Leadership Profiles - Liz Christiansen

Sept. 23, 2015

Director of the University of Iowa Office of Sustainability.

The University of Iowa’s school colors may be black and gold, but green is a leading philosophy at this Big Ten institution. Sharing her enthusiasm with over 55,000 students, faculty and staff is Liz Christiansen, the Director of the Office of Sustainability. Take a tour of what it’s like to instill an eco-friendly campus culture for the Hawkeyes.

How did you get your start in sustainability?

Before I joined the university in 2008, I was the Deputy Director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. I loved learning about nature at a young age so my educational background is in biological sciences.

Studying the interconnectedness of natural systems has always fascinated me and ended up being good preparation for a career in sustainability. My position with Iowa brings my education, experience, and passion together.

Liz Christiansen, Director of the University of Iowa Office of Sustainability

Director of Sustainability, University of Iowa 2008-present

Project Manager, Honey Creek Resort State Park

Deputy Director, Iowa DNR

Administrator, Iowa DNR Land Quality and Waste Management 2000-2002
Grants Manager, Linn County, IA

Recycling/Education Coordinator, Bluestem Solid Waste Agency

BA in Arts and Biology from
Cornell College

What gets you excited about your job?

We have so many terrific initiatives in the works right now that it’s hard to pick just one! I think the Biomass Fuel Project in the UI Facilities Management, Utilities and Energy Management department is some of the most exciting work going on. There is real potential to partner with local farmers to build a locally grown fuel crop to power the campus. We also have an amazing group of bicycling enthusiasts whose work has led us to become the first Bicycle Friendly Campus in the state.

But I’d have to say that the best part about my job is building and maintaining relationships – I’m really there to provide connections among students, faculty, staff and community members.

Let’s face it – creating a better world and solving these big challenges will fall on the shoulders of those in college and those entering school in the next decade. These young adults are agents of change and we have an imperative to teach them about the principles of sustainability and get them involved.

What is your biggest challenge toward reaching the university’s 2020 targets?

2015 is the halfway point for achieving our goals and I’m pleased to say that we’re on track for the areas where we set hard targets: energy reduction, renewable energy, waste diversion and carbon-efficient transportation. This is due to our deep talent across multiple campus departments and people working relentlessly on these objectives every single day. But now the hard work starts to keep up the momentum and continue to find innovative solutions.

One area I’m working on is collaborating with an advisory team for our undergraduate certificate in sustainability. We are currently looking at ways to expand classroom offerings and connect students through service or volunteer opportunities.

Your position is more than facilities management – how do you collaborate with your campus counterparts?

My position is technically within Facilities Management and I report to the Associate Vice President and Director of Facilities Management, Don Guckert. I also work closely with the Provost and the Senior Vice President for Finance and Operations.

From the very start, we made it clear that the Office of Sustainability is a campus-wide resource. A big part of my job is connecting people, finding solutions, reporting our progress and being upfront about our challenges.

For example, the UI Housing and Dining department was interested in reducing organic waste and water and wanted to install a food pulper. It was my task to work with them, write a grant and secure funding. They installed a pulper in 2012 and it had an immediate impact on their operations in terms of reduced water and waste. It worked so well that we did it again in 2015 for a second dining center.

Don’s support and the interest from the UI Facilities Management and the entire campus have been critical to our ongoing success.

What do you think has changed the most about sustainability?

Early on the motivator to be green was to do the right thing or associate your brand with sustainability. Now it’s accepted as a legitimate business opportunity to control long-term costs.

Because UI manages state assets, assessing and minimizing the lifecycle costs of our buildings is a serious responsibility. It’s also one that requires us to pursue sustainability on multiple fronts, such as incorporating green design into our facilities, adding renewable energy sources and diverting our waste.

What advice would you give to building managers about improving their sustainability knowledge?

As a practical tip, because things are changing so quickly, I believe in staying current on sustainability issues. For example, I devote a certain time every day, usually early in the morning, to read about the latest developments.

I would also encourage facility professionals to work with young adults. Volunteering with a campus group, offering an internship, or hosting students for a tour of your operations is time well spent.

The young people who walk through our doors care deeply about others and the earth. I always tell people that if they can’t take another depressing story about climate change, stop by our office to see these students working hard and you’ll feel much better about the future.

The University of Iowa's 2020 Vision

1) Achieve Net-Negative Energy Growth

Employ energy conservation efforts, build LEED facilities, modernize aged building systems and nurture a culture of conservation.

2) Green Our Energy Portfolio

Increase the use of biomass, geothermal, solar, wind, landfill gas, gasification and other emerging energy alternatives to achieve the goal of 40% renewable energy consumption.

3) Decrease Our Production of Waste

Reduce waste, increase recycling, facilitate composting of organic waste, and enhance green purchasing practices to achieve 60% waste diversion.

4) Reduce the Carbon Impact of Transportation

Seek ways to reduce the miles traveled by vehicles, employ efficient fuels, and decrease the greenhouse gas emissions associated with vehicles and air travel.

5) Increase Student Opportunities

Provide students with certificate and degree programs, internships, and research experiences. Sustainable practices will also be incorporated into student campus activities, living and learning centers, food service, and health and wellness.

6)  Grow Interdisciplinary Research

Pursue international prominence in water sustainability education and research, increase awareness in Iowa about the shared value of our water resources, and apply these principles to the UI campus and its operations.

7) Advance Collaborative Initiatives

Nurture partnerships with communities, businesses, government agencies and other educational institutions to support the workforce and economic development needs of green industries.

Information courtesy of the UI Office of Sustainability

Compiled by Jennie Morton, Senior Editor

About the Author

Jennie Morton

A former BUILDINGS editor, Jennie Morton is a freelance writer specializing in commercial architecture, IoT and proptech.

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