Thinking Green

Pittsburgh, called “hell with the lid taken off” in the 19th century because of its industrial filth, is now an academic leader in the green movement.


To the side of an amphitheater under construction on the new $44 million satellite campus of Chatham University, an air vent pokes through the ground. Easily overlooked unless a guide points it out, the vent protrudes from a root cellar, a concept that has existed since the Iron Age as a way of using the natural coolness of an underground chamber to preserve fruits, vegetables and other edibles. It may seem like a symbol of the past. On Chatham’s Eden Hall site in the North Hills, it speaks to the future.

“A root cellar is what’s called appropriate technology. It’s inexpensive. It’s easy to do. It gets the job done naturally,” says David Hassenzahl, founding dean and professor of Chatham’s School of Sustainability and the Environment. “We’ve gotten accustomed to high-tech solutions. We’ve forgotten how to do some simple, practical, economical things. We don’t want sustainability to be what they study, but what they live.”

A simple hole in the ground to preserve food without energy-dependent refrigeration? It’s an old-school idea with a 21st-century twist, and it’s as likely to persuade today’s students to choose one university over another as digital classrooms, country-club dorms and party-school reputations.

Chatham’s root cellar is a symbol of how higher education has become deeper, greener and broader in western Pennsylvania, where colleges and universities have positioned themselves among the acknowledged leaders of a national and international movement.


Photos by Chuck Beard

At Chatham University’s Eden Hall campus, the entrance to a weathered root cellar sits downhill from ongoing construction of a new amphitheater and academic buildings.


At a June conference in Singapore, Chatham was the only university in North America to receive a Sustainable Campus Excellence Award from the International Sustainable Campus Network. Only five schools from around the world were so honored for their green initiatives in buildings, campus and student leadership. The symposium brought together top-tier universities globally to exchange perspectives and form partnerships in pursuit of sustainability.

Chatham also was one of 21 U.S. schools to make the 2013 Green Rating Honor Roll — the highest-possible score — by the Princeton Review, which ranks environmental practices, policies and curriculum. The Shadyside-based university is one of six Pittsburgh-area schools included in the Princeton Review’s Guide to 322 Green Colleges: 2013 Edition; the others are California University of Pennsylvania, Carnegie Mellon University, Duquesne University, Slippery Rock University and the University of Pittsburgh.

Sustainability has quietly but steadily gone mainstream in what local campuses offer and how they operate — from designing courses in green chemistry and introducing master’s-degree tracks in sustainability to converting cafeteria grease to biofuel; from students demanding eco-friendly residence halls and bicycle-friendly campuses to sowing crops on college-owned farms.

While institutions nationally are adopting green practices and academic programs, many look for guidance to an extraordinary alliance forged by 11 Allegheny County colleges and universities that may be unparalleled in the country.


The Higher Education Climate Consortium is a partner of the Pittsburgh Climate Initiative, formed in 2008 with the goal of reducing local greenhouse-gas emissions. HECC members include the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, Carlow University, Carnegie Mellon, the Community College of Allegheny County, Chatham, Duquesne, La Roche College, Penn State University’s outreach center in the Lower Hill District, Point Park University, Pitt and Robert Morris University.

“It’s really a unique model. You get better results by working together,” says Lindsay Baxter, project manager for the Pennsylvania Environmental Council. “Pittsburgh is seen as a national and international model for sustainability.”


The Carrillo Street Steam Plant is equipped with state-of-the-art emissions-control technology and is helping to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions for Pitt and UPMC.


“Pittsburgh is the best place in the world to do this because the city has reinvented itself. The city does cherish the fact that it wants to be an environmental city,” says Terry Collins, director of Carnegie Mellon’s Institute for Green Science and the university’s Teresa Heinz professor of green chemistry.

Schools in the consortium pool resources in two areas: operating in a way that cuts costs while being environmentally responsible and developing curriculum. In other words, they practice what they preach.

