The Greening of John Brown University

Steve Brankle is the CSO of John Brown University.

That's not an official title, but if there is a chief sustainability officer at the Siloam Springs campus, it is Brankle. Employed by the university for 18 years (the last 16 as director of facilities services), Brankle has implemented many (if not all) of the college's sustainability and conservation efforts in that time.

And from the outset, Brankle said the focal point has been the importance of not only being good stewards of the earth, but of economic stewardship as well. As university leaders began to pursue opportunities to make the campus more sustainable, they found there were many projects that just made good business sense.

"I define sustainability in two ways," Brankle said. "One is the environmental side. Using less paper, using less electricity, using less water.

"The other side, more importantly, is the financial side of sustainability. These projects are helping the university as a whole stay sustainable. Higher education is not cheap and it's been in the news quite a bit that the cost is going up quickly.

"I take it as a personal challenge to save our students money. Everything we use on campus, the students bought, so I want to be a real good steward of that. And that goes right with sustainability."

JBU is increasingly earning the reputation as a sustainability leader among Arkansas colleges and universities because of numerous initiatives.

Renovating older buildings to conserve heating and cooling, connecting structures to chillers at a central plant to eliminate inefficient air-cooled chillers at each building, partnering with nonprofit groups to salvage abandoned items left in residence halls during the summer and installing white rooftops to reflect heat are a few specific examples of projects to be implemented.

Other projects are ongoing. JBU and Siloam Springs leaders are currently working together to take advantage of the university's close proximity to the city's sewer treatment plant. The university is working with the city to pump the effluence from the plant to campus to use for irrigation.

JBU will save money on the project because the city has agreed to provide the water at a discounted rate. The city will benefit by decreasing its demand for potable water.

The biggest money saver for the school, however, was also a tremendous energy saver. The implementation in 2011 of a new HVAC control system helped significantly lower the cost per SF for both electricity and natural gas.

The technology is not new, but the interface is, according to Steve Beers, vice president of student development, who oversees JBU's facilities services. Any thermostat or boiler on campus can be controlled from an iPad, allowing one office to monitor and adjust energy use throughout the entire campus.

"What has probably been the biggest money saver was finding an HVAC control system that was much easier to manipulate for our campus," Beers said. "That is a significant [budget] expense that we believe might have a return on investment in one to two years."

In October 2011, the university's electrical usage was the lowest for that particular month since 2000, even with an additional 300,000 SF of building space on campus.

Total natural gas usage for July 2011-June 2012 was the lowest since 2005-2006.

All together, the campus has increased by 327,007 SF since 2000, but has decreased its electricity/gas usage by 23 cents per SF in that time.

How has that been accomplished? According to Beers, it's because the objective of efficiency and sustainability is at the forefront of decision-making.

"Any of our deferred maintenance we have overlaid this sense of return on investment and the sustainability question," Beers said. "And obviously our new [construction] has the same question. The third thing has been through our campuswide management for energy.

"We've been able to manage energy across the campus from one location so somebody can stay on top of that."

Beers also noted the $11 million Balzer Technology Center as an example of integrating the sustainability question with all the building's systems. The 40,000-SF building, which opened in the fall of 2011, is in the final approval process to be LEED certified, a first for the JBU campus.

"We're asking the question," Beers said. "The LEED process makes you think through virtually all the small decisions that add up to the bigger impact."


Doing the Right Thing

JBU also recently reached an important milestone in its sustainability efforts.

In May, the university's efforts were recognized and rewarded with a grant from the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District intended to help in the pursuit of becoming a zero-landfill institution, meaning all waste from the campus is diverted from landfills through recycling, or converting to power through emissions-free incineration.

JBU earned the zero-landfill distinction during the summer, becoming the first higher education institution in Arkansas to do so.

"It certainly makes us unique, but we could not have done that alone," Brankle said.

The school has a variety of partners in its efforts to recycle everything possible. Cafeteria waste is taken to a local hog farm. Kitchen grease is converted to biodiesel and used for lawnmowers.

Light bulbs with high mercury content are sent to Waste Management Inc. in Rogers. Plastic, cardboard, paper and glass are recycled by the city of Siloam Springs; metal, batteries and plastic bags are recycled locally, as is e-waste.

The university provides recycling bins for individual offices, classrooms, residence halls and common rooms. To that end, the admissions office and financial aid office have gone paperless. Other departments and faculty are reducing paper usage by putting syllabi, assignments and class work online.

And by removing Dumpsters on campus, JBU saves $30,000 annually.

Brankle said what has been particularly rewarding is the enthusiasm about recycling being shown by faculty and staff, who are each responsible for emptying his or her own trash.

Facilities crews empty and sort recyclables from each office. This program has been very well received, and has increased recycling efforts substantially.

"At first, they gasped [at being] responsible for emptying their own trash," Brankle joked. "But as the faculty and staff have caught on, it's been awesome."

Students are also a part of the effort. JBU provides individual recycling bins to each dorm room, classroom and common area.

School officials also addressed the incoming freshmen at the beginning of the fall semester to discuss the university's sustainability goals.

"We're trying to keep [the issue] in front of them," Brankle said.

Beers said it's rewarding to know that what JBU is doing on its campus could be emulated by other organizations.

"I think the thing to realize is that the different stakeholders in your organizations are motivated by different aspects of the sustainability conversation," he said, "whether it is theologically based purpose of being a good steward, or whether it's just a business sense.

"I would encourage anybody to spend the time to begin looking at the systems that many of us are involved with. There are a number of things that we can do that don't cost extra money, but in fact save money. And they are the right thing to do anyway."