Harvard University started with small-scale pilot projects to build momentum for its Green Campus initiative, which now saves the institution more than US$7 million ($7.6 million) a year, according to the program's founding director, Leith Sharp.
Sharp told a Sydney seminar that environmental issues were "marginalised" at Harvard when she joined as Green Campus director in 2000.
In the 15 years preceding her appointment, greenhouse gas emissions at the university had risen 60% as a result of increased computer use, growing demand for air-conditioning, and an expansion of energy-intensive laboratories.
The only way she could convince the university's "fiscally conservative" deans to part with funding for sustainability initiatives was if they could see a clear return on their investment.
So Sharp set about developing a business case for various sustainability initiatives with a demonstrable payback, including behavioural changes for staff and students, a shift to environmental procurement, and small-scale infrastructure upgrades.
After delivering on these, she was able to procure more money to fund additional staff for sustainability projects that would make more savings.
By 2009, Harvard's Green Campus team had grown from a staff of one to employ 24 people full-time at a cost of US$2.2 million a year, who are delivering direct annual savings to the university of US$7 million, earning it recognition in various sustainability indexes as the greenest campus in the U.S.
'Start with small-scale pilot projects'Sharp said the starting point for a sustainability program should be small scale, short term pilot projects, "things that feel manageable for people given their immediate context".
"At Harvard we piloted everything. People would initially say, 'Oh no I couldn't use biodiesel or 'No way, I can't do green cleaning'.
"We'd come back and say, 'why don't we just try it in one building? Why don't we try it in one bus for one month?'"
"Now we have all of the buses using biodiesel, most of the cleaning services are using green cleaning strategies, most projects now use ground source heat pumps [and] more and more projects are using solar-thermal," said Sharp.
She said staff and students all over the campus are now coming up with their own ideas for pilot projects.
"You get to a stage where the culture has shifted enough that the core energy and motivation no longer sits within the sustainability team, it's become everybody's role," she said.
"The savings become absolutely extraordinary once you get to that level of engagement across the institution."
'Work to perfect the green building process'The bulk of Harvard's $7 million annual savings came from infrastructure upgrades, Sharp told CE Daily after the seminar.
These range from small-scale lighting, heating, ventilation and cooling projects to mid-range building management system upgrades and more extensive green building renovations.
While the first green building projects incurred an added cost, over time the Green Campus team streamlined the design and construction process, getting all the stakeholders involved earlier so their ideas could be integrated earlier – and therefore more cheaply.
"You're not going to find that in the very first project you do, the first couple of projects are really where you start to learn your lessons," she said.
'Change behaviours and add capacities'The Green Campus team also realised very significant savings from behavioural changes. A program encouraging students in residential dorms to switch off lights delivered annual savings of US$300,000 to US$400,000 a year, while programs in the laboratories educating students to use fume hoods properly saved US$200,000 to US$300,000 a year.
"Improving people's capacities also generated some substantial savings," she told CE Daily.
"We had a lot of building managers who didn't know how to operate their direct digital controls that were responsible for managing building systems, so we would train them."
Since 2001, a Green Campus loan fund of US$12 million interest-free capital has so far lent out US$14.5 million on more than 180 one-off infrastructure upgrades and behavioural change projects, with a 27% average return on investment.
'Consider the full life cycle of projects'Sharp stressed the importance of shifting people's mindsets from "low first cost" to life cycle costing.
"It is a method of project evaluation in which all costs arising from owning, operating, maintaining and ultimately disposing of a project over an agreed period are accounted for and converted into today’s dollars," she said.
"Decide on the thing that has overall financial effectiveness over that long timeframe, not just the cheaper one up front."
'Don't under-resource your sustainability team'Sharp told CE Daily that without the right level of investment in staffing capacity to engage with people on the issues, change behaviours and add capacities, a sustainability program will fail.
"Your typical organisation will fund one environment manager or sustainability director and wish them luck," she said.
"That's going to be enough for them to have a presence and to claim a level of interest in sustainability, but it won't be anywhere near enough for them to actually reap the scale of achievement and cost effectiveness they could."
At Harvard - an organisation of close to 50,000 people - a change management team of 24 full-time professionals was "about the right scale", she said.