“In most cities, universities see themselves as competitors. Here, we seem to partner with each other. It’s a collection of success stories,” says Elaine Sadowski, a mechanical engineer who is energy manager at CCAC and co-chairwoman of the consortium.

“It’s a matter of being complementary,” she adds. “If you’re doing it right, nobody’s going to notice it. We’re not freezing people in the dark by conserving energy. Who notices if you have a light bulb that uses six watts instead of 40?”

Laura Zullo, also a consortium co-chairwoman, is a mechanical engineer who serves as senior manager of Pitt’s energy initiatives and is responsible for the university’s energy conservation.

“Pitt believes the most sustainable energy is the energy we never use,” says Zullo. Since 1966, Pitt has saved $44 million primarily by conserving energy through upgrades of older systems and through building systems automation. Its $33 million steam plant, which began operating four years ago, is recognized as one of the cleanest-operating heating systems at a U.S. university.

Also at Pitt:

  • Researchers from its Mascaro Center For Sustainable Innovation in the Swanson School of Engineering have studied the use of bamboo in constructing sustainable and earthquake-resistant buildings.

  • Mascaro Center students helped apply sustainable-design principles for rainwater collection and composting to a greenhouse in the Shaler Area School District, where elementary- and high-school students learn about green design.

  • The university-based Congress of Neighboring Communities, which promotes cooperation between Pittsburgh and 36 of its neighbors, received a $31,000 grant in January from the Heinz Endowments to encourage municipalities to develop wet-weather plans that lessen the impact of flooding.

The movement has taken root in institutions of the State System of Higher Education as well. The campuses of Cal U and Indiana University of Pennsylvania are designated arboretums. Cal U’s Student Association Inc. has purchased a 90-acre farm that, among other things, enables students to grow crops to be served in the campus cafeteria.

“We need ways to do things more efficiently and economically,” says Robert S. Whyte, director of Cal U’s arboretum and a professor of biological and environmental sciences. “We can’t be wasteful.”


Pitt’s newest student housing facility, Mark A. Nordenberg Hall, includes many sustainable features and is pursuing Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Silver certification.


Clarion University of Pennsylvania’s    Joseph P. Grunenwald Center for Science and Technology, completed in 2009, generates its own electricity with solar roof panels, among other environmentally conscious features. At Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania, the Robert A. Macoskey Center promotes sustainability with hands-on educational programs, demonstrations, research and other academic events on 83 acres that include a farm, trails and gathering space.


The Earth has made its celestial journey around the sun 43 times since college campuses marked the first Earth Day on March 22, 1970. Earth Day’s founder, the late U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, noted then: “The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment, not the other way around.”

Sustainability, too, is an idea that has been around for a while. In 1987, the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations defined it as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” It is supported by three prongs — caring for the environment, social justice and economic dividends.

Reducing costs, increasing opportunities, reducing risks and consumer value engagement are reasons corporate America has become convinced that going green has merit, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Association of Climate Change Officers. The organization, a nonprofit that supports leaders of public and private organizations in addressing climate-related issues, has doubled its member organizations from 20 to nearly 40 in the past year.

“You would be hard-pressed to find a Fortune 500 company that doesn’t in some way, shape or form have a sustainability director, or a climate or environmental officer,” says Daniel Kreeger, co-founder and executive director of the association. “Climate and sustainability aren’t just about science and the environment. They’re also a business bottom-line issue or consideration.”


Two research field labs containing demonstration aquaculture and energy performance-monitoring stations at Chatham University’s Eden Hall campus are to be completed this fall.


Economic conditions in recent years also spurred support for green initiatives on campuses, as administrators sought to prepare students for careers and to cut costs while maintaining programs.

In 2006, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education had 133 campus members. Seven years later, it has more than 875, and 400-plus U.S. institutions have designated sustainability-related deans, directors and managers.

Business schools were among the first to embrace green initiatives. Duquesne’s school of business holds an annual forum and offers an MBA in integrated sustainability. Pitt and Carnegie Mellon also have co-presented an engineering conference on sustainability.

