Jason Wills, American Campus Communities
Episode 38 | April 2, 2019
Jason Wills, Chief Marketing Officer of American Campus Communities, and formerly Senior Vice President of On-Campus Development, joins hosts Kyle Frazier and Tim Duffy to share college students’ insights about sustainability and explain how their commitment to those students made American Campus Communities the largest developer, owner, and manager of high-quality student housing communities.
From A Dorm Room Dream to A Student Housing Revolution
American Campus Communities (ACC) is the brainchild of its founder Bill Bayless based on his own experience living in a West Virginia dorm room. He believed that there should be more options for student housing than the drab, uncomfortable dorms from the past century or an Animal House-type environment. His dream was to attract great students by creating a product that students want and maintaining it impeccably.
When Mr. Bayless decided to start his own company, it is fitting that he came to Texas, home to much innovation, wide open spaces, and experimentation with new ways of doing things. Thus, the story of American Campus Communities began in Austin, 30 feet from The University of Texas at Austin campus. With Dobie Center, American Campus Lifestyles (as they were known then) took a bankrupt and almost empty eyesore and started an extensive building-wide renovation. With 29 stories of student housing and 111,000 square feet of retail, including great food and a spectacular movie theater (long before Alamo Drafthouse was ubiquitous), Dobie became cherished a tradition that has lasted for years.
What made Dobie successful and ACC unique was bringing a market-based approach to student housing. In the past, students’ needs were taken for granted. The Institute of Real Estate Management (IREM) even discouraged renting to students because of fears that they wouldn’t pay on time and would destroy property.
Wills recounted a story of parents driving their enrolled children to Prairie View A&M from as far away as Chicago, who turned around and drove home because of the lack of housing. In 1994, Prairie View A&M was having a hard time meeting demand and securing funds for housing. Their president took a stand to fight for housing. Bill Bayless was in the room, and that began a partnership that has led to 9 phases of housing since 1994.
It starts with listening to students to understand their needs and extends to overseeing both building and management. The company’s approach led to success across Texas, leading to Callaway House projects at three locations including Austin, College Station, and the University of Houston. The west coast began to take notice, and then the northeast. Now American Campus Communities has projects as far away as Boston, New York, and Hawaii.
Business Meets Sustainability in Hawaii
Wills recalls that ACC was introduced to sustainability through a specific project at a fortuitous time. They were working on a project at University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, which had requested a LEED Silver building, and preservation was an important part of the development process. At the same time, the company was in the process of going public, and the values associated with preservation were ideally suited for ACC as an operator. He says that the company became a sustainability leader first and foremost because it’s a smart business approach.
They discovered that accommodations can be sustainable and comfortable, providing benefits that students want. Wills says that ACC spent time trying to understand if they could charge more for sustainable design as an added feature, like countertops or a great view. Instead, they have found that Millennial and now Generation Z students value sustainability but do not want to pay more for it. They demand it as the standard, similar to Wifi.
Wills believes that the most fascinating aspect of sustainability is behavior. He says that a little bit of high-end sustainability can go a long way towards creating a new normal for students. Adding onsite wind generation or solar photovoltaics or a rooftop garden can help students understand and become familiar with aspects of sustainability as an everyday part of life.
He goes on to explain that ACC’s goal for students by the time they leave after living in the community for a year or more, is that recycling and composting are second nature, that they will understand graywater and regionalism and will have seen solar photovoltaics, and that they will expect sustainability as a natural part of their future.
What Is LEED Certification?
The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design or LEED program, was developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). The a points-based system measures various components of sustainability and awards projects a certification as the baseline all the way up to Platinum recognition on the high end.
The University of Hawaii asked ACC for a LEED Silver building. At the time, ACC had never done a LEED project and didn’t fully understand the scoring process as distinct from the approach to sustainability.
After researching LEED extensively, ACC developed their own approach to address what works best for the building, for the operator, and for the students’ needs. Regionalism and control within the unit are both important (climate control, low-VOC, promoting a healthy space). There was less interest in recyclable materials.
Wills says that American Campus Communities has completed 4 LEED certified, 17 Silver, and 15 Gold projects, and they have one Platinum under construction.
One of their first LEED Gold projects was at the Barrett Honors College at Arizona State University. The students were competing in a challenge to see who could be the most sustainable by saving water and energy. Wills walked into the beautiful new building to find clotheslines hanging everywhere because the students didn’t want to use the laundry room. He thought to himself, “I wonder if they’re showering?”
Ten years later, that community is still a living laboratory for students who want to live more sustainably in the self-proclaimed “Sustainability House at Barrett” (also known as SHAB). “I don’t love the name SHAB,” says Wills, “but I’m really proud of what they’ve done there.”
The Future of Sustainability in Student Communities
Wills addresses several of the trends his sees affecting the future of sustainability in student housing accommodations and beyond.
In the LEED program model, sustainability is often viewed as a one-time, upfront building cost. You get a plaque on the wall, and you’re done. According to Wills, the future of sustainability is behavioral. It becomes an operations challenge covering everything from the chemicals you use to how you maintain the building. For example, he recalls a time when building managers might replace the entire floor if the surface gets nicked. In the future, he says, “we want buildings that can wear and that can age gracefully.”
Many American Campus facilities have dining halls, and Wills believes that dining hall operations are the next major frontier in sustainability. Food sourcing, seasonality of the menu, and waste management, and water management are all major opportunity areas and a focus for ACC.
Net Zero Buildings
Net zero is commonly defined as a building that generates as much energy as it consumes. Achieving net zero energy is very difficult to do. ACC is working on its first large-scale net zero apartment building, and Wills notes that the project has made them think differently about almost every aspect of design from all-electric systems to insulation to system sizing.
He believes that in the future we will begin to explore net zero water usage and zero waste, essentially creating an entire self-sustaining ecosystem.
Values and Culture
ACC is constantly trying to evolve and progress in a holistic way through its environmental sustainability and governance (ESG) initiatives, which are becoming more common in the corporate world. Investors are increasingly interested in more than simply profits. Wall Street wants to see companies with strong values who make good business decisions, because those are the organizations that are going to be around for the long-term.
Wills says that ESG initiatives require a lot of self-assessment and a willingness to integrate them into every aspect of the business. ACC is incorporating best practices into their base specifications and approach, which influences everything they do from development and operating perspectives. “The key,” he notes, “is taking these concepts and making it a part of the culture.”
Wills says that ACC’s sustainability agenda is increasingly being carried by the next generation. Students, even his own daughter, are asking for them to make progress.
Part of how that works at ACC is that the team creates their own future successors through a unique RA program. They bring Resident Assistants from various campuses into the company to learn how to be student housing professionals. According to Wills, the RAs contribute significantly to innovation at ACC.
Wills acknowledges that as a “sustainability immigrant” he has had to learn as he goes, whereas today’s students are what he calls “sustainability natives” who have grown up with it. “When they start to progress the dialogue,” says Wills, “they’re going to leave all the rest of us in the dust.”
Links and Resources
- Dobie Center
- Alamo Drafthouse
- University of Hawai’I at Manoa Frear Hall
- LEED green building rating system
- Sustainable House at Barrett (SHAB) at Arizona State University
- Net Zero building according to the U.S. Department of Energy
- The growth in corporate ESG initiatives by Forbes
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