Web site content,"Blue Poche Project,"  "Silver Artichoke Workshop" copyright: Nelson Scott Smith | Artichoke Design Company
Climate Action Planning and Design for College and University Portfolios
For more than thirty years, colleges and universities have been the focus of my design and planning work. A decade ago, with students, faculty, and administrators, I worked to formulate strategies and plans supportive of grassroots efforts for campus sustainability and climate action. About that time, a pilot version of LEED™ (2005) and the American Colleges and ​University President’s Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) (2006) emerged as significant platforms for sustainability and climate action. In 2010 there were more than 650 signatories to the ACUPCC. LEED™ 2009 established a new rigor for design processes for sustainability. Architecture 2030 was on the way to building awareness and a call-to-action for building professionals, with definitive benchmarks for carbon reduction.

Colleges and universities are positioned as leading protagonists for consequential climate action initiatives. They house an activist constituency: students, faculty, administrative leaders, business and sustainability officers, facilities directors, and energy managers. They have distinct building portfolios and boundaries. They are increasingly committed to climate action investments and robust analytical platforms. They know first-hand the uncertainties of purchased energy, which can pose risks to institutional finances, operations, and long-term sustainability.


Colleges and universities have well-documented policies and aspirational plans for sustainability and climate action. Many early initiatives for carbon reductions described in those plans were successful. However, those early achievements often were overrun by demand-oriented facilities growth and the lack of long-term assessments of resource use and costs. Long-term goals and aspirations for reducing campus carbon emissions became obscure, or they dissolved. Energy management processes, while effective for incremental reductions and monitoring, do not address, predict, or plan for the effects of changing campus programs and facilities development and growth over 15 to 20 years.

​Along with cities and districts, colleges and universities represent a significant body of buildings and infrastructure. The largest 100 ACUPCC signatories have facilities portfolios totaling more than a billion square feet. Together, their portfolio CO2 emissions represent some 12.5 million metric tons per year, more than those of Rhode Island.


Working with committed institutions and their professionals, it became clear that aspirational goals for climate action were often in conflict with those for campus development and facilities growth. This conflict was understandable, because development and climate action plans are most often prepared independently of each other. To turn aspirations into measurable achievements, climate action planning requires the integration of initiatives for facilities development and climate action. This integration is necessary to confidently set, confirm, or implement long-term climate action goals and to forecast milestone achievements. It is necessary to assess long-range needs and resources for renewable energy or carbon neutrality applications. This joint venture between campus master planning and climate action initiatives is the Climate Action Master Plan.

Climate Action Planning and Design couples facilities development and the strategic application of energy resources and investments, advanced design processes, and analytic platforms for a defined, measurable course for climate action implementation.

Most institutions have well considered master plans for facilities development over the course of 15 to 20 years, including the scope and program for new, reconstructed, or renewal projects. The Climate Action Master Plan is organized around two interactive models: a resources application model and an implementation model. The resource application model describes the effects of each project activity on portfolio energy use and emissions and it informs the leveraging and application of capital investments and renewable resources. Developed with thorough evaluations and employing robust analytics, this model assigns finite energy budgets (EUI) for every building project. The climate action implementation model describes the effects of individual and collective project activities on portfolio energy use and emissions over the planning timeline. It forecasts energy and carbon emissions. With strong building analytics that include energy management processes, the implementation model provides real-time climate action status, verification, and policy achievement.

Implementation of the Climate Action Master Plan requires the application of advanced climate action design processes including programmed, finite energy budgets based on the institutional metrics, early energy modeling, and definitions of design excellence that favor social, functional, and environmental interests.

As a tool for an extended community of colleges and universities, climate action master planning and design provides a powerful, measurable course for advancing and achieving institutional goals for carbon neutrality, for reductions in carbon emissions, and for leveraging investments in renewable energy applications. Planned, implemented, and measurable climate action and carbon neutrality initiatives for the 100 colleges and universities mentioned above would have a significant, consequential, and lasting effect on efforts to reverse global warming.

​​ ​​