“We’re at a point where we’re really taking care of the Earth, not as tree-hugging activists but economic activists. Either way, it has to be done,” says Marcel Minutolo, assistant professor of management at Robert Morris in Moon Township.

That university was born as a school of accountancy in a single downtown building. But what would accountants possibly have to do with long-term care of resources?

“Sustainability is so much more than just a green movement. It’s economic and social, too — the triple bottom line,” says Minutolo, who teaches on a campus where gleaming instruction and residence halls have been constructed or refurbished with a green future in mind.

“Think what you want about Walmart, but [it’s] a leader in sustainable practices,” Minutolo says. “[Company leaders] don’t do it because they love the Earth. There are dollars involved. Sustainability makes sense, whether you love the Earth, love people or love money.”

Incorporating such initiatives may require short-term investments but results in long-term savings, and they do not drive up tuition costs, university officials say.


What about jobs? Parents shelling out big bucks for tuition, as well as students who put themselves in debt by borrowing money for college, want to know if their investment will pay off after graduation.

Today’s job market for college graduates is worrisome in general, and educators say placement statistics in sustainability-related careers are hard to pinpoint because the field is relatively new and crosses many disciplines. But they cite anecdotal evidence that sustainability training bolsters a graduate’s chances of being hired.

For example, Carnegie Mellon chemistry majors have found jobs associated with sustainability with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in the private sector and in academia.

The Dow Jones Sustainability Index, which covers more than 2,500 companies, has been around since 1999, and many on Wall Street now assess a company’s potential for savings through its environmental practices, says Valerie Patrick, sustainability coordinator for Pittsburgh-based Bayer Corp. and Bayer MaterialScience.

“We want as many new hires as possible to understand these concepts,” says Patrick, who also is a member of the board of directors of the Association for Climate Change Officers. “This is needed across all majors [and] will be needed for a career in any sector of the economy, be it the corporate world, nonprofit world or government. The business value is there. People don’t want to go back to living in caves. But this is a trend, and trend creates opportunity.”

Some of the nation’s top accounting firms — Deloitte and Pricewaterhouse-Coopers — are sold on the business benefits of sustainable practices and are employing recent graduates who can help clients operate more efficiently, says Minutolo. So, too, are PNC, BNY Mellon, Alcoa, Dick’s Sporting Goods, American Eagle Outfitters, H.J. Heinz Co. and other corporations. 

“We’ve positioned ourselves so that our students will be gainfully employed,” Minutolo says. “I want these students to succeed. When they do well, we do well. After all, it’s the alumni association that’s going to call for future donations.”

Mary Whitney, university sustainability coordinator at Chatham, displays this sign on her office door: “A positive attitude will not solve all your problems, but it will annoy enough people to make it worth the effort.”

That view comes in handy when people suggest it’s impossible to reverse the harm done to the global environment through pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions or for Chatham to reach its goal of becoming carbon-neutral by 2025.


A green roof on Benedum Hall, home to Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering, helps to reduce stormwater run-off, saves energy by improving building insulation, and helps to moderate the urban heat island effect.


“The most important thing about sustainable education is that people understand the importance of their choices. People are learning by doing,” Whitney says. “It’s not just about saving trees and polar bears. It’s about saving people. We’re roll-up-your-sleeves. We’re doing something about it. There is no downside to any of this. Nobody is harmed by less greenhouse emissions. Nobody is harmed by conserving water.”

That philosophy led to Chatham’s Eden Hall site, now taking shape in Richland Township on a 388-acre farm that once served as a resort and retreat for women who worked for the H.J. Heinz Co. When the campus is completed in 2015, Eden Hall will teach and house 1,500 students in the world’s first academic community built for sustainable development, living and learning.

“It’s being built from under-the-ground up,” says Esther L. Barazzone, Chatham’s president. She strives to maintain the legacy of her university’s most-famous alumna, Rachel Carson, the Springdale native whose book Silent Spring warned of dangers pesticides posed to songbirds. “Our job is to produce responsible citizens, no matter what their walk of life. It’s not only the right thing for Chatham to do; it’s the smart thing to do.”

