Sustainability Workshop: Green Building Seminar

Derek Larson, Environmental Studies, The College of St. Benedict/St. John's University


This class explores the environmental impacts of the construction, operation, and disposition of commercial and residential architecture with an emphasis on best practices as determined through a sustainability lens. Students learn about LEED and other standards, visit green buildings, and work in groups to develop sustainability standards for landscape, water, energy, materials, and other areas of concern. The course attempts to balance theory and practice by examining a range of standards, evaluation their application, and developing critiques to apply to campus buildings.

Course URL:

Course Size:

Course Format:
Small-group seminar

Institution Type:
Private four-year institution, primarily undergraduate

Course Context:

The Sustainability Workshop is a required seminar for sophomore environmental studies majors. Topics vary by instructor; my section is on green building/sustainable design and emphasizes applied sustainability concepts, practices, and metrics related to the built environment. 100% of the students are from our interdisciplinary environmental studies program, so their science background will vary depending on individual paths.The course is offered every semester but faculty take turns developing new topics. ENVR 215 is a 2 credit course, so half a regular semester class, and meets weekly in a seminar format.

Course Content:

All aspects of building construction, operation, and maintenance are explored, so we look at energy (sources and uses), potable water, landscape water, materials, indoor environmental quality, and a wide range of related issues. Students walk sites and discuss options for energy production (solar, geothermal, wind), landscaping (plants, habitat), surface water (infiltration, holding ponds, storm sewers, etc.), and building orientation for passive solar. Existing buildings are compared in operation to evaluate their efficiency and potential for improvement.

Course Goals:

Students are expected to develop a familiarity with some of the basic environmental issues related to building construction/operation and the tools used to evaluate the sustainability of various options. They learn to evaluate building proposals for their environmental, economic, and social impacts and apply those skills to existing buildings in the community. The ultimate goal for the course is to provide students the means by which to apply their interdisciplinary knowledge in a problem-solving setting, i.e. deciding if a geothermal system on a school makes sense, if a homeowner should invest in solar PV, or if the benefits of green building in general outweigh the costs. We hope this helps them become informed consumers and citizens in addition to offering some intellectual engagement with the built environment.

Course Features:

Students tour green building sites and meet with architects, engineers, construction managers, and tradesmen to discuss their professional roles. Assignments include evaluations of hypothetical options in major construction projects, such as geothermal vs. solar vs. gas as HVAC systems. The concluding project is an investigation of such a question that requires the student to evaluate options based on their environmental, economic, and social impacts and then make a recommendation to a hypothetical client based on a set of criteria provided with the assignment.

Course Philosophy:

Our environmental studies major is based in sustainability. The intent of this course is to offer a clear example of sustainability in application; since we are surrounded by buildings learning to evaluate their design and function is a useful skill as well. In this case we are asking students to incorporate scientific criteria (soil, water, renewable energy potential, localized environmental impacts, etc.) into a broader assessment of the impact of a building, balanced in turn with economic and social factors.


The final projects are the main assessment instrument. These are presented orally and as formal white papers (20-25 pages). Through these we can determine whether or not a student is able to apply the knowledge and skills learned in the course to a hypothetical building project.


Teaching Materials:

References and Notes:

I use a different set of articles each time I teach the class, including materials from the US Green Building Council, a range of manufacturers, and presentations by local professionals working in the field. Data from building performance systems (campus and community based) are also used extensively to compare the efficiencies of various structures in the area. I do not use a textbook.