How green is your dorm, really? Boston’s data raises more questions than answers

The Paramount Center was responsible for the production of 13 kilograms of carbon dioxide per square foot in 2018, according to recent data from the city’s Building Energy Reporting and Disclosure Ordinance program. Photo by Jenni Todd/BU News Service.

By Jenni Todd
BU News Service

Emerson College’s Paramount Center is home to multiple theaters, classrooms, practice rooms, laundry machines, a cafe and 260 students who have little to no hope of calculating their own carbon footprints.

The property is Boston’s least efficient college-owned housing when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, according to self-reported data released earlier this fall. And like many other campus buildings, the Paramount and its offshoots aren’t individually metered or submetered for their water and energy usage, making it near impossible for its residents to accurately gauge their environmental impact.

In 2018, the Paramount Center was responsible for the production of 13 kilograms of carbon dioxide per square foot. That’s like burning over two million pounds of coal or charging more than 243 million smartphones, according to the EPA’s greenhouse gas equivalencies calculator

The data was collected as part of Boston’s Building Energy Reporting and Disclosure Ordinance, which requires the city’s biggest buildings to report their energy and water usage each year, with the goal of lowering carbon emissions by 15% every five years. The program was created in 2013 to shepherd the city toward its ultimate goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. 

This project uses data from the City of Boston’s Building Energy Reporting and Disclosure Ordinance program to compare greenhouse gas emissions, water and energy usage among residents at local colleges and universities. To see how your dorm stacks up, click “blocks” and search by name or address.

Raven Devanney, a senior and co-president of Earth Emerson, a sustainability group on campus, said she’s frustrated by her school’s inability to provide data specific to the center’s residential portion. 

“It’s a requirement to live on campus for the first two to three years of your time at Emerson,” Devanney said. “And if you’re required to live in a building and an environment, I think you definitely have a right to know what you’re contributing by living in that space.” 

 Emerson officials know they have work to do.

“We do recognize that it is the weakest [of our buildings],” said Catherine Liebowitz, the school’s campus sustainability manager. “And, yes, there’s definitely plans to address it.” 

Liebowitz didn’t provide a timeframe for Emerson’s efforts to improve the building but said the college has been “cycling through” its residential spaces, gradually making changes. 

Immediately following the Paramount are Boston University’s Warren Towers and Emerson’s Piano Row, clocking in annually at 11.8 and 8.8 kilograms of carbon dioxide per square foot, respectively.

Like the Paramount Center, Warren Towers is a multiuse property, which tends to put out more emissions. It’s also currently sharing a metering system with BU’s College of Arts and Sciences, the George Sherman Student Union and other nearby buildings, making the dorm’s individual impact difficult to assess for residents and administrators alike.

“I think the fundamental issue is you can’t manage what you don’t measure,” said Dennis Carlberg, BU’s associate vice president for university sustainability. “We’ve been managing as best we can and we’re measuring — believe me, we’re measuring — but we don’t have the accurate data that we would like to have to be able to make more informed decisions.”

Kate McMordie Stoughton, a research engineer at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, said there’s a big lack of submetering, or individually measuring usage, despite its importance. 

“I think the challenge is that meters don’t save energy or water. They just measure it,” McMordie Stoughton said. “So it’s not just about the cost of the hardware and the software, but it’s also the personnel that would be required to manage that system because you could slap a meter on a building, but it’s not gonna do any good if you’re not getting that data and using it.”

BU is in the process of submetering its buildings, a project that’s going to take years to complete, according to Carlberg. Liebowitz said she’s not sure if Emerson has any plans to install submeters on its campus. 

Patrick Kearns, a senior at Emerson, said there’s a sizeable gap between the school’s sustainability messaging and its concrete initiatives. 

Buildings are responsible for the majority of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions — approximately 71% — which are created largely as a result of the processes that provide them with power (e.g. burning natural gas or coal). Source:

“I wasn’t educated about how misleading the advertising of these schools are. I saw Emerson’s gold [STARS report] rating when I visited the school,” Kearns said. “It did play a part in my choice to come here and it is kind of disappointing that it can’t live up to what I expected.” 

As a leader in conversations about environmental issues on her campus, Devanney said it’s disheartening to have no control when it comes to her dorm’s infrastructure.

“It feels kind of helpless at times, especially being 22 years old and not being able to have full control over my life and environment a lot of the time,” she said.

Kearns said he wants more institutions, including Emerson, to think of sustainability as a responsibility rather than an advertising model. 

“From the administration standpoint, every other college is in competition with each other because they want students to come and pay money,” he said. “So when it comes to sustainability, it’s just another way to market the school, and I think that mentality needs to change.”

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