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Blue, gray and green: UNF leads in on-campus sustainability

Three students walking on campus

The Ospreys are all about the blue and gray. 

There is another color that jumps out at anyone who has stepped foot on the University of North Florida campus. UNF is green to its core. 

Lush vegetation encircles nearly every inch of the campus, from the meditative shade of the bamboo gardens to the flowers blooming along covered walkways. The University is an environmentally beautiful beacon that has grown into a regional leader for sustainability. The campus includes a protected nature preserve, has more Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-certified green buildings than any other similar-sized organization in Northeast Florida and has been honored by the Sierra Club and The Princeton Review as a leader in sustainability. UNF’s roots in the green space run deep, and every phase of the University’s growth has been undertaken with the potential environmental impact in mind.

Keeping it green

The watershed moment for green building on campus was the construction of the Social Sciences Building in 2006, the first LEED-registered structure in Jacksonville. During the grand opening for the facility, President John A. Delaney announced that every new on-campus structure should be green. Since then, several additional structures have received LEED certification, four of which have qualified as LEED Gold structures, one of the most stringent construction classifications possible. The new Field House, an indoor recreational center, is expected to receive LEED Silver certification, bringing the total number of green buildings on campus to 10. 

“UNF has more than 10 percent of the total LEED-certified buildings in all of Northeast Florida right there on campus,” said Sarah Boren, executive director of the U.S. Green Building Council’s North Florida chapter. “UNF has taken a stand and made a commitment to green building, a commitment that is shown with each new structure that comes to campus.”

Boren said she remembers vividly when the Social Sciences Building first opened. She and her colleagues from the USGBC would walk area decision-makers through the facility to offer them a physical example of green building technology, innovation and functionality, such as waterless urinals and energy-efficient light fixtures. That was evidence to her — and to the community at large — that the University had stepped up its sustainability game and taken a regional leadership role for environmental stewardship.

“UNF has become the only university in the region to truly commit to sustainability, and it comes from strong leadership and great staff, both in facilties and at the Environmental Center,” she said. 

Zak Ovadia, director of campus planning, has overseen the largest spate of campus construction in University history since he joined UNF about a decade ago. When he first came on, green building was in its infancy. Now, the market has shifted to focus on using reclaimed materials in the building process and reducing the environmental impact at building sites. He said market demand has encouraged contractors and building crews to integrate more green building techniques into their work and allowed UNF to build structures that are uniquely beautiful and environmentally friendly. Ovadia said there are a number of factors that qualify a building for LEED certification — a focus on minimizing night sky pollution by orienting lights toward the ground, promoting water efficiency through no-flush toilets and controllable sink valves, and requiring a tighter building envelope with double-paned and tinted windows that ensure conscientious energy usage. 

Renovations to existing campus structures are even undertaken with sustainability in mind. The Thomas G. Carpenter Library recently received a facelift to make it a more collaborative learning space for students and faculty, and the refurbishment included a vibrant blue carpet made from recycled fishing line. 

“There’s a holistic approach to the process of being green at UNF,” Ovadia said. “We’re stewards of our environment, and our actions reflect that. After all, how many campuses do you see that have green trees outside the windows of every academic building?”

A holistic approach

As Ovadia said, sustainability is an overall focus for the University — a commitment to the environment that extends well beyond simple green building practices. Even the vibrant foliage that sets UNF apart from other colleges was thoughtfully chosen to maximize resources and reduce the amount of water expended. Chuck Hubbuch, an assistant director of Physical Facilities and lead University horticulturist, has helped bring the Campus Beautification Program to life with the planting of more than 10,000 new plants, focusing heavily on native species.

“They’re hardier, use less water and are more in tune with the Florida landscape,” Hubbuch said. “It’s really a win-win.”

Hubbuch, who worked at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens and the Fairchild Tropical Garden in Miami before coming to UNF, has been cataloging foliage data for decades. He continued that hobby when he joined UNF and has kept an exhaustive list of the plant species that thrive on campus. Every notable plant — such as the tranquil clusters of bamboo that shade the courtyard near the Brooks College of Health and the vines that snake along the outside of the Biological Sciences Building — was planted to complement the unique features of the campus grounds. The environmental impact was also taken into account, a factor that has helped the UNF grounds crew reduce irrigation water consumption by 40 percent. The majority of UNF’s water came from wells prior to 2005. Today, most of UNF’s irrigation water comes from reclaimed and surface water.

Moving to the Center 

From green buildings to reduced water consumption, UNF has become a prime example of a University that is focused on its environmental footprint. That gradual culture shift has been guided over the years by the Environmental Center, the conduit through which the University has sought to support cross-disciplinary education and research related to the beautiful, natural campus. 

The Center funds seed grants for professors who conduct environmentally focused research, organizes trips for students that allow them to explore the St. Johns River and unites different campus departments under the banner of conservation and sustainability. The Center pushed for the installation of close to 30 hydration stations in campus buildings that have saved more than 1.5 million bottles of water when used in concert with reusable containers.


“The Environmental Center has an educational and an advocacy role at the University,” said Dr. J. David Lambert, the Center’s director. “Our job is to show the campus community about the best practices associated with sustainability — or going green — and we have many tools at our disposal. Our staff has also done a great job getting the word out about how everyone can reduce their own environmental impact, especially through our events.”

Getting dirty

The Environmental Center knows that you have to get your hands a little dirty to make a difference. The Center’s annual Garbage on the Green waste audit has taken place during the fall semester for the past eight straight years. Students have sifted through hundreds of pounds of campus garbage and sorted it into different categories to create something of a green report card for the University, tracking institutional recycling habits and determining areas for improvement. 

James Taylor, the coordinator of the Environmental Center, said the event averages about 120 student volunteers every year who are happy to root around in nearly 1,000 pounds of trash. Historically, the campus has averaged a 25 percent waste diversion rate — also known as the amount of trash diverted from landfills and other traditional disposal methods by recycling, reuse or composting. However, Taylor said recycling bins issued to residence halls by UNF Housing and Residence Life have boosted that percentage the past few years. Florida has issued a state goal to reach a 75 percent diversion rate by 2020, and UNF is hoping to hit that mark soon.

“We’re getting closer every year,” Taylor said. “UNF is really ahead of the pack when it comes to sustainability on campus.”

Boren from the USGBC said UNF’s focus on sustainability goes far deeper than just green building or nurturing native flora. She said UNF has committed to being a positive force for the green movement in the state and stands out as a higher education institution at the forefront of environmental stewardship. The nature preserve that ensconces the academic core of campus is never far from thought for the University’s administration, ensuring that any future projects are viewed through the lens of sustainability.

“At UNF, it seems to be broader than any one thing,” she said. “The green building, Garbage on the Green, hydration stations, it all coalesces into the whole. Green goes deep down into the fabric of the University. It’s a difficult, lifelong journey, and UNF is committed to being the best it can be in the environmental space.”


Green buildings at UNF

2006 – Social Sciences Building – Certified
2008 – Parking Services Building – Silver
2009 – J. Brooks Brown Hall Addition – Certified
2009 – Osprey Fountains – Silver
2010 – Tom and Betty Petway Hall – Gold
2011 – Student Union – Gold
2011 – Renovated Founders Hall – Silver
2012 – Biological Sciences – Gold
2014 – Student Wellness Complex – Gold
2016 – Field House – Silver (anticipated)

• Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) certification is offered by the U.S. Green Building Council. There are four levels of certification — certified, silver, gold and platinum.