University students receive hands-on training through the LEED Lab program.

WRITTEN BY Alison Gregor

Patricia Andrasik, assistant professor and the head of sustainability outreach designed the LEED Lab course syllabus at Catholic University.
Photos: Ryan Smith.


When students marched into a Purdue University building in late 2012 and began dumping bins of trash onto the floor in the plush atrium, it wasn’t a demonstration of student activism reminiscent of the tumultuous 1960s. Instead, the students were conducting a waste stream audit, and the event was a highly public example of a U.S. Green Building Council Center for Green Schools program that’s been quietly gaining popularity among higher education institutions, called LEED® Lab™.


The LEED Lab program is a hands-on course, initially launched at the Catholic University of America in collaboration with the Center for Green Schools, in which students join forces with the campus facilities department or consultants to improve campus sustainability by working toward obtaining certification of existing campus buildings under Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED).


While Purdue’s course was initially developed independently by a staff member at the university, it’s very similar to LEED Lab and aims to achieve the same outcomes. A waste stream audit, which was dubbed “Mount Trashmore” at Purdue, was one of the credits offered under LEED for Existing Buildings: Operations and Maintenance.


“In terms of student engagement and working on a university campus, it seems pretty universal that students get really excited about waste audits,” says Michael J. Gulich, the director of university sustainability at Purdue.

“I’m not sure what it is—it’s visceral. Not just with LEED projects, but across the board we’ve had great participation on waste audits.”


Purdue students in the LEED Lab course, primarily graduate students from a variety of disciplines with a few undergraduates, were working toward LEED certification of the Jerry S. Rawls Hall, a four-story building in the business school. Gulich, who runs the course with assistant director of university sustainability Michael Ursem, structured the course so that ideally a building could achieve certification in two semesters, and students are encouraged, though not required, to take the course for two semesters, he says.


While Gulich developed the course at Purdue independently, the USGBC’s Center for Green Schools assisted Catholic University of America in developing the course and conducted a pilot program there from spring of 2011 through 2013, says Jaime Van Mourik, the director of higher education at the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC).


At Catholic University, five or six semesters are necessary to achieve certification of a building, which is examined with other buildings for feasibility in one semester, while implementation of the LEED requirements and credits, along with documentation of the data, may well take two semesters each, says Patricia Andrasik, the assistant professor and the head of sustainability outreach who designed the course syllabus.



Purdue University students (left to right) Ariadna Caixach; Maribel Hernandez; Tony Gillund; Zhiyao Yang; Sanjana Hemanth; Xiangfei Meng; Eduardo Olmeda.
Photo: Purdue University

While about seven colleges and universities are now offering LEED Lab courses (with some international institutions as well as K-12 schools also interested), Catholic University is the first institution where the LEED Lab course has resulted in certification of a building under LEED for Building Operations and Maintenance. As a result of student coursework since 2011, the Crough Center for Architectural Studies, a former gymnasium built in the early 1900s, was certified in September, Andrasik says.


Perhaps even more important to students, however, is the impact the course can have on their futures. Of the 48 students who’ve taken the course at Catholic University, 12 have achieved LEED Accredited Professionals status and 16 have landed jobs in related fields after graduating, she says.


Van Mourik says that LEED Lab was created back in 2011 to address multiple issues. One was that employers were finding that students taught about environmental policies and practices, as well as LEED, on a theoretical level showed a “real gap in knowledge” in the workplace, she says. Students themselves felt unprepared for the real-world challenges of the workplace and were clamoring for more hands-on experience.


“Students were very eager and hungry for experiential learning opportunities,” Van Mourik says. “They really wanted to get their hands dirty and be part of a team working through the LEED process, but it was difficult for them to find those types of experiences within their academic coursework.”


At the time, USGBC began hearing about a few academic institutions that were engaging students in LEED projects on a volunteer or internship basis, she says. “Those volunteer experiences were great, but when you’re in college, your primary objective for being there is to focus on your academic coursework.”


Developing a for-credit academic course that was highly experiential to educate and equip students with a professional skill set gleaned through actual building certification seemed like a solution to that dilemma, she says. Another issue for USGBC was that the council was not seeing many institutions of higher education certifying existing buildings under LEED Operations and Maintenance.


“One of our goals was to help universities and colleges build capacity in-house to begin to better integrate sustainability into their daily operations and maintenance practices,” Van Mourik says, “because colleges and universities are struggling with deferred maintenance, lack of resources, continued budget cuts, and a lot of these institutions don’t have that capacity, and it’s very difficult to fund-raise for operational improvements.”

Gulich says he had similar motivations for developing the course at Purdue University, which has 375 buildings, among them 175 buildings that are more than 10,000 square feet.


“We’re bringing on new LEED buildings at the pace of about one per year, and they’re great—they’re great donor opportunities, they’re great for PR, they’re sort of sexy additions to the campus,” he says, “But in terms of the problem we’re all trying to solve, we’re not going to do it bringing on one building out of 175 a year.”



A Colorado State-Pueblo class is structured around learning modules adapted from the LEED Reference Guide.
Photo: Colorado State University-Pueblo

With the LEED Lab course, Gulich is shifting the focus from new construction to the operations and maintenance of existing buildings. For some students, that was part of the course’s appeal as well. “It was interesting to do an existing building as opposed to new construction,” says Tony Gillund, a former graduate student who took the LEED Lab course for two semesters and worked on Purdue’s second candidate for certification, the Dick and Sandy Dauch Alumni Center.


