Leaving LEED to Lead

Editorial  /  by William Madonia '17  /  April 29, 2017

Every year, the School awards an alumnus with the prestigious Lawrenceville Medal, also known as the Aldo Leopold Award. The award is named after Aldo Leopold, Class of 1905, an environmentalist and philosopher known for coining the term “land ethic” and penning the seminal work “The Sand Country Almanac.” In keeping with his legacy, Lawrenceville takes sustainability seriously: Initiatives such as the internship program at the Big Red Farm and House bonding events at the ropes course demonstrate the School’s commitment to connecting its students with the outdoors.

However, contemporary economic and social systems often pressure institutions to brush sustainability aside. In his essay “Natural Capitalism,” published in the “Harvard Business Review,” Chairman of the Rocky Mountain Institute Amory Lovins explains that many organizations fail to prioritize sustainability because “the value of [sustainability] often doesn’t show up on the balance sheet.” Although Lawrenceville must address issues of prestige and financial longevity, it is crucial that the School budgets its resources to minimize its long-term environmental impact.

Fortunately, the School can save money by changing how we construct new buildings. In the past, the School has contracted the United States Green Building Council to certify that new buildings are up to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards. LEED certifies over 1.85 million square feet of development every day, and the program is enormously popular with city-planners, contracted architects, and educational institutions. Three buildings on campus are certified silver by LEED, the third-highest rating. While LEED is praised for its ability to assess sustainability objectively, a LEED certification can often cost 10-15 percent of a building's initial expense. Therefore, the School could save millions by operating sustainably on its own accord, sacrificing a LEED certification to fund sustainability initiatives on campus.

With the newly available funds, the School could modify its existing operational systems to reduce its environmental footprint. For instance, our current heating and cooling system runs on natural gas, and a central boiler pumps steam through our buildings. Although burning natural gas emits fewer pollutants than burning coal or oil, other boarding schools employ more sustainable options. The Northfield Mount Hermon School, for example, reuses excess oils and grease from its dining hall and local restaurants, and The Hotchkiss School operates a wood chips furnace. Lawrenceville should explore alternative heating methods such as using geothermal energy or burning biomass. With the money saved from leaving LEED, the School could establish itself as a sustainability pioneer among other boarding schools.

In addition to advocating for conservation efforts, Aldo Leopold also promoted a theory of “moral education” through a connection with nature. In his strategic plan, “Lawrenceville 20/20,” Head Master Murray stressed the importance of experiential learning, and in this regard, the Big Red Farm is an important asset. Why not teach classes in environmentalism at the farm, where their knowledge can be applied?

Last year, the Kirby Math and Science Center was built to sustainable standards without LEED regulation; let this set a precedent for future campus expansion. With the administration considering the construction of a new field house and the renovation of several existing facilities, the opportunity to leave LEED is one we must consider to commit to a sustainable future.