Transforming a Carbon Neutral RIT-ID

Prof. Alex Lobos
MFA 2013 Cong Yao
MFA 2013 Jongsoo Gang


RIT-ID’S Path Toward Carbon Neutrality

As industrial design education transforms itself into a sustainable environment, many institutions are exploring ways of integrating responsible practices and addressing issues that affect a discipline that creates new products on a daily basis.

The department of Industrial Design at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT-ID) recently began working on becoming a carbon neutral unit, aligning itself with RIT’s pledge to The American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) to become a carbon neutral campus by 2030.

RIT’s vision for sustainability is one of “addressing the challenge of sustainability in a comprehensive and interdisciplinary way through our academics, operations, and campus culture as a whole.” RIT-ID’s vision for becoming a carbon neutral unit includes three levels:

-CURRICULUM: course topics, assignments, research and education.
-OPERATIONS: energy, water and resources management.
-CULTURE: sustainable practices and attitudes from RIT-ID and its collaborators.


Assessment of Current Footprint

The first step in the project was to establish RIT-ID’s current environmental impact as defined by the STARS protocol, which included collecting data of energy and water usage, as well as a voluntary survey distributed to everyone in the department about practices for commuting, food, use of equipment and materials (see Figure 1). Data from 75 respondents was collected, corresponding to about 1/3 of RIT-ID’s total population. Some highlights of the survey showed that on average people walk or bike to campus, spend around 20 hours per week in the studio, and use their own laptop computers as opposed to computers labs (which are rarely used outside of class).

Results from survey administered to RIT-ID.

Results from survey administered to RIT-ID.

From the data collected, which corresponds to the 2011-2012 academic year, it was determined that RIT-ID’s total carbon footprint as 437.5 metric tons CO2 (see Figure 2). When dividing RIT-ID’s footprint among the number of students, we obtain an average of 1.94 mtCO2 per ID student, which is 30% lower than RIT’s student average of 2.81 mtCO2.

Carbon footprint assessment results.

Carbon footprint assessment results.

An interesting finding from the assessment results is the difference between actual and perceived impact of certain practices. As this project was being established, several people in RIT-ID talked about the importance of finding better materials for model making as well as for minimizing use of paper in the studio. When looking at the break down of the total footprint, solid waste accounts for just over 10% of the total environmental footprint (most of the impact comes from energy usage) so any changes in this area will have little impact in the final footprint of the department. Nevertheless, although materials and supplies do not have a significant impact in terms of environmental impact, their impact on how ‘green’ people perceive RIT-ID to be is huge and needs to be addressed.


Exploration of Strategies and their Implementation

Along with the footprint assessment there have been activities focusing on fostering a more sustainable culture at RIT-ID. A brainstorming session titled “Let’s make a greener RIT-ID” was held to share ideas between faculty and students around the area of sustainability (see Figure 3). The session reinforced many of the findings from the survey but it also provided new insights. For example, when students were asked about why computer labs are not used as often, they commented that the spaces were not inviting and conducive to productive workflow. They also commented that going to “another room” was not practical when students were working on their projects in the studio. Another insight came from recycling, where students mentioned that the recycling bins didn’t provide enough information on good practices for recycling and because of this people prefer to throw everything in the trash in fear of ruining the process. But the most insightful outcome of the session was to hear students saying that while they value a more environmentally friendly culture in the studio, they feel that this is a way to achieve a cleaner, more inviting space and to have a studio that was enjoyable to work in. They said a more environmentally friendly department was a great way of improving the quality of life in the studio.

Pictures from “Let’s make a greener RIT-ID” brainstorming session.

Pictures from “Let’s make a greener RIT-ID” brainstorming session.

Another area being explored is one of materials and processes for modelmaking. The design studio is always filled with piles of mock-ups made out of foam, cardboard, and other materials that are hard to reuse and dispose of. Urethane foam, for example, is manufactured out of chemical components that are not recyclable. Some of the new materials explored include clay and plaster (see Figure 4). Made out of organic content, they are malleable and reusable but they are not as rigid or lightweight as foam, limiting their applications. Wood composites such as MDF and plywood were also tested. While these materials are made out of renewable components, they also take longer to shape, can put more demand on tools and machines, and are not easy to recycle. After experimenting with several materials it is evident that it will be impossible to find a single material that works in every situation and we need to combine materials that are appropriate for the job while good for the environment. As for urethane foam, we identified a more environmentally friendly alternative from Coastal Enterprises called Precision Board Plus that is made out of 23.9% rapidly renewable content and is an approved material for LEED certified building construction. While this foam is not recyclable, it is a significant improvement over the traditional urethane foam and it has a slightly lower cost, which is also an important consideration. The new foam has been implemented in the model shop with great success, and as an added benefit its smoother texture allows us to purchase boards with less density while obtaining the same surface finish than with traditional urethane foam.

Testing of more environmentally friendly materials for model making.

Testing of more environmentally friendly materials for model making.


Additional Initiatives and Future Steps

In order to further reduce RIT-ID’s carbon footprint, a series of initiatives are being implemented across the department:

-LED Lighting throughout RIT-ID studio, labs and offices.
-Paperless documentation of syllabi and handouts.
-Single-stream recycling program, including larger bins for models and e-waste recycling.
-Student activities, such as “Materials & Supplies Swap Event.”

As this project keeps moving forward there are a number of goals that we look forward to achieving:

-Bi-annual carbon footprint assessment.
-Further integration of sustainability topics and projects in curriculum.
-Continued exploration of sustainable materials and processes for modelmaking and prototyping.
-Dissemination of efforts in the topic and outreach to organizations and institutions working on similar goals.


Wrapping Up

The path towards a carbon neutral Industrial Design department at RIT is providing us with important insights on how to integrate sustainability into design education but it is also making us learn more about who we are and what motivates us as a community. While achieving carbon neutrality is a challenging goal, we already notice significant improvements in the way that our department operates and behaves. We have learned that for a task as complex as this one, we need to divide our goals into smaller, more manageable areas, that can be addressed are addressed in short and mid-term time frames. No matter how we divide this workload, it is important to maintain an integrated vision of our objectives in terms of curriculum, operations and culture.

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