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Rereading the Green

A year after being rocked by scandal, LACCD aims to turn its tarnished reputation green again.

A year ago, the Los Angeles Community College District (LACCD) was the golden child of the green movement in education. Its award-winning Sustainable Building Program, with $5.7 billion in capital funds raised through bond offerings, was one of the largest environmentally friendly building projects in the country. And then the wheels fell off.

In a series of articles published by the Los Angeles Times in February and March 2011, reporters revealed that the modernization project was not delivering on its promises, and that mismanagement had resulted in wasted funds, shoddily constructed buildings, and unnecessary delays.

The fallout from the articles led to the ousting of Larry Eisenberg, executive director of facilities planning and development. Over the past several months, the LACCD Board of Trustees has taken measures to reform the building program, including terminating several building contracts, placing a moratorium on new projects, and appointing an independent review panel to evaluate the program and provide recommendations.

So what went wrong? And what can the district--and institutions around the country--learn from a green dream that turned into a nightmare?

Too Big to Succeed?
One of the criticisms leveled against the project is that it was simply too big to be managed effectively. Certainly, it was very ambitious. LACCD is the largest community college district in the country, with nine campuses serving 150,000 students. Maintenance and improvements had been deferred for so long that facilities required urgent repair, and there was a desperate need for new buildings. All that deferred work was rolled into a giant plan with a head-spinning budget of $6 billion (including interest).

These funds were raised from three bond measures, approved by voters in 2001, 2003, and 2008. After the first bond measures were passed, the Board of Trustees adopted a policy of sustainable building, including a goal of having nearly 90 buildings gain LEED certification from the US Green Building Council.

Any project this large is bound to encounter problems, and the LACCD initiative proved no different. Quality control and basic planning suffered from the sheer number and scope of projects undertaken. The result does not make for happy reading: a new science complex with faulty plumbing, wiring, and heating; a performing arts center that was renovated at great expense only to be torn down; and projects that were scrapped after the design work was complete--and, in some instances, even after construction had begun. In a 2009 memo to the head of construction, Eisenberg wrote, "We are opening buildings that do not work at the most fundamental level."

The problem may have been further exacerbated by the fact that the district is decentralized. "Our students and programs are very diverse," explains Jorge Mata, CIO for LACCD. "The priorities at one college might not be the top priorities in another. Decentralization allows for tailoring." For example, it's the individual colleges that are accredited, not the district.

While this approach makes sense from an academic viewpoint, it made it impossible to create a standardized districtwide set of requirements for building projects. It also meant that there was insufficient top-level oversight: Individual colleges were responsible for their own funds and projects, sometimes with lamentable results.

While all these factors probably contributed to the district's woes, the true lesson may be much simpler: Nothing good comes from deferring maintenance and improvements.

Idealism Trumped Reality
It also appears that LACCD followed its heart, not its head. While most colleges and universities are committed to preserving the environment, it's the job of administrators to ensure that green efforts are both technologically and economically feasible. Unfortunately, it seems that LACCD became blinded by idealism. From the get-go, the Sustainable Building Program was aggressively green, but keys aspects proved impossible to implement--in some cases the technology doesn't yet exist.

Eisenberg wanted to use geothermal, solar, and wind power to make the district energy-independent--and even to sell electricity back to the grid. But this vision was seriously flawed. At present, the cost of taking the district off the grid would far outweigh the financial savings. Geothermal energy is inefficient at best in a temperate climate like that of Los Angeles. And, too often, implementation of projects that did get off the ground was severely flawed: Solar arrays had to be taken down because they were built above seismic faults, while a prototype wind turbine turned too slowly to generate enough power for a lightbulb.

Among other institutions getting green initiatives underway, there is some concern that LACCD's missteps might infect their own efforts with its pie-in-the-sky dreaminess. So it's important to note that LACCD has actually made some important green advances. As of last year, nine completed buildings had received LEED certification; 18 more were in the certification process; 22 were under construction; and 42 in design.

Plan Long-Term
These are significant steps. When a major project hits turbulence, though, it's easy to lose sight of the big picture while focusing on damage control. Unfortunately, future benefits can fall victim to such a short-term focus. Putting Eisenberg's more fanciful and ill-conceived projects aside, LACCD's goal of planning for its energy future still makes tremendous sense.

"We know that the cost of energy will keep increasing," says Mata. "Eventually, our resources will all go toward powering the schools." Creating a long-term plan for gaining energy independence is not only a sustainable building practice, it makes good sense economically.

Although critics of LACCD's energy-independence plan argue that the cost of becoming self-sufficient is much greater than the district's current energy bills, it is difficult to accurately predict the potential savings over decades.

"Some investments are for the distant future," says Mata. "Some won't manifest for 10 years, but the money and the opportunities might not be there in 10 years, so we need to plan for them now."

It's a conclusion that also seems to have been reached by an independent review panel charged with investigating the building program. The panel's review, published on Jan. 4, stated that 64 percent of major projects have been completed, and only a "handful" have run into significant problems. The panel concluded that the majority of the program's work "will have a huge positive impact on the communities served for decades to come."

Certainly, Mata believes LACCD's building program is still on the right path. "Fundamentally, what we're trying to do is correct," he notes. "It's hard to get inspired about your own future when you walk into a building that's old and uncared for."He says it's more than just new buildings and upgraded technology, though. The architecture of the buildings themselves can be a source of inspiration.

"Build the infrastructure," he encourages. "Create areas where learning can happen for more people and in better ways for existing people."

LACCD Tech Initiatives
Implementation of technology initiatives has lagged behind other portions of the Los Angeles Community College District's Sustainable Building Program, with only 10 percent of the allocated $126 million awarded thus far. Roughly one-third of the tech department's focus is on the installation of a fiber-optic ring connecting the colleges, another third on the creation and implementation of software and programs to bind the campuses together, and one-third toward staff support.

Infrastructure, such as cabling, power, and cooling--components that are difficult to add later--is a priority. "Infrastructure is the most important thing, because all the technologies will ride on it," says Jorge Mata, the district's CIO. "We don't know what those technologies will be, but we know there'll be more. The infrastructure will be there for 30 years--you just have to set it up correctly from the beginning."

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