While the root cellar at Eden Hall was part of the original farm, new ones will be carved out for practical and academic purposes, she says.

With construction in full swing, Eden Hall is already producing. Chickens were raised 100 yards from where they were served at a dinner for the board of trustees. A rooster crows the morning wake-up call. The school cafeteria serves lettuce from the Eden Hall garden, where such crops as wheat, squash, pumpkins, peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, basil, garlic and onions are raised and sold to food banks and high-end restaurants. Blueberries, apples and peaches also are grown. Bees produce honey — some of which is used to make mead, an alcoholic beverage fermented from an ancient recipe.

“The idea is to think global but act local. We’re using this place for the betterment of Pittsburgh and the world,” says Hassenzahl, Chatham’s sustainability dean. “Instead of a thesis, some of our students will write business plans.”


According to the Princeton Review, roughly two out of three incoming students consider sustainability when choosing a school. All college and university officials interviewed for this article agree that students at western Pennsylvania institutions demand practices and courses that promote a sustainable future. Students want to know where the recycling cans are located, why the lights are on when nobody is using them, why computers are running when no one is in the lab.

Increasingly, officials say, students are on board with renovating old buildings into new dorms, reversing a trend of seeking new, architect-designed luxury suites and apartments. That’s been the case at Point Park, downtown, as it expands and converts long-standing buildings into housing. At Eden Hall, students have asked that dorm rooms be smaller, hence more energy-efficient, than originally planned.

“They stunned us with that,” says Barazzone. “Young people are very conscious about the planet.”


With construction in full swing, Chatham's Eden Hall is already producing. Chickens were raised 100 yards from where they were served at a dinner for the board of trustees.


Today’s youth express the belief that they inherited an environmental mess and will ultimately have to pay for it. They grew up witnessing extreme weather — from stronger storms to record wildfires. They care enough to do something about it.

“I have nieces and nephews. What type of world are we leaving for them? I want it to be a good climate,” says Megan Davis, who is pursuing her master’s degree at Pitt. Through her role as a student fellow with the Student Conservation Association, Davis works with the Higher Education Climate Consortium. “The field of sustainability is growing. What I hope is that we no longer need sustainability in the title, but that it’s a natural part of the way people live and conduct business.”

A native of Greenville, Pa., Davis grew up reading National Geographic magazine and has a bachelor of anthropology degree from Pitt. What makes her generation different?

“For myself, in my own life, I’m changing ways to do things — gardening, recycling more, taking the bus more, doing volunteer work with the Student Conservation Association. Others in my generation are doing the same things,” she says. “Everyone is passionate, driven and motivated about improving their campus and making an impact on our city.”

As universities integrate sustainability practices and concerns into courses and curriculum, they are taking pains to involve all departments — business, philosophy, communications, computer science, natural sciences, engineering, architecture and teaching.

“Each discipline has to find something in it for them. If [sustainability] stays only in the sciences, it will fail,” says Whyte, the professor at Cal U, where the Interdisciplinary Center for Environmental Studies brings together students, faculty and the community in programs that cut across classroom boundaries. More creative blending is found in such instruction as the Cal U art class taught jointly by professors from the biology and art departments.

“We are training people to lead civilization,” says Carnegie Mellon’s Collins, who notes that funding from the Heinz Family Foundation and other local philanthropists has provided critical support for green studies and practices at colleges and universities. “Ultimately, there should be a university of sustainability, and my fervent hope is that it would be Carnegie Mellon.

“Sustainability has a compass. This happened on our watch,” he adds. “At the end of the day, Mother Nature won’t negotiate with you.”


  Sustainability Cheat Sheet


>> The Art Institute of Pittsburgh supports sustainable growth and strategic investment through recycling and installing low-flow showerheads in residence halls.

>> The Women of Spirit Institute at Carlow University conducts a three-day Environmental Career Opportunities Camp for high-school girls interested in jobs related to environment, energy and sustainability. Carlow has installed water stations in dorms and other buildings to cut down on the use of plastic water bottles. It has eliminated trays in the cafeteria to reduce food waste and water use, and it has a campus clothing exchange to recycle apparel.

