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Sustainable Buildings

Sustainability is integral to U-M’s world-class facilities for learning, research and healthcare. U-M’s commitment to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions is driving progress toward sustainable building design, heat and power infrastructure, and more.

Building Standards

Green roof surrounding glass skylights

Buildings are a long-term investment and account for nearly 99% of the university’s Scope 1 and 2 greenhouse gas emissions. Incorporating sustainability into the design of new construction and renovation projects helps create functional, health-promoting buildings while also supporting U-M's carbon neutrality goals.

U-M’s building standards:

  • Require that carbon reduction, energy savings, and water conservation goals are established early and evaluated throughout the design process.
  • Establish maximum emissions targets for 14 building types and require large new construction and major renovation projects to meet these targets.
  • Require new construction projects to exceed energy code standards by 20%, and major renovation projects to exceed standards by 15%.
  • Enhance procedures for project teams to track and verify project-specific carbon targets and energy savings.
  • Require embodied carbon analyses to inform design decisions.
  • Require hot water used for heating systems to be compatible with low/medium temperature hot water, in preparation for future heating technologies.
  • Include plumbing specifications that include lower-flow fixtures to reduce potable water use.

These standards will ensure that new U-M buildings are firmly on a path toward carbon neutrality.

U-M is also implementing pilot programs centered around building air leakage testing, building envelope sealants, ongoing verification of building system performance and refined maintenance practices.

LEED Gold plaque on a brick wall


U-M designs all new buildings and additions with an estimated cost of more than $10 million to achieve a minimum Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Silver certification level.

LEED is a well-recognized standard for sustainable building design. It provides third-party assessment of sustainable features and covers multiple building types. LEED encompasses multiple categories, allowing institutions to highlight not only the attributes of a given building’s design and construction, but also services and amenities that support each building and its occupants—such as transportation, building and grounds maintenance practices and wellness programs.

U-M’s Silver baseline accounts for inherent program and site constraints that make it impractical for some buildings—such as those in low-density areas of campus with limited access to public transit—to achieve higher ratings. In practice, most projects achieve a Gold rating or higher. Currently, U-M has more than twice as many Gold-rated buildings as Silver. Several active projects are pursuing Platinum certification.

U-M is committed to harnessing the sustainable benefits of LEED features—not just checking boxes. To generate the intended benefits, good intentions must be backed up by policies, procedures, and resources. Alongside the updated building standards and other support for the university’s climate action goals, U-M is exploring potential adjustments to our LEED standards.

Sustainable Features

Many sustainable features are standard on U-M projects, while others are pursued where feasible. Listed below are a few areas of popular interest.

Solar Power

A variety of factors influence the potential for on-site solar energy generation. The university is preparing to build out 25 MW of solar photovoltaics across all U-M campuses. Nonetheless, constraints and challenges remain. For example:

  • Space – Large solar photovoltaic (PV) systems are most effective, but this size is difficult to accommodate in an urban setting. Many roofs are already populated with mechanical infrastructure. Ground-mounted systems require careful siting to avoid water, soil erosion, deforestation and endangered species impacts. Parking lots can be a solution to space constraints but bring their own challenges, including the added cost of elevating the array and identifying where to tie the system into the grid (parking lots don't use much, if any, power during the day and may be far from buildings that need the power).
  • Structural capacity for roof installations – Many existing buildings were not built to support large loads and would thus require reconstruction to accommodate solar panels.
  • Shading – Trees are a valued feature of the U-M campuses, creating shade, beauty and fresh air. Unfortunately, shading from trees—as well as nearby buildings and rooftop equipment—affects the viability of solar panels. The general rule of thumb is to avoid placing solar panels anywhere within two times the height of nearby objects.
  • Electrical and safety codes – Various requirements can limit the location and size of solar PV systems. For example, roof-mounted systems must meet fall protection requirements, including maintenance aisles and setbacks, which reduce the size of the system. A local solar array can only be as large as the local electrical infrastructure has capacity to handle.
  • Supply and demand – Renewable energy generation (supply) does not always align with when energy is needed (demand). For example, solar power is greatest during the summer and is only produced during the day. Yet, electricity is required year round and demand for heating peaks on cold nights. To manage this imbalance U-M needs to pursue multiple strategies, including load management (shifting use to times when energy is most available), thermal storage, electric battery storage and supplying excess renewable electrical power back to the grid.
  • U-M is exploring the use of solar thermal (which captures four times as much energy as solar PV) for balancing geo-exchange systems or heating water.

U-M aims to build geoexchange heating and cooling systems in conjunction with new construction projects, starting with the Leinweber Computer Science and Information Building, Ginsberg Building, and the new Central Campus residence hall.

Geoexchange systems, which are similar to more widely known geothermal systems, use Earth’s constant subsurface temperature as a low-grade energy source. They are used as a heat sink in the summer and low-grade heat source in the winter. When powered by renewable electricity, geo-exchange is a highly effective way to heat and cool buildings, increasing energy efficiency by a factor of three.

For geoexchange updates, see Heat & Power Infrastructure on the carbon neutrality progress page.

Green Roofs

The Ann Arbor campus has several green roofs, most notably on the Ross School of Business.  A “green roof” refers to cultivated green space on top of a building providing aesthetic and environmental benefits, which can include stormwater management, air quality improvement, and moderation of the urban heat island effect.

However, green roofs face significant limitations, some of which are obvious and others less so:

  • The roof must have a minimal slope.
  • For existing buildings, the structure must be strong enough to support the added weight of a green roof.
  • Adding structural capacity to support a green roof may increase a building’s embodied carbon.
  • The roofs on many U-M buildings house large equipment, minimizing the space available for vegetation. In addition, walkways required for safe maintenance of equipment further reduce space available for vegetation.
Stormwater Management

Less visible in some cases but no less important, infrastructure to minimize water runoff during storms is present throughout the Ann Arbor campus. Underground infiltration basins, rain gardens, and porous pavement reduce runoff, capture pollutants, and control flooding. Learn more about stormwater management at U-M.