation.  “If successful, we will be one of the very first colleges in Illinois with a residence hall that is LEED-certified,” said Jill McWilliams, the College’s assistant director of corporate and foundation relations.

The campus will become a model in stormwater management, thanks in part to a $116,000 grant from the DuPage County Stormwater Management Division, and in part to the work done by Wight and Company, a design, construction and engineering firm that has overseen much of the campus’s recent construction.  Among the new features are a permeable parking lot and the use of cisterns to capture and store rainwater for irrigation purposes.

The goal was to “decentralize the rain that falls and return it into the ground where it eventually becomes a resource for nearby Salt Creek,” said Jay Womack, Wight’s director of sustainable design.  These and other Best Management Practices (BMPs) will reduce discharge rates of stormwater runoff; allow the rain water to be naturally filtered through the soil, protecting groundwater; and alleviate soil erosion and stress on the City of Elmhurst’s already over-burdened stormwater system, Womack said.

Other water management BMPs include the use of bioswales and rain gardens.  The effectiveness of these techniques, as well as water quality, will be monitored with the help of Elmhurst College’s faculty and its chemistry and biology students.  

In addition, Wight and the College plan to surround the west end of the campus with a native prairie garden and woodland ecosystems.  The self-replicating native plants will help improve the soil, reduce long-term maintenance costs, and be integrated into the campus arboretum as a living laboratory for students and the general public.  

BMPs instituted on campus are expected to deliver significant savings over the next several decades.  For example, the paver material for the permeable parking lot has a strength unmatched by asphalt paving.  Unlike asphalt surfaces, the College’s new lot will reduce major maintenance work (e.g., patching, seal coating, or resurfacing), which can be a costly expense over a 20- to 30-year period.  

And in May, the College obtained a $43,800 State of Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity grant to help install solar panels on the roof of West Hall. These panels will reduce the water heating bills for the building by 30 to 40 percent, according to Bruce Mather, the College’s executive director of facilities management.  

Even the older buildings on campus are being fitted with energy-efficient features. The Illinois Clean Energy Foundation granted $102,000 to aid the College’s initiative to install energy-efficient upgrades to the lighting systems in campus residence halls and classrooms.  Over time, the reduced energy costs will pay for the lighting installation costs.

The College views that “value” as extending well beyond electric bills, though.  As with the rain gardens to come, and the arboretum before it, the goal is to teach and lead by example.  “Elmhurst College has a commitment to being a responsible ‘citizen’ in the west suburban region,” said Scott LaMorte, the College’s senior development officer, and an alumnus.  “One of the ways the College is demonstrating that commitment is by having an eye on energy efficiency.”

Elmhurst College is a member of several other “green” organizations, such as Clean Air Counts, an Illinois regional initiative to reduce ozone-causing emissions (headed by the Metropolitan Mayors’ Caucus, the City of Chicago, and both state and federal EPAs.)

“We not only participate in the program,” Mather said, “we are currently preparing a rather sizeable report to them, summarizing some of the steps we’ve already taken to reduce air pollution.”

In the spirit of the original campus arboretum, these and other projects extend the reach of the College into the community—as educators and as regional “green” leaders.  “The arboretum has formed the foundation for a much broader commitment to exploring and protecting the natural environment,” Mather said. The new projects, he said, “consider the impact of development on natural resources, on the health and well-being of the campus community, and on the environment of the surrounding city and beyond.”

For further information, call (630) 617-6148.

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