“So much is done on new construction,” he says, “but existing buildings, which make up the majority of the infrastructure at any complex, university or otherwise, are some of the ones that we need to make more energy efficient and have better use of resources.”


The LEED Lab courses are all structured differently at each academic institution. Some institutions gear their course toward graduates, while others focus on undergraduates. With anywhere from eight to 18 students, most courses break the students into groups that then pursue one or more credits toward certification of the chosen building, but how the groups choose to do this is often left largely up to them, though typically a graduate student will serve as a project manager.


At Colorado State University-Pueblo, where the course was first offered last spring, Sarah Spencer-Workman, a sustainability education specialist, and visiting assistant professor of Construction Management Daniel Trujillo created a syllabus structured around “learning modules” adapted from chapters of the LEED Reference Guide for Green Building Operations and Maintenance. This syllabus was used as the course text, supplemented by other reading and online video tutorials.


Students, who attend a two-hour seminar and one-hour lab each week, were quizzed on the learning modules, and were then broken up into groups to focus on two credits toward certification of the Library Academic Resources Center, a building on Colorado State’s campus that also served as their classroom.


“They go through the process as though they were a real LEED consultant,” Spencer-Workman says. “And their midterm was a presentation of their credits and where they were to date. They should have been about 75 percent completed, and that was largely the case. “For the final, we downloaded the real LEED credits, and they had to complete the templates as if they were going to submit them, whereas in fact, Daniel and I would just finalize the information and submit it ourselves,” she says.


Bahar Armaghani, faculty at the College of Design Construction and Planning and director of the U.S. LEED program at the University of Florida, created the institution’s first LEED Lab course being offered this fall, which aims to certify the 16-acre Donald R. Dizney Stadium/Florida Lacrosse Facility. As in other LEED Labs, she divided her students into groups led by graduate students serving as project manager that are each assigned a LEED category. However, the tools she employs are guest speakers and class trips.


“I never thought the class was going to be this exciting for them,” Armaghani says. “It’s more hands-on, and it’s not like a structured class where you have to do this first and then that. It’s a totally different method of teaching, which I think is really appealing to the students.”



University of Florida students gain hands-on knowledge through the program.
Photo: University of Florida

While at the University of Florida, students spend some time at the beginning of the semester examining the feasibility of certain buildings as certification candidates, at Catholic University, they spend an entire semester doing so. Also at Catholic University, the Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI) meets once with students each semester to provide feedback and guidance on their work toward certification.


“To have GBCI reviewers actually sit in front of the students and tell them face-to-face what they did wrong on their submissions, and what they should improve on, that just hadn’t been done ever,” Andrasik says.


Some institutions use professional consultants, while others do not. Purdue hired a consultant, Heapy Engineering, to be an advisor and project manager, and effectively serve as the “instructor” for the LEED Lab course, Gulich says. Over the course of its three-year contract, Heapy’s participation in the course will be rolled back as the university enlists additional staff and faculty to teach the course, he says.


The consultant has driven up the cost of the course for Purdue, something Gulich hopes to reduce as Heapy’s role is cut back. “It cost about $85,000 on the certification side, and on top of that was retrocommissioning and ongoing commissioning,” he says. “So that’s pretty expensive, and we know it’s not sustainable to do it this way every year. The reason we did it this way was we were doing it from the staff side.”


Institutions using faculty to teach the course shouldn’t need as much consultant involvement, Gulich says. The LEED Operations and Maintenance rating system is one in which all the work can be done in-house without necessitating outside consultants, Van Mourik says. “So it’s really up to the institution and depending who they have on staff, particularly who they have in their facilities group.”


Ideally, students are able to fulfill the entire role of LEED consultants. It’s that experience gained in project management that inspires many of them, as they communicate with rectors and deans along with students and staff.



Andrasik lectures students at Catholic University.
Photo: Ryan Smith.

“The student group acts as ‘consultants’ that are assigned with documenting and identifying how credits can be obtained in the various categories,” says Richell Fosu, a computer graphics technology Ph.D. student who is taking her third semester of LEED Lab at Purdue. “We make recommendations, formulate policies and procedures, and present business cases to our clients—Purdue—in order to demonstrate the impacts and benefits the investment in such a venture would be in the long term of the building’s life cycle.”


Documenting the business case for LEED is one reason, among several, that LEED Lab attracts such a diverse group of students, from future architects and engineers to those interested in business and politics. Eric J. Yee, a master of business administration student who took the LEED Lab course at Purdue for two semesters in 2012-2013, was the project leader for the entire project and relished the position. “The best thing I did was get those project management skills,” he says.


The Mount Trashmore event was one he coordinated with members of a campus business sustainability group called Net Impact and students taking the LEED Lab course. Because a large part of achieving the LEED Operations and Maintenance certification is about changing the behavior of building occupants, Yee and his colleagues decided to make the trash audit public.


“We made a whole event around it where we were showing participants—students and faculty and staff in the building—what waste we used in a 24-hour period and how this stuff should have been recycled,” he says.


The experience of having to create behavioral modifications among occupants in a building to achieve sustainability goals, as well as physical changes to the building’s infrastructure, is one that tends to stay with students.


“I look at buildings differently now,” Fosu says. “They seem like living machines to me, as paradoxical as that may sound.”