Columbia moves toward a more sustainable infrastructure; SGA plans to create committee to target the environment

By Elizabeth Rymut, Staff Reporter

Elias Gonzalez

Starting this past summer, the Facilities and Construction Department at Columbia has been working on making the college’s infrastructure more energy efficient for a greener campus.

Ann Kalayil, associate vice president of Facilities and Construction, began working at Columbia in 2019. She is responsible for initiating the Green Buildings Program plan to determine how Columbia buildings and systems can be more sustainable by looking at a number of areas.

“As a whole, we’re looking at waste consumption, energy usage and consumption and water consumption. Specifically, we may look into [areas] like LEED, for example,” Kalayil said, referring to the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system used by the U.S. Green Building Council to measure a building’s sustainability and resource efficiency.

When constructing the annual plan, Kalayil followed a specific framework based on the Environmental Social and Governance, a criteria system overseen by sustainable conscious investors used to determine how a company is safeguarding the environment.

“Our goal here is to try to look at how can we develop a framework that follows ESG, which follows a framework to sort of address how can we reduce our carbon footprint, how can we work towards decarbonization,” Kalayil said.

Kalayil said she has specific goals for this year’s plan, which she hopes will be finalized later this month. Her goals include going carbon neutral by 2050, reducing water usage by 5% by 2030, having a 75% waste diversion rate by 2040 and establishing a smart buildings data platform.

“We want to establish a smart buildings platform so that we can make operational decisions by looking at the data so that we can have a much more efficient facility,” Kalayil said.

Ultimately, Kalayil said the department is using this foundation for the community at large to create an environment that reflects diversity, equity and inclusion.

“The principles of DEI enhance the community we are a part of, so when we work on providing more spaces … it enhances that experience when you come into and use that space,” Kalayil said.

However, within Columbia’s capital plan for budgeting funding and resources, there is a lot of competition between other departments.

“We receive funding from the college, so, for example, if we need larger classrooms, then funding goes towards that instead of getting a new HVAC [Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning system],” Kalayil said.

The Facilities Operations and Construction Department has recently signed a contract with a vendor called Demand Response, which allows them to reduce building power usage.

“In the summer when it’s really, really warm, you reduce our power usage for two hours, which they decide, and they do that in the winter as well. When we do that, the utility pays us for that,” Kalayil said.

While these efforts are an important step in the right direction, Kalayil said a change in mindset and behavior is just as crucial.

“At the end of the day, there’s only so much you can do with building systems,” Kalayil said.A lot of it has to do with behavior.”

Kalayil said they are hopeful to be able to receive student feedback about sustainable implementation on campus.

“I think this is where we really need to have a campaign on that and I think it would be helpful to have other students as champions,” Kalayil said.

In an email to the Chronicle, Sharon Wilson-Taylor, vice president for Student Affairs, said the Student Government Association has expressed interest in working with the Facilities and Construction department to engage students in the Green Building program.

“When I spoke with SGA, they indicated they were still working with their senators on the best way to achieve this,” Wilson-Taylor said.

In a meeting with President and CEO Kwang-Wu Kim and other administrators on Sept. 26, Kim talked about where sustainability falls into Columbia’s mission to be an inclusive institution and meeting DEI standards.

“DEI is about changing the culture of the institution, not the look of the institution,” Kim said.

Kim said since the summer, a green roof has been installed on 623 S. Wabash Ave. to help conserve energy. The building has also installed reusable water bottle refill stations to help reduce plastic waste.

For SGA president and senior film and television major Tyler Harding, environmental sustainability is something he feels every student is aware of.

“I know that there are other institutions across the country, most notably Emerson College in Boston, that make sustainability a big part of the culture on campus and I think that should definitely be a model for Columbia,” Harding said.

Harding said the majority of Emerson College’s buildings are LEED-certified, and also have 100% of their electricity used as green power.

This year, Harding said SGA is introducing provisional committees to target specific issues on campus, including one for sustainability, led by himself, which will also be open to the public of Columbia College.

“Another thing is trying to hold the administration accountable, and to remind the administration that environmental sustainability is something that our students care a lot about,” Harding said.

He has created a feedback system for students, which includes a survey that will be put on the SGA Instagram profile, found on the Linktree website link page. Students can also attend committee meetings held on Wednesdays from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m., locations varying.

“We’re going to go around campus to make sure this committee is as visible as possible, because we want to get as much input as possible from the students on environmental sustainability,” Harding said.

Harding said the climate crisis goes further than Columbia’s campus. “I think that getting students behind environmental sustainability on campus is paramount to the mission of creating a more sustainable world.”

Chicago environmental community leaders like Ken Dunn, founder and president of the Resource Center, also look to Columbia to make efforts to lead the sustainability movement.

“[This movement] does depend on an institution like Columbia to continue its excellence in education, but consider providing an education which is in communication on the only issue that now every one of us alive must become skilled in,” Dunn said.

Dunn said this means switching to an economy that looks to the local community and allows everyone to equally experience the quality of life.

“The time for action is now. We can’t wait for the next generation,” Dunn said.