The Higher Education Center in downtown Medford has received an advanced certification for environmentally friendly construction from the U.S. Green Building Council, joining an elite league of universities in the western United States.

The Higher Education Center in downtown Medford has received an advanced certification for environmentally friendly construction from the U.S. Green Building Council, joining an elite league of universities in the western United States.

The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, program is an internationally recognized certification that acknowledges construction techniques aimed at saving energy, water and other resources, reducing carbon dioxide emissions and improving indoor air quality.

The three-story, 68,700-square-foot education center, which opened in September 2008 at 101 S. Bartlett St. in downtown, is jointly operated by Southern Oregon University and Rogue Community College.

"With the emphasis on sustainability at SOU, achieving the LEED Platinum certification and being first in the Oregon University System was a very high priority for us," said Larry Blake, SOU planning and sustainability officer, who headed up the certification process for about the past three years.

"LEED Platinum certification is eventually going to become commonplace, but it's certainly a distinction for us now. We are trying to raise the profile of sustainability of this institution, and this is an important step."

The LEED rating system offers four certification levels for new construction — certified, silver, gold and platinum — with platinum considered the "greenest." LEED promotes a whole-building approach to sustainability by recognizing performance in five key areas of human and environmental health: sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection and indoor environmental quality, according to the U.S. Green Building Council's website.

The Higher Education Center features heat wheels that transfer energy from exhaust air to pre-heat and pre-cool fresh air, occupancy sensors that control light, heating and air-conditioning use and a 56-kilowatt solar array on the roof that produces 6 percent of the building's power supply, among other items.

The levers on the toilets in the building give users the option of using less than a gallon to flush liquids and 1.6 gallons to flush solids, Blake said. In older commercial buildings and homes, toilets typically use about 3 gallons per flush, he said.

To students, the most noticeable signs of the education center's recognized environmental practices come in the form of the motion sensors for the lights, the options on the toilets and the abundance of natural light in the building. About 81 percent of the building's occupied space has access to daylight, according to SOU.

"I love the toilets," said RCC student Hannah Messenger. "I just push up every time (for the lower amount of water use)."

Messenger said the air is cleaner in the Higher Education Center than in other RCC buildings.

"Especially in the computer labs, it seems to be a lot less dusty," she said.

She said she's also noticed that custodians use an environmentally safe cleaner in the restrooms.

"In the B Building at RCC, we've had issues with students coughing and respiratory issues after the restrooms are cleaned with chemical cleaners," she said. "We don't have those kinds of problems in this building."

The process for the certification began with the building's design by SERA Architects, which also has a LEED Platinum-certified building in Portland, and in construction by Ashland's Adroit Construction, Blake said.

Adroit recycled 94 percent of the building's construction waste, which meant it didn't have to go to landfills, according to SOU. About 24 percent of the building materials it used were made of recycled content.

The only other higher education building in Oregon with the platinum certification is Phase 1 of the Oregon Health & Science University's Center for Health and Healing medical office building in Portland, according to the M. Landman Communications and Consulting website.

The purpose of the LEED distinction is to encourage the design and construction industry to follow environmentally sound practices, Blake said.

But in the long run, those types of practices provide savings to the education institutions with a 53 percent reduction in water use from low-flow fixtures such as the toilets as well as electricity and natural gas savings.

Along the West Coast, there are fewer than 10 higher education buildings with the platinum certifications, according to M. Landman's count. Two are in Oregon, with the rest in California.

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or e-mail pachen@mailtribune.com.