ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Even the bathrooms of the new Ross School of Business, here at the University of Michigan, are meant to teach a lesson. Among the dark marble countertops and heavy wood-paneled doors, the electric-green handles on the toilets stand out like little exclamation points.
Coated to resist germs, the handles can be pushed either up or down, creating a high-intensity or low-intensity flush. The dual-flush toilets, estimated to reduce water consumption by as much as 67 percent, are just one example of the features throughout the building that are intended to show the world that this B-school is very eco-friendly.
The new Central Campus landmark has been officially open for more than a month, and the buzz surrounding it continues. This is more than just environment, this is business. Other B-schools in the country are 'greening up' fast, and university administrators here hope their efforts will turn prospective students' and recruiters' heads around the country toward Michigan.
Huge skylights soar above the main atrium. The 270,000-square-foot building takes advantage of natural light while using high-efficiency electricity and daylight-dimming systems. Some of its roof is covered with soil and plants to insulate the building, filter rainfall and improve air quality by trapping impurities.
Receptacles throughout the building are dedicated to recycling cans and paper. Between classes, professors and students will prowl along non-toxic carpets and visit waterless urinals. The walls are covered with low-VOC (volatile organic compound) paint, which reduces the emission of air pollutants and greenhouse gases found in normal buildings.
And, while it isn't obvious, 94 percent of demolition debris and 50 percent of debris from construction was recycled.
'What business should be doing in the future'
Though the paperwork hasn't yet been submitted, administrators will apply for the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design, or LEED, certification and expect to achieve the Silver level. While it's not a national stand-out -- Silver is only the second out of four levels of certification -- the Ross building's biggest achievement might be to set a new standard for University of Michigan buildings. Students and faculty have begun to demand greener standards for campus development -- and in the case of the business school, have succeeded.
"This was a watershed moment in changing how we design buildings at the University of Michigan," said university alumnus Brian Swett, who was one of several graduate students in the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise who pushed for the LEED certification of the Business School.
Professor Tom Lyon, director of the Erb Institute, said it's especially important for business schools to achieve LEED certification because so many of the employers who recruit MBA and BBA students are doing so themselves.
"I think the fact that we got it LEED certified makes a very important statement, because it says you're really on the cutting edge of what businesses should be doing in the future," explained Graham Mercer, assistant dean of the Ross school, who headed the project.
But the national benchmark for green construction has gotten so high that even with the steps it has taken, the University of Michigan's business school remains far from the environmental cutting edge.
Stanford goes for platinum; MIT is 'solar ready'
The new Stanford Graduate School of Business campus, set to open in 2010, is seeking Platinum LEED certification, the highest possible level. So will the Glendale, Ariz.-based Thunderbird School of Global Management.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's forthcoming Sloan School of Management will be solar-ready, allowing for the installation of solar panels at a later date, and New York University's Stern School of Business provides bottle-filling stations to encourage students to reuse their water bottles.
"We should not be tooting our own horns, and we're not taking a leadership role at all," Michigan alumnus Swett said, adding that the University of Michigan has a "terrible record of building green."
Though its College Sustainability Report Card grade for green building rose from a C in 2007 to a B in 2008 and 2009, the University of Michigan lags behind peer schools like the University of Virginia; the University of California, Berkeley; and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, which all scored an A in the category in the last two years.
According to several professors and students involved in the initial planning phases of the new Ross School building, University of Michigan administrators, architects and the New York City-based architectural firm Kohn Pedersen Fox initially resisted certifying the building, due to the extra expense.
A rigid point system: Does a green roof count?
The LEED system faces criticism for not only adding costs in the form of paperwork, extra research and LEED consultants, but also employing a too-rigid point system. For example, the green roofs of the Ross building -- while no doubt environmentally beneficial -- do not count toward a LEED certification.
Despite its faults, the system is generally regarded positively because it helps force builders to think more broadly about environmental options and serves as a recognizable yardstick for green buildings nationwide. And at the very least, a LEED certification generates good publicity.
"It would have been tremendously embarrassing if Ross had opened with less than the Silver, given what our competition is doing," Swett said.
Several Erb Institute students started a petition for the Ross building to achieve LEED certification and set up meetings with Ross administrators to make their case for it.
University alumnus Bryan Magnus, who was one of the first Erb students to begin researching sustainable options for the building, said they approached the administration with "literally a binder of resources." The student team of "rabble-rousers," as Swett called them, wanted to prove to the administration that the price premium for achieving the certification was not prohibitively high. Though some contend that the cost of LEED certifying a building can be up to 25 percent of the total cost, Lyon, with the Erb Institute, said those estimates are far off base, as extra costs are usually less than 1 percent.
A push by students trumped arguments over the cost
"The numbers are not huge," said professor Andy Hoffman, an associate director of the Erb Institute. In a paper he co-authored, Hoffman cited several recent studies showing that when lowered operating costs are taken into account, the construction and certification costs of green building and standard buildings are negated by savings in energy costs within years.
The cost of certifying the Ross project was 1 percent of the $110 million total construction cost, which would mean a hefty $1.1 million, according to Mercer.
Magnus said that after a few meetings with the Erb students, the administration shifted from being "skeptically interested to sincerely interested" in pursuing the certification. "The Erb students were the instrumental factor in moving the school to go for LEED certification," Lyon said. Magnus said the administration "definitely hadn't considered" achieving the label.
Mercer said that although the administration was "still debating" whether to certify the building when the Erb students first approached it, greening the building was an objective from the start.
"We wanted to make some sort of statement that this is important," he said.
In the end, certification was deemed paramount, so that present and future students and recruiters would instantly realize the extent of the building's green features, Mercer explained. "You can throw an awful lot of money into a building trying to get to some esoteric level with not a lot of gain," he said.