When I interviewed Eli Capilouto recently about his first eight months as president of the University of Kentucky, he described a visit to an elementary school in Bowling Green as "my best day in Kentucky."
The Alabama native went to Richardsville Elementary after receiving a handwritten invitation from second-grader Emma McGuffey. Capilouto said he was impressed by the students and teachers, and by the building where they learn.
That building, which opened in August 2010, was the nation's first school designed to generate more energy than it uses. Thanks to innovative design and materials, it requires 75 percent less energy than a typical school.
Power consumption also is kept down by geothermal heating and cooling, plus elimination of power-hungry appliances such as deep fryers in the cafeteria kitchen. (That change prompted dieticians to develop healthier school lunches.)
The overall construction cost was about the same as a typical school, except for the addition of solar panels that generate power for the school and local utility grid.
Capilouto said the students gave him a tour of the building and proudly explained the science behind it. "I came back on a high after that visit," he said. "I've never seen a building teach so effectively."
His ambitious plans for UK include a lot of construction. He wants to renovate or replace many aging academic buildings, renovate 6,000 beds of dormitory space and add 3,000 more beds.
UK has a contract with Memphis-based Education Realty Trust to build and operate a 600-bed dorm. The deal is planned as the first step toward privatizing all student housing as a way to raise construction capital.
I asked Capilouto whether Richardsville Elementary had inspired him to attempt similar energy-efficiency with UK's new buildings. "We have the same architect," he replied, referring to the Lexington firm Sherman Carter Barnhart, which is designing the new dormitory.
The dorm will have geothermal systems and will meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards. But initial plans indicate much more could be done to reduce energy consumption and long-term operating costs.
If Capilouto wants to embrace what he saw at Richardsville, much more must be done with this and future buildings. And that process must start soon, before UK negotiates terms of its long-term relationship with Education Realty Trust.
Thanks to projects such as Richardsville Elementary, Kentucky has become the national leader in energy-efficient school construction. Other examples have been built in Warren, Fayette and Kenton counties, and many more are planned.
Berea College has made strides in this area. UK has made a start with the new Davis Marksbury Building. There is plenty of Kentucky expertise on which to draw, including some on UK's campus.
But people who have been involved with energy-efficient school projects say it is not a process to be entered into lightly. It requires new ways of thinking at each step — from how a building is planned, designed and financed to how it is managed and used after completion.
Highly energy-efficient buildings cost a little more on the front end, although that money is recovered quickly through lower operating costs. Still, it's a different mind-set.
"There must be a change in culture at all levels," said architect Mark Ryles, who was a key player in energy-efficient school construction as facilities director for the Kentucky Department of Education. "It will take real leadership and collaboration to make it happen."
Ryles said the most successful projects have been built in counties where the school board and superintendents were committed to the process and put students' needs first. The key is to figure out a vision and goals for construction, then shape the business model to accomplish them.
As Capilouto saw at Richardsville, energy efficiency is about much more than cost savings. "The educational benefit is fabulous," Ryles said. "We now have third-graders going around talking about geothermal."
If Capilouto and the Board of Trustees were to decide to rebuild UK's campus as the "greenest" in the nation, it would make a bold statement, create a unique learning laboratory and save a lot of green for Kentucky taxpayers.
It also could make UK more attractive to Emma McGuffey and her fellow college students of the future. They will expect their university's campus to be at least as advanced as what they had in elementary school.