University of North Carolina, Strategic Sustainability Plan

Chapel Hill, NC

Since opening as the country’s first public university in 1795, the University of North Carolina (UNC) has a long history of innovation and public service.

Although the Chapel Hill flagship campus had taken many steps to advance sustainability in operations and research, the University had never before embarked on a comprehensive sustainability planning effort.

Under the leadership of Chancellor Carol Folt, UNC-Chapel Hill sought to embed its sustainability into every aspect of campus life, creating connections between different departments and developing a model for sustainability in higher education that recognized the university’s multiple scales of impact.


Buro Happold worked closely with the sustainability team at UNC-Chapel Hill to bring together key stakeholders—including faculty, staff, students, and senior administrators—to formulate a plan that would unite campus sustainability initiatives. This included discussions not just about campus operations as they related to environmental stewardship, but also how to incorporate the research, teaching, and service initiatives that were extending UNC’s influence on sustainability to the regional, state, and global scale.


A rigorous and multifaceted engagement process was key to the success of this project. The Buro Happold team used mixed methods, including targeted stakeholder interviews, town halls, online surveys, intercept interviews and pop-up events to gather information and test ideas. The Buro Happold team worked diligently to encourage discussion around the theme of sustainability as a whole, rather than limited to the topics of energy, water and waste.

Our team put together targeted working groups to look at six specific focus areas, identified through early engagement with key stakeholders. The working groups were made up of members from the university community, including academics, administrative staff, students and alumni. The six focus areas identified include: Environment + Resources, Materials + Waste, Health + Wellness, Community, Policy + Investment, and Innovations for Change. In addition to defining six focus areas, a key element of the work carried out by the working groups was to determine how sustainable measures could be advanced across all scales. Eight scales were identified and ranged from the ‘human’ scale, which looks at driving behaviour change, to the ‘global’ scale, which drives ideas through to their impact worldwide. This element of the plan considered the impact of change not just for the campus community itself, but also across the globe.

The plan to create a more sustainable future for UNC has paved the way for realizing these aspirations in the physical masterplan, which will embrace the concept of a living laboratory to test future technologies as well as incorporate the findings of the pilot projects.


It was also critical to the success of the Sustainability Plan that early wins were captured and communicated. The planning process included the identification of pilot projects and UNC is moving forward on several of these (e.g., waste audits, video generation, stormwater management projects and advancing RealFood Challenge).

Another win from the Sustainability Plan was our ability to leverage outcomes to inform other efforts. Buro Happold was also working on the Physical Masterplan, driving sustainable infrastructure planning and sustainability overlays directly building from the Sustainability Plan. Buro Happold also consulted for their Triple Zero Initiative, directly building from the Strategic Sustainability Plan.

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