In an era where sustainability is at the forefront of global concerns, every aspect of our built environment must be examined for its energy efficiency. Lighting, often overlooked but integral to any structure, presents a significant opportunity for improvement in this regard. At Virginia Tech, an initiative is underway to assess and enhance sustainability across campus. 

The Virginia Tech Office of Sustainability has a Green RFP program where recognized student organizations are given the opportunity to submit a proposal for a sustainable idea that they would like to see implemented on the university’s campus. Encouraging students to get involved is key to driving forward efforts in climate action, sustainability, and energy at Virginia Tech. This program was launched in 2010 and has funded over $2.08 million for 133 student-led sustainability projects.

A group of Virginia Tech civil and environmental engineering undergraduate students is taking a hands-on approach to change the appearance of the building where they take many of their classes – Patton Hall. Those students are Catherine Cuneo, Sarah Helms, Nicole Paz-Jiminez, Emma Russell, and Zak Shmargal-Ellison.

Through a thorough examination of existing lighting energy data, supplemented by interviews with Facilities staff and review of current floor plans, the students found that significant energy savings could be achieved through updated lighting components within the building.

Mike Biscotte is leading the group of five students through this research project that offers an opportunity for undergraduate students to analyze and facilitate the replacement of existing legacy building lighting systems in Patton Hall with modern lighting systems and components. However, similar to completing a project like this on a job site, the future engineers had a long planning process before implementation. That process started with learning about the fundamentals of lighting systems and typical construction documents.

“The unique thing about this project is that it gives students real, hands-on experience,” said Biscotte.  These students are getting a chance to make a real difference on campus through a project that will improve both sustainability and aesthetics in Patton Hall.”

The students found that the existing lighting in Patton Hall, which was one of the first buildings constructed on campus, does not complement the aesthetic of the building environment. It has a  low-quality appearance and is inconsistent throughout the building. 

Existing LIghting
Existing lights in Patton Hall. Photo courtesy of Sarah Helms.

Next, the students delved into researching energy-efficient lighting system components and engaging with lighting vendors to explore available options. Armed with their research data, the students prepared detailed floor plans, schedules, cost estimates, and the Green RFP proposal documents, laying the groundwork for implementation.

“The most challenging aspect of the project was determining the best lighting fixture to use while maintaining the academic charm of the building,” said team member Catherine Cuneo. “Patton Hall is one of the oldest structures on campus. We didn’t want to disrupt the current interior by selecting a lighting that would feel out of place.”

Their proposal is to re-lamp the existing incandescent and fluorescent drop ceiling bulbs with LED lamps, and completely replace the lobby fixtures, hallway fixtures, restroom fixtures, and stairwell fixtures with energy-saving LED fixtures.

The proposal shows that upgrading the lighting offers an average energy savings of 41,190 kwh and more than $5,000 financial savings per year. The replacement fixtures also offer a more modern design aesthetic, especially in the lobby space.

New lighting
Bulbsquare strip ceiling lighting is one of the proposed lighting upgrades for Patton Hall.

The students presented their Green RFP proposal to representatives of the Office of Sustainability, and are hoping for notification of final approval later this spring. In the meantime, the students will present their findings and proposals to the  public in a poster session as part of the “Climate Action Living Laboratory (CALL) Showcase” on April 19 from 1-5 p.m. in Squires 134.

“This approach not only imparts technical expertise, but also fosters a culture of sustainability and responsibility among students,” said Biscotte. “By engaging with real-world challenges and collaborating with university stakeholders,  students’ energy acts as agents of change, equipped to drive sustainable practices beyond the classroom.”

The optimization of lighting systems is not only an academic exercise but a tangible step towards a more sustainable future, led by students who will move forward with a commitment to sustainability and an empowerment to lead the charge towards a brighter and greener tomorrow.

“As a future engineer, this was an important experience,” Cuneo said. “Being able to physically see the problem and the outcome of the work was motivating. I think that every student should engage in research opportunities because it provides a new perspective that the classroom can’t always provide.”