Q&A: Harvard sustainability office keeps goals focused

Editor's note: Heather will be a featured speaker at our upcoming VERGE Boston on May 13-14.  

U.S. colleges have been no slackers in sustainability over the past several years. That certainly holds true for Harvard University, which opened its own dedicated sustainability office in 2008 at the behest of its students.

As a massive school covering 26 million square feet and about 700 buildings, that is certainly no small feat. One of its goals is to reduce the school's emissions by 30 percent with growth over 10 years -- from 2006 to 2016. To date, Harvard has reduced its emissions 24 percent and with growth the reductions net out to be 16 percent.

Here, the director of the Office for Sustainability, Heather Henriksen -- who will speak at next month's VERGE Boston conference -- talked to GreenBiz about the school's role as a leader in sustainable college campuses.

GreenBiz: Tell me how and when this formalized sustainability effort materialized at Harvard.

Heather Henriksen: It started as a grass roots effort with students calling for change and it’s led to efforts to establish our three university-wide commitments -- our sustainability principles, our greenhouse grass reduction goal and our green building standards -- and to have our office basically oversee and implement those goals and work with the community to propose and evolve those goals as well as other areas of focus related to sustainability.

The Green Campus Initiative started as a faculty and staff initiative in 2001. It was in 2008 that the students also pushed the president and the deans to create a formal sustainability office out of that faculty and staff initiative and that’s when the Office for Sustainability was named and it coincided with the announcement. So our office and the greenhouse gas reduction goal were both announced publicly in 2008 in the fall at a sustainability celebration that the president led in Tercentenary Theater with Al Gore and 15,000 community members in attendance.

GreenBiz: What's the overall big picture of what this program is doing?

Henriksen: I think in essence, what our office does is organizational change. We really try to be the catalyst for innovation, both on implementing current sustainability goals and then working in particular with faculty and students to envision new sustainability goals and metrics for the university to focus on.                    

Our efforts have really been broad with the sustainability principles. It gets into our greenhouse gas reduction goal and trying to use our campus as a living lab to pilot how you do that in a very efficient, effective, economically viable way -- and in a way that also engages all the members of the organization in that effort so it can be optimally effective.

Then it’s also very strategic focusing on our third goal of the green building standards, which is for us our greenhouse gas footprint is really largely our buildings.

GreenBiz: Could you expand on this idea of a living lab? What exactly does that mean at Harvard?

Henriksen: We work with faculty and staff and students to really use the campus as a living lab and to test out and pilot different approaches. So, for instance, in the Computer Science 50 course taught by David Malan, one of the assignments is for students to actually go out and create an app or a website. The students came to us and said, “We would like to create an online real-time web service that shows all of us in the undergraduate population -- in the 12 houses and undergraduate dorms -- how we’re doing on resource and energy reduction, so that we can better compete against each other to reduce energy usage."

So they created an online website where you could get real-time data on how each of the houses was doing on energy.

GreenBiz: Has that website the computer science students developed been implemented yet?

Henriksen: Yes, we have a Green Cup Competition where our 12 houses or dorms for the undergraduates compete every month on different resource production, whether it’s water or waste or energy.

Next page: Students as driving force