In his native India, Atul Kumar Jain is already a licensed architect, but he enrolled at Arizona State University to learn about building earth-friendly structures.
Jain is pleased with the technical education he’s received, but to learn more on his specific interest — “green” computer-chip manufacturing plants — the graduate student has had to attend outside workshops.
“Maybe in a couple of years we’ll have a class like that,” Jain said.
ASU’s Del E. Webb School of Construction, which trains the next generation of builders, does not have a single class on assembling green buildings.
ASU last year promised to undertake a battery of changes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and cut consumption of natural resources. It propelled itself to the forefront of higher education’s environmental movement by forming a center to study and teach sustainable living.
That revolution, however, has fallen short in one key area.
Sustainable construction techniques aren’t officially part of the lectures or labs. To fulfill a pledge to have all future structures meet strict standards for green building, ASU will likely have to hire construction managers who were educated at other schools.
“We’re nowhere near where I want us to be,” said James Ernzen, the construction school’s director.
It hasn’t been for lack of trying.
The school created an opening for its first professor of sustainable construction and infrastructure development in January. Ernzen said he found the right candidate to fill the job, but that instructor decided against a move to Tempe, leaving the position open for six months.
Until last year, the school had offered an elective class about green homebuilding. Salt River Project in 2002 awarded ASU a grant to teach that class for four years.
Ernzen said that before the grant dollars ran out, the class had attracted students studying business, law, engineering as well as construction management.
ASU encourages its faculty to include the principles of sustainability in their lessons. Construction professors do so, Ernzen said, but there is no requirement that graduates receive any green instruction before entering the field.
Green building has two major components. The first concerns what materials a builder uses and how various design elements can affect energy use. The second deals with what workers do while building.
But just because green building isn’t part of the construction curriculum doesn’t mean there isn’t demand for graduates with those skills.
“The big guys are on board with green,” said Sue Sylvester, a business development director for Adolfson & Peterson Construction. “As far as the kids coming out of ASU, we’d like to see them savvy as far as green building goes.”
Sustainable construction techniques and materials have become increasingly commonplace, particularly in the desert.
Oftentimes, green materials are more expensive and must be installed in a way that doesn’t harm the environment.
Even with the added upfront costs and complications, a growing number of the developers that hire the Adolfson firm choose to build environmentally sound structures, Sylvester said. “It’s going to be mainstream within minutes,” she said.
The industry’s movement won’t necessarily help the construction school shift its curriculum more quickly.
ASU students working on a bachelor’s degree in construction management used to have to complete 132 credit hours, which included numerous building science classes.
The state’s surging real estate market in recent years spawned more building projects than there are construction managers to manage.
To help fulfill the need, Ernzen said the school reduced the number of credits required for graduation to 128, and then again to 120. That leaves little space to fit in instruction about sustainability, he said.
Such limitations have not discouraged the school’s faculty.
With almost 500 students and growing, the construction school this year asked the state for $10 million to cover half the cost to build itself a new home. Private donations from alumni and the local industry would cover the remainder.
The building will meet the highest green-building standards, Ernzen said, and is envisioned as a way to give students first-hand experience with sustainable materials.
Gov. Janet Napolitano supported the request. The Legislature, however, did not and axed it from the budget for the next fiscal year.
Once the construction school hires a green-building instructor, Ernzen said classes would begin including more about sustainability.
Already, the school organizes workshops on Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards, commonly called LEED.
One construction professor runs an outreach program to provide those working in the field with ongoing training on ways to be green.
Sylvester said ASU has almost single-handedly moved Valley leaders to consider more environmentally-friendly developments.
And it has begun providing the industry with the knowledge needed to construct them.
The biggest change has to be made in the builders’ mind-set, Sylvester said. Many mistakes are made because the builder doesn’t see how construction decisions can be harmful.
For example, Arizona firms spray their construction sites with drinking water to keep dust from rising and contributing to the Valley’s air pollution.
Because workers use drinking water, instead of sanitized “gray” water, they reduce the supply of a key natural resource.
“You’re trying to do something positive, but you don’t realize you’re also impacting the water situation,” Sylvester said.
At university construction schools, instituting green into the instruction often requires professors to change their mind-sets, too, said Charles Kibert, director of the Powell Construction and Environment Center at the University of Florida.
“In order to do it across the curriculum, it means you’ve got to train these guys because they’ve not really thought about the environmental impacts of materials and construction operations and site selection,” Kibert said.
Florida began its sustainability program in 1996 by requiring the university to follow tough standards to show the benefits of building green, he said. Today, the campus has 18 green facilities including Rinker Hall, the construction college’s home and a national model for environmental design.
A number of the steps Ernzen said ASU’s school would take seem to mimic what Florida did a decade ago.
Sustainability will not be one course, but a component taught in several classes. The school has not decided which classes will incorporate it, nor how.
Ernzen said the construction professors are asking themselves: “Where do you change things out? Where do you add the critical things that we need in?”
Jain, the graduate student, said he has found ways to make his education more green, despite a lack of special class instruction.
“One way or the other,” he said, “you’re informed about it.”