This spring, East Los Angeles College unveiled 5,952 solar panels that generate nearly half of the college's energy.
At Santiago Canyon College in Orange County, the library is cooled by vertical perforated solar fins. A building at Stanford University is built partly of redwood salvaged from century-old wine vats.
And in Iowa, geothermal wells drilled 120 feet below the parking lot at Grinnell College's Conrad Environmental Research Area help heat and cool the buildings.
Experts who follow building trends agree that in the last decade, as fears of global warming grew and examples of eco-innovation spread online, campus greening morphed from a fad into mainstream phenomenon.
The array of solar panels at East Los Angeles College is expected to last at least 40 years and is producing about 45% of the college's energy, or 1.9 million kilowatts annually, for a yearly savings of $270,000.
The panels are suspended over 530 spaces at a campus parking lot, opposite a baseball field carpeted in artificial grass to save water.
The Los Angeles Community College District, which includes East Los Angeles, is undergoing one of the largest green building efforts in the country's public sector, with more than 40 buildings planned and all facilities set to employ only renewable energy.
"At the time it was a risky venture. People thought we were throwing money away," said Sylvia Scott-Hayes, president of the district's board. "We wanted to make a statement, set an example for students."
Scott-Hayes said the district struggled to find architects and engineers fluent in eco-friendly techniques when it started its effort in 2003. Now, green consultants do brisk business.
At the 10 University of California campuses, a 2004 policy mandating that all new or renovated buildings be eco-friendly has saved the system nearly $5 million, officials say.
Conventional buildings account for 36% of the country's total greenhouse gas emissions and 39% of its total carbon dioxide emissions, according to the U.S. Green Building Council. They also consume 71% of its electricity and 3 billion tons annually -- or 40% -- of the world's raw materials. Sustainable facilities significantly lower those percentages.
"It's been small, early changes leveraging larger changes, and faster than anticipated," said Judy Walton, acting executive director of the Assn. for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. "It's transformed the way we build buildings."
For the first time, green-building guidelines are de rigueur on many campuses, and some student bodies have voted to raise fees to pay for construction.
Several states have passed measures, such as Title 24 in California, requiring structures built with public funds to be eco-friendly.
Glenn Carels, a designer with the firm LPA Inc., said schools have plenty of incentive to build sustainably. He calls it the "triple bottom line" of planet, people and profit.
Many college officials say they have a social responsibility as institutions of learning to use buildings as publicity for green alternatives.
That eco-friendly buildings shrink costs is especially helpful during a time of budget cuts for education. Despite the initial "green premium" -- the extra cost of building to green standards -- sustainable facilities tend to have fewer operating expenses. And according to a study done in conjunction with the American Institute of Architects, eco-friendly construction helps lower absenteeism, improves productivity and staves off health problems for students and teachers.