>> Sustainability practices are integrated into all seven of Carnegie Mellon University’s colleges. CMU created a Green Practices Committee in 1999 and opened its Steinbrenner Institute for Environmental Education and Research in 2004 “to change the ways the world thinks and acts about the environment.” Its mechanical engineering department has set up a bicycle repair shop for students who commute by bicycle. Among its 10 LEED-certified buildings is the Robert L. Preger Intelligent Workplace. Student group Sustainable Earth aims to bring more awareness of environmental issues to CMU and the region.

>> At the Community College of Allegheny County’s new science building on the North Side’s Allegheny campus, an energy dashboard has been installed so students can view how much energy is being used there at any time. CCAC also has a green institute at its West Hills Center. In the school’s auto mechanics course, students are trained to repair and maintain electric cars and those that run on natural gas. CCAC has also replaced older light bulbs with more efficient ones, saving more than $245,000 per year while reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

>> In addition to holding an annual forum, Duquesne University offers a one-year MBA sustainability degree. Graduation ceremonies in 2012 were held at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, one of the greenest buildings on the planet. Duquesne’s Power Center features a natural gas turbine and received the EPA’s 2009 Combined Heat and Power Award. Its Center for Green Industries and Sustainable Business Growth educates small businesses about practices aimed at saving money and increasing profits. The Des Places Residence Hall, which features one-, two- and three-bedroom suites, is LEED-certified and has elevators that generate electricity as they brake while descending.

>> La Roche College in McCandless offers a minor in sustainable interdisciplinary studies directed toward the development of environmental justice. A “last out, lights outs” policy encourages students to turn off lights and computers. Staffers and diners in its tray-less dining hall use corn-based plastic utensils designed for easy biodegradability.

>> Penn State University’s outreach center is located in Pittsburgh Green Innovators Inc.’s Energy Innovation Center in the former Connelley Technical Institute and vo-tech high school in the Hill District. That green campus is projected to be a gold-rated LEED facility. PSU’s Greater Allegheny campus in McKeesport is developing a bio-diesel lab to produce fuel for campus use. Programs are also in place to encourage recycling and to cut down on pesticide use.

>> Point Park University has converted a former gas station and surface parking lot into a lively urban park along the Boulevard of the Allies. The former YMCA building is a new student center. Its George Rowland White Performance Studio is Gold LEED-certified. “Creating more academic and social spaces for our community supports the university’s vision of becoming one of the most dynamic, private urban universities in America,” says Point Park President Paul Hennigan, former chief financial officer for the city of Pittsburgh.

>> Chatham University’s School of Sustainability and the Environment debuted in 2009 as the first of its kind in the East and only the second in the nation, behind Arizona State University. It offers master’s degrees in three fields and will add a co-educational bachelor’s degree in 2014. On its main campus, Chatham has banned the use of plastic water bottles and pesticides. It has the largest solar-thermal water heater installation in Pennsylvania, and its Rea House is a green-living residence. Students may opt to join the environmental group Green Horizons.

>> For the fifth straight year, Robert Morris University will hold an International Conference on Sustainable Enterprises of the Future, bringing together scholars and business people at its campus in Moon Township. It offers a major in environmental science and courses in sustainable marketing and management. RMU has also replaced Styrofoam containers in the campus food court with reusable ones.

>> University of Pittsburgh’s curriculum includes a variety of sustainability courses in fields ranging from economics to history and philosophy of science. It received an award from the Allegheny County Health Department for its nationally recognized Carrillo Street Steam Plant, which uses natural gas boilers with ultra-low emissions; the plant has the capacity to serve all university and UPMC buildings in Oakland. Composting has been implemented in dining halls, and trays have been eliminated to reduce food waste and water use. In 2010, the university named Dan Marcinko, assistant vice chancellor for administration, as its sustainability coordinator.

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