MADISON – Earth Day is celebrated once a year, but University of Wisconsin-Madison civil and environmental engineering students are working to create plans that offer sustainable benefits for years to come.  

UW-Madison civil and environmental engineering professor Mike Oliva advises CEE-649-a popular, semester-long special topics course in which ten handpicked students assess the structural engineering of current projects in the community.

“We’re working on a lot of sustainability ideas and there are no classes offered in sustainable design, so we’re doing things that aren’t even taught in class,” says Oliva. “We have two projects right now. The class splits and chooses which they prefer.”

Junior Anna Bradford and her teammates work with Habitat for Humanity in minimizing costs for the organization’s low-income housing projects.

“They approached us with six different, very diverse housing formats and then we priced them all out. We calculated the price for all the materials and quantified all of the labor and tried to minimize Habitat for Humanity’s overall cost,” says Bradford.

After careful assessment, the team discovered that much of Habitat’s costs were dedicated to excavating basements and installing drywall, which require hiring outside labor. The group chose an economically efficient model that could potentially save Habitat $5,000 per home.

In addition, the students have created a template for Habitat to simply plug in and record current costs to compare with future projects.

“It’s really going beyond the classroom and coming up with some real numbers that someone can make decisions with,” says Oliva.

A second group of students is working with the UW-Madison Hillel Student Center. The Barbara Hochberg Center for Jewish Student Life, expected to open by the spring of 2009, is targeted to meet high environmental standards set by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building rating system. Buildings can achieve a certified, silver, gold or platinum rating. Hillel’s new student center is aiming for a LEED silver rating and the engineering students are finding ways to reach the goal.

“It’s not good to have a LEED-worthy building if it’s not going to do what it’s designed to do,” says junior Zack Ward, who acquired an internship with Sustainable Engineering Group by making connections through the course.

“We’re looking to create an energy monitoring system that would record CO2, electricity and water levels, and then have an interface when you walked in the building so you could track the levels and everyone can see how green the building actually is,” says sophomore Jennifer Levin. “It makes people more conscious about how they use energy and that’s our goal.”

An energy monitoring system is uncommon in today’s construction due to high costs.

“Something we had to come to terms with is that we’re not going to lower costs for this company – in fact, it’s going to be more expensive to go green in this case,” says fifth-year senior Alex Johanek.

Levin adds, “This is one of those rare occasions where you have someone with money and they want to go green with it.”

The group offered other suggestions for Hillel’s green effort, such as installing solar tube lighting and using compostable products in the center’s new cafeteria.

Overall, both groups feel they have made a significant impact within the community projects, in addition to gaining hands-on experience that isn’t offered through typical college coursework.

“There’s no book where I have to memorize an equation, but we’re learning techniques and we’re learning practical knowledge that we can apply to future projects,” says senior Travis Gehrke.

Next semester’s class will pick up where his current students have left off and Oliva wishes he could accommodate more students who are interested in sustainable design.

“The students’ work has always been phenomenal and it’s all self-run,” says Oliva. “They are trying to change behavior. . . I hope we see more courses on this topic in the near future.”


– Bobbi Jo Snethen,
[email protected]

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