Site Specific


Natural daylighting through skylights and window walls is a key component to sustainability on campus.

Natural daylighting through skylights and window walls is a key component to sustainability on campus.

By William Nutt

A certified sustainable site, American University’s School of International Service manifests the school’s values


Admissions offices cruised at a comfortable altitude as college enrollment boomed through the early 2000s. But in the face of decelerating college-age population growth, constricting budgets, and competition from online programs, today’s traditional, four-year institutions are scrambling to find novel ways of attracting high-caliber students. Those that are offering sustainable learning environments are catching the eyes of prospective freshmen; in fact, 62 percent of college applicants in a 2013 Princeton Review survey indicated that a school’s commitment to the environment would impact application and enrollment decisions.

American University (AU) in northwest Washington, D.C., boasts one of the country’s most robust sustainability agendas. Not only has the school been featured in each of the Princeton Review’s three guides to green schools, but it also most recently scored a perfect 99, placing it on the coveted Green Honor Roll with just 21 other schools.

When Chris O’Brien joined AU in 2009 as its first Director of Sustainability, he leveraged the rich sustainability culture on campus to develop a program that deliberately integrates the built environment, academic programming, and student life. With the primary goals of green building, zero waste, and net-neutrality, the program’s achievements and aggressive ambitions have propelled the university to the forefront of higher education sustainability. 

Through reduction, reuse, recycling, and composting, American diverts 67 percent of its waste from landfills, offering promising progress toward its goal of 100 percent waste diversion by 2020.

A 2,150-panel photovoltaic array spans seven roofs and generates approximately 500 kW of electricity. Along with the 174 solar thermal energy panels that heat water for showering and dishwashing, the array comprises the largest urban combined solar system on the east coast, according to the EPA.

“As part of our commitment to net-neutrality, we want to produce as much renewable energy as possible,” O’Brien says. 

In addition to its waste diversion efforts, the school aims for carbon-neutral operations by 2020. It currently purchases Green-e-certified renewable energy credits equivalent to the electricity it sources from the grid.


AU SIS Building and Design Team

Design Architect: William McDonough + Partners

Architect of Record: Quinn Evans | Architects

Interior Designer: AU Office of the University Architect

Design Mechanical Engineer: Taylor Engineering

Mechanical Engineer of Record: GHT Limited

Structural Engineer: McMullan Associates

Daylighting Consultant: Loisos + Ubbelohde Associates

Civil Engineer: Delon Hampton & Associates

LEED Consultant: Sustainable Design Consulting

Fire Code and Suppression Consultant: PEG

General Contractor: Whiting-Turner

Metal Panel Fabrication: Conceptual Site Furnishing

Landscape Contractor: Tilson Group

Facilities operators use ENERGY STAR portfolio manager to track and reduce energy use, and more than 30 buildings on campus are currently pursuing LEED certification, each striving to achieve LEED Silver or higher.

American’s first LEED-certified building, the School of International Service (SIS), earned LEED Gold in 2011 and features a 27 kW photovoltaic solar array, dual-flush toilets, waterless urinals and low-flow plumbing.

O’Brien describes the philosophy behind the project: “It was conceived as a reflection of the values of the academic endeavors it contains. The dean at the time wanted the building to reflect one of his values in international affairs, which is transparency.”

This value is manifested in exposure to natural light throughout the building.

“The dean’s office is prominently located at the entrance of the building with windows on all sides. A passerby can look right inside,” O’Brien adds. 

Daylighting, of course, enhances the occupant experience and reduces energy use as well. Such integration between sustainability, academic programming, and the physical structure is evident throughout the SIS project.

Perhaps most notable, however, is the project’s exterior features. A former impervious parking lot, the 1.8-acre site is certified by the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES), a collaboration between the American Society of Landscape Architects, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, and the United States Botanical Garden. SIS is one of only three higher education pilot projects to earn two stars.


Sustainable sites employ land-use strategies that preserve or restore the natural services of healthy ecosystems, focusing on hydrology, soils, vegetation, materials, and human health and well-being. Strategic vegetation choices, for example, can maximize carbon dioxide absorption, reduce irrigation needs, lower costs associated with urban heat islands, and help manage runoff. These strategies can be applied to sites with and without buildings, from national parks to office parks to transportation rights-of-way.

Perched just a few miles from one of America’s dirtiest rivers, the SIS site was developed to address water pollution, which stands among the most pressing environmental issues in the District of Columbia and the broader Chesapeake Bay Watershed. 

The project team excluded turf from the design and selected native and drought-tolerant plants to avoid the use of potable water for irrigation. Aiming to collect and recycle all stormwater, the site processes approximately 66,000 gallons a year for fire suppression, plumbing and irrigation. A cistern collects rainwater from the building’s roof to be used in toilets, and stormwater detained onsite is reduced and filtered through green roofs, bioretention, and vegetated buffers.

Staying true to the university’s commitment to integrate sustainability into campus life, locally harvested boulders surround the building for seating, fostering interaction with nature and engagement with the campus community. Site users are encouraged to harvest and consume the edible plants throughout the site, including Korean perilla leaves, Rainbow Swiss Chard, and various herbs, which are pollinated by the 50,000 honeybees housed in the aviary atop the building.

Students played a role in the site’s development from its inception. By recommending materials based on their social responsibility implications, they applied lessons learned in the classroom to real-world scenarios, and witnessed the implementation of their choices.

As sustainability becomes an even greater priority for prospective students, such examples of merging sustainability initiatives with the student experience are helping to ensure recruitment success for American University. Of the seven schools and colleges at AU, six already have degrees or programs directly tied to sustainability, which have undoubtedly attracted students who would have otherwise opted for an alternative institution.

As the university chases its ambitious sustainability goals for 2020, O’Brien will continue cultivating a culture of sustainability for the people who live, work, and play on campus—further distinguishing AU from other institutions.


American University achieved Green Honor Roll status through its sustainability efforts. Photos courtesy American University / Henry Paul Davis.