Julia L F Goldstein

How Are You Changing the World?

Summer in Walla Walla

LEED Certification is an admirable goal in designing a new building. Certified buildings are energy-efficient, incorporate water-saving features, and meet a vast array of requirements. The LEED website says that certification “provides a framework to create healthy, highly efficient, and cost-saving green buildings.” But LEED is also supposed to consider the comfort of those who live and work in the building.

This summer, I stayed in a new dorm at Whitman College in Walla Walla, WA while attending the Midsummer Musical Retreat, a music camp for adults. The dorm where I stayed the past two summers was under construction, so most of us spent the week at Stanton Hall. We were told that it didn’t have air conditioning but that the building incorporated features designed to maintain a reasonable temperature while saving energy.

Whatever they did wasn’t sufficient. My third-floor room was a miserable 86 degrees at night with no cross-ventilation. Keeping the window open did little to cool off the room. Even after taking a cold shower and going to bed with wet hair, I wasn’t comfortable enough to get a good night’s sleep. After several nights of this, I took my yoga mat and pillow outdoors and tried to sleep on the lawn. The temperature was better, but the ground was uneven, and then the sprinklers went on at 1 am. These weren’t the sprinklers right near me, but I didn’t want to wait around long enough to get drenched.

The week I spent at Whitman, the temperature wasn’t even as hot as it often gets in Walla Walla in August. The high remained below 100, unlike a previous year when it climbed to 106. That year, I stayed in an air-conditioned dorm, which I especially appreciated given that extensive fires in Eastern Washington severely compromised the air quality. I wouldn’t have wanted to keep my window open.

The college rents out dorm space to many groups holding conferences on campus each summer, so I would think that making guests comfortable should be part of the plan. After returning home, I poked around the Whitman College website to see if I could learn why the college built a brand-new dorm in 2018 without air conditioning. I came across a report called, “Changing Climates: Whitman College’s Pathway to Sustainability,” published in November of 2018.

The report notes that Walla Walla should expect to experience more days per year where the temperature rises above 95 degrees, which suggests, as the report states, “an increased need for cooling.” The report goes on to say, “Currently most of Whitman College’s residence halls don’t have cooling capability.” The logical conclusion from these statements is that newly built halls like Stanton, which opened in fall 2018, should incorporate cooling. To do otherwise makes no sense.

Information in the report and elsewhere on the college website explains some of the environmentally-friendly features of Stanton. The building is highly insulated and uses energy-efficient lighting. Large windows let in sunlight, minimizing the need for artificial lighting and presumably keeping the building warmer during the winter. Solar panels reduce the demand for electricity from the grid. Designers increased the use of recycled materials wherever feasible and limited non-recyclable materials.

Low flow plumbing fixtures in Stanton supposedly reduce water use by 43 percent. But, for some inexplicable reason, the designers decided to install automatically flushing toilets. These don’t work very well. They often flush during use and don’t flush when exiting the stall. There’s a manual flush button, but using that multiple times negates the benefit of low flow plumbing. Why not install those dual flush handles that often appear in public restrooms? It’s a mystery.

“Smart irrigation design” reduces water use in the common areas near the new dorm. Perhaps so, but I question the need to water the lawn every night. That shouldn’t be necessary. At least the campus recycles much of the water they use.

Whitman College declined to respond to my requests for information even though I submitted an online form and wrote an email to the author of the sustainability report. I heard rumors this summer that the reason for omitting air conditioning was to save money. I wonder if they accounted for the electricity used when conference guests run fans in their rooms all night long.

The fans didn’t even do much good. One of my fellow campers is considering bringing a portable swamp cooler—also called an evaporative cooler—if she stays in Stanton next summer. These devices cool the air through water evaporation and are most effective in hot, dry climates since they add moisture to the air. Small coolers suitable for a single room cost $200-300. Sounds like a good investment, and I could use it at home, too.

I read through the 160-page document that describes LEED certification for new building design and construction, including both required elements and credits for optional features. Platinum certification, the goal for Stanton, requires a building to earn at least 80 of 110 possible elective credits. Here are some credits that Stanton merits:

  • Including electric vehicle parking spots
  • Providing outdoor space around the building
  • Reducing irrigation demands compared to baseline values
  • Installing low flow toilets and showerheads
  • Using renewable energy to provide at least 50% of the building’s power
  • Buying at least 25% of raw materials from responsible sources (biobased materials, salvaged or reused materials, recycled content, etc.)
  • Diverting at least 50% of construction and demolition materials for recovering, reuse, or recycling

The LEED category for indoor environmental quality (EQ) allows for either mechanical ventilation (i.e., air conditioning) or natural ventilation. For the second option, buildings get credit for controlling the entry of pollutants from outdoors and ensuring that “room-by-room airflows will provide effective natural ventilation.” Stanton can’t have earned this credit. Even with windows wide open, the dorm rooms were barely ventilated.

Thermal comfort is a subset of EQ in the LEED guidelines and lists the intent as “to promote occupants’ productivity, comfort, and well-being by providing quality thermal comfort.” I think that my fellow campers would agree that, unfortunately, Stanton failed in this regard. LEED certification allows for air conditioning. Too bad that Whitman College didn’t elect that option.