Campus Life earth week

Making MIT a model of sustainability

An interview with Julie Newman from the Office of Sustainability

The MIT Office of Sustainability sits in a temporary space in the basement of Building 12, a far cry from the stereotypical green and airy spaces that are associated with “eco-friendliness.” Despite these humble surroundings, Dr. Julie Newman, Director of Sustainability since August 2013, is propelling the Office to influence the decision-making of MIT.

Newman has a lot of experience working in research institutions. She started out at the University of New Hampshire, where in 1997, she founded one of the first offices of sustainability in the country, which later became the UNH Sustainability Institute. In 2004, she founded the first Office of Sustainability at Yale. Now at the MIT Office of Sustainability, she says, “In MIT lingo, this is my third startup.”

Newman took care to understand the culture and goals of MIT when she arrived. She spent her first two months at MIT on a “listening tour,” interviewing over 150 people. She talked to a wide range of people, from faculty to Facilities to student government leaders. She said, “A lot of what I have focused on my first six to eight months is an analysis and assessment of MIT as an institution — how to understand MIT as an Institute in order to situate and build a new Office of Sustainability… that reflects the essence, culture, and mission of MIT.”

One important initiative of the Office of Sustainability is to measure MIT’s resource use. According to Newman, “By this summer, we’ll have at least a first cut at a strong quantitative baseline of our systems, so we understand where we’re starting.”

Newman is also interested in cultivating relationships with the City of Cambridge, as MIT shares with it land, transportation, and a watershed. The Office would like to work “hand-in-hand” with the city on issues important to MIT, such as ecodistricting Kendall Square, and the Net Zero ordinance that would require all new buildings to have “net zero” greenhouse gas emission through a combination of energy-efficient construction, use of renewable energy, and purchase of Renewable Energy Certificates.

MIT still has a long way to go when it comes to renewable energy. Despite the solar panels on the student center, only a “very tiny percent” of MIT’s total energy use is provided by renewable energy. Newman said, “One of the questions on the table is, ‘How much should it be?’”

One of Newman’s goals is to make MIT a leader in campus sustainability and inspire other institutions to make changes. Although MIT’s resource use is at a much smaller scale than that of an entire city, MIT could become a “scalable model for sustainability.” She said, “I will be able to identify and bring in so-called ‘best practices,’ but that’s only the beginning. What MIT is about is cutting edge.”

Since MIT is currently focused on renewing the campus and constructing new buildings, Newman wants sustainability to be considered from the start, and not as an afterthought. New construction provides an opportunity to create energy-efficient buildings, manage storm water, consider sources of power for MIT’s energy grid, etc. “We’re making decisions today that will impact students 30, 50 years out, so it’s a phenomenal opportunity for MIT to pave the way for a new way of designing and renewing buildings and infrastructure.”

For students looking to become involved in sustainability initiatives, there are many campus options. There is the MIT Energy Club, the MIT Water Club, the MIT Food and Agriculture Club, as well as a variety of interdisciplinary classes. For students looking for low-committment options, there are also presentations such as the MIT Sustainability Summit held in the Media Lab on May 3-4. In addition, the Office of Sustainability is offering internships this summer. Newman says, “We would very much welcome UROPs supporting some of the analysis we need done, to come up with the solutions that need to be developed.”