The Georgia Institute of Technology has turned its 400-acre campus in Atlanta into a giant living-learning laboratory for sustainable design and construction. Over the past several years, the university has used a diverse portfolio of building and infrastructure projects as a means not only to meet the demands of growth and technological advancement, but also to raise the bar on sustainable design and construction practices.

As fossil fuels continue to be depleted and cause harm to the environment, "it is important that Georgia Tech play an important role in reducing our carbon footprint while advancing alternative technologies, many of which are being developed by our own faculty," says Howard Wertheimer, Georgia Tech's director of capital planning and space management.

This approach aligns with the school's overarching mission to improve the human condition through advanced science and technology. And it serves the academic body of future engineers, researchers and builders well, as students learn how to tackle complex issues such as sustainability, says Wertheimer.

Since 2009, for example, Georgia Tech has mandated LEED Gold—the second-highest level of the U.S. Green Building Council's four-tier green building rating system—as the minimum standard for all new construction and renovation projects.

The campus currently has more than 40 buildings containing 5 million sq ft that Georgia Tech considers green. Among these are the $85-million, 220,000-sq-ft G. Wayne Clough Undergraduate Learning Commons and the $22.4-million, 22,100-sq ft Carbon Neutral Energy Solutions Laboratory. Both buildings, completed in the last year or so, are targeting LEED Platinum, which is the highest LEED rating possible.

And though campus facilities master plans are common, Georgia Tech has also crafted comparable strategies for sustainable landscapes. Stormwater and rainwater collection and reuse systems, including cisterns, are integrated into other construction projects. Wertheimer says the systems will be the basis of a specific stormwater master plan aimed at water conservation and reducing dependence on Atlanta's water system.

Learning by Doing

Georgia Tech's eco-friendly practices can be successfully adopted by any university, says Steve Swant, vice president of administration and finance. The key is to be institutionally committed to a long-term building program that aligns with goals of effectiveness and sustainability, he adds.

"We continue to manage our long-term operating costs and our impact on the surrounding environment through design standards that emphasize proper site selection and erosion control, water efficiency, minimum energy and atmosphere impact, sustainable materials and resources, and improved indoor environmental quality," Swant says.

Georgia Tech is also positioned to serve as a living laboratory, with cutting-edge construction technology programs such as the Digital Building Laboratory. The program is a collaboration with construction industry firms aimed at improving building design and construction through the aid of digital tools. The lab also conducts research into augmented reality tools for facilities management.

"Whatever we can do to develop 'real life' research will have a lasting impact on more than just a sponsored project or grant," Swant says. "We can help people and technology change by putting good principles to work and learning how to make them better."

Recently, Javier Irizarry, an assistant professor at the School of Building Construction, landed a $74,984 grant from the Federal Highway Administration and the Georgia Dept. of Transportation (GDOT) to evaluate potential uses of unmanned aerial vehicles, for such tasks as surveying and bridge inspections. The research team will be working on the project with Eric Johnson, an associate professor in the Georgia Institute of Technology's School of Aerospace Engineering.

"As an institute that researches technology, among other things, we have a long-term window when evaluating options," says Scott Jones, the school's director of design and construction. "We are in a position to look at what's been developed, test it to see how it works and if it works best for us."

For example, when chilled beams were first considered for the Clough Commons' lab spaces, there were concerns that the local humid climate would negate the hoped-for energy savings because the units might often be shut down as a consequence of condensation. "Our research showed that it could be done," Jones says, "so we set up a side-by-side test with a conventional system using two labs in the Clough building."