Adjacent to a densely forested area along Clifton Road, a large yellow excavator digs up mounds of dark red dirt. A familiar steady beeping, the kind which characterizes a new construction project, echoes through the air, and a line of pick-up trucks extends from a wall on the left side up to the front of a large stone building. The only barrier between the trees and the construction, the wall stands less than ten feet high. This ground hosts the construction of the new R. Randall Rollins Building for Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health. 

Following construction beginning in March 2020, the new building will be completed by the end of this year, becoming the third Rollins building. It will provide additional research, classroom and office space “needed to maintain Emory’s top ranked graduate program,” according to Associate Vice President for Planning and Engagement David Payne.

Workers install solar panels on an Emory University building. Courtesy of Emory University

However, environmental advocates on campus object to where the construction is taking place. 

“The area it’s located on used to be a green space with an educational garden, and I believe it was part of the ‘conserve’ category on the University’s land use map,” Emory Ecological Society Vice President Nick Chang (24C) said. “Prior to them announcing the project, it was switched into a less restrictive land use category that allowed them to build without consulting the University Senate.”

According to Chang, the University divides the available land for construction into categories to determine how much the land is protected and what land can be built upon. Part of the “preserve” category includes places like Lullwater Preserve or Baker Woodlands, which are areas where construction cannot occur. However, according to Chang, the wooded area next to the new Rollins Building would have been considered “conserved” as well. 

“Emory maintains a land use classification plan that is reviewed and updated periodically in conjunction with our master planning process to meet our institutional strategic needs,” Payne said.

The construction features a large sign along one fence. The sign reads “Tree Removal Notice” and mentions that for any tree removed during construction, a new tree must be planted in its place and reviewed by a city arborist. The No Net Loss policy is in compliance with and expands on City of Atlanta ordinances, according to the Emory News Center.  

The new Rollins building is just one of multiple current University construction projects. Other projects include the Health Sciences Research Building (HSRB) II and the new graduate student housing complex. 

Throughout construction initiatives, the University maintains its commitment to sustainability, Payne said. Among other factors, the University strives to have carbon neutral construction by 2025, plans to create multi-use bike trails and pledges to install more than 15,000 solar panels across the Atlanta campus, according to the Office for Planning and Engagement. The Office estimates that the solar panel initiative will reduce Emory’s greenhouse gas emissions by 4,300 metric tons. 

Additionally, all new construction requires a minimum of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Silver certification.

“Emory’s 2025 Vision adds LEED Silver minimum certification for all renovations and encourages exploration of other sustainable building standards like Living Building [Challenge], Fitwel and [the] WELL [Building Standard],” Payne said.

LEED Silver certification means that an external evaluator fills out a LEED scorecard for the University, which includes criteria like water efficiency and materials and resources, that it updates throughout construction. 

“The LEED scorecard is somewhat like an exam in college, where you can build a building to the specifications of the scorecard that isn’t as sustainable as a non-LEED building,” certified LEED Green Associate Jackson Pentz (23C) said. “I don’t necessarily think that just because a building is LEED Silver that it’s sustainable, but it’s definitely a good benchmark to have.” 

However, Chang said that even if the buildings are LEED certified, some new buildings should not be constructed at all, and student perspectives in the decisions to construct new buildings at times go unheard. Chang is a member of the University Senate’s Committee on the Environment, which advocates for the University to act more sustainably. In this committee, the University presents information on its construction projects to the committee and asks for feedback. The committee functions as an intermediary body between students, faculty and those who are proposing the construction, he explained.

“We hear presentations from campus services about their proposed construction projects, and it really just seems like the sustainability of the buildings is not a priority,” Chang said. “The committee is consulted pretty late on in the process, and then we ask a lot of questions about whether [the administration] can make [certain improvements], and the answer is basically no.” 

However, not all members of the committee are opposed to the construction. 

“I like having a nice-looking campus and facilities, and I want the next generation of Emory students to also have the highest quality facilities they can have,” Pentz said. “When you consider some of the environmental costs associated with building the new buildings, in my mind, especially with these new efforts, they’re somewhat justified by the research and innovation coming out of these new buildings.” 

Emory’s recent construction projects will include multiple sustainable features, Payne said. For example, according to the Office of Planning and Engagement, the HSRB-II will use half the expected energy for similarly scaled scientific buildings. Additionally, the new Rollins building, Cox Hall identity spaces and the graduate student housing facility will all feature LED lighting and fixtures, low-flow plumbing fixtures and high-performance glazing. The graduate student housing facility will also include a parking garage with solar panels on the roof. 

“Emory has a long tradition of building sustainably and integrating innovation into all phases of our development, and we continue to grow our efforts in these critical areas,” Payne said.