Amherst, MA – Hampshire College will open its new 17,000sf R.W. Kern campus center as one of the greenest buildings in the world.
Hampshire’s first major new building on campus in nearly three decades, the R.W. Kern Center recently held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the campus community.
The college worked with architects from Bruner/Cott & Associates of Cambridge to design a building that supplies its own water and energy onsite, processes its own waste, was built nontoxic to avoid red-list chemical products, and with materials mainly from local and regional sources to limit the project’s carbon footprint.
The R.W. Kern Center’s $10.4 million project cost was made possible by private donations. It will house the offices of admissions and financial aid, welcome areas, classrooms, and social areas for students and campus visitors including a coffee bar. It was built as a living laboratory designed to facilitate and inspire education for its lifetime and is already being used this academic year as the focus of science, math, architecture, and technology coursework.
Hampshire designed the building with the goal of becoming only the ninth building worldwide certified under the most advanced green building standard in the world, the Living Building Challenge (LBC). It is pursuing a related plan for its campus to go 100% solar for its electricity this year, pending the completion of a successful regulatory process.
The college committed to avoiding the use of building products containing any of a dozen toxic red-list materials or chemicals including: asbestos, chlorofluorocarbons, neoprene, formaldehyde, hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), lead, mercury, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and wood treatments containing creosote, arsenic, or pentachlorophenol.
Kern Center builder Jonathan Wright of Wright Builders in Northampton, Mass., says the most difficult challenge of meeting the living building standard was to avoid the use of any toxic red-list materials or chemicals in construction.
The Kern Center is part of the College’s broad sustainability initiative and its commitment to make campus operations carbon neutral by 2020, as announced by President Jonathan Lash, a widely recognized national leader in higher ed and the environment. Previous to joining Hampshire in 2011, Lash was president of DC-based environmental think tank World Resources Institute and chair of President Bill Clinton’s Council on Sustainable Development.
Lash wrote in his HuffPost College blog in November, “There are 120 million residential and commercial buildings in the U.S. contributing to our country’s greenhouse gas emissions. No strategy to control climate change can succeed without property owners ensuring our buildings be operated and built more efficiently. Buildings in the U.S. use 75% of our country’s total electricity and are responsible for 45% of our greenhouse gas emissions, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.”
In this week’s issue of Education Week, Lash writes about Hampshire’s coursework at the Kern Center as a case study to advocate for more project-based learning and less standardization, to spur innovation and invention from students across our nation’s schools.
Recent national news of hazardous levels of lead in drinking water in US communities, formaldehyde in flooring products, and building products that don’t disclose chemical ingredients are raising public-health fears, and spurring more demand for accountability in the building industry. A new CDC study last month recognized that “formaldehyde is a common indoor air pollutant found in almost every home in the US,” and that products with elevated formaldehyde increase cancer risk to those exposed.
In building the Kern Center, the team of Wright Builders and Bruner/Cott architects was required to find a source for each material; verify materials were non-toxic, sustainable and replenishable; and maintain supporting documentation for certification.
The Living Building Challenge restricts use of products containing these chemicals because of the risks they pose to humans and the environment. The standard requires each manufacturer disclose product ingredients, and verify none are on the red list.
It fell on the project team to reach out to the manufacturers and in many cases communicate with product chemists to document and verify ingredients.
More than 800 of the project’s building products were vetted in this way, six times the average for a construction project this size.
As a result of these efforts, the Kern Center will be one of the healthiest buildings possible for people to work in and visit, built with a relentless focus on sustainability and stewardship. College President Lash said, “It is a physical embodiment of the college’s values, a teaching tool in and of itself. This building helps us see what is possible.”
Builder Wright observes that so many of the products we use in modern life come “blister packed, their origins not known.” This created a challenge for the team in completing even routine tasks, like finding toxin-free duct tape, and managing the flow of duct tape and all other supplies onto the building site by hundreds of subcontractors.
The Living Building Challenge™ from The International Living Future Institute is a building certification program, advocacy tool and philosophy that defines the most advanced measure of sustainability in the built environment possible today. To support builders procuring for LBC projects, the International Living Future Institute maintains a “Declare” program that provides a platform for manufacturers to disclose the chemical makeup of each product and list their product in the Declare public database.
To further promote stewardship, the Kern Center building team aimed to procure materials from sources in close radius of the construction site depending on their weight, to reduce environmental impacts from transporting products, and to support local economies.
To achieve LBC certification, all products must be made using responsible industrial practices for sustainable resource extraction and fair labor practices. A prime example, Wright Builders had to guarantee that all wood was certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), or procured from salvaged sources, and had to document the chain of custody of the wood from stump to project site to negate the possibility of counterfeiting.
Lastly, the LBC standard asks builders to strive to reduce or eliminate construction waste, and to conserve natural resources. Wright and Hampshire’s Facilities and Grounds Office worked to divert waste from landfills, and collect recyclables.
The building’s architects, Jason Forney and Jason Jewhurst of Bruner/Cott Architects & Planners of Cambridge, Mass, said in a joint statement that the LBC challenges architects and builders to stop focusing on making buildings that are merely less bad, and to ask instead, What does good look like? “Good design starts with net positive energy, net positive water, materials that are safe for humans, designs that favor people (not cars), healthy indoor environments, and innate connections to nature,” they said.
One project like this would be a project of a lifetime for a builder like Wright. It so happens there are two LBC buildings being constructed on Hampshire’s campus at the same time, with Wright Builders responsible for both. The Hitchcock Center for the Environment, a non-profit education center, is moving to the campus and building a new living building environmental education building.
Wright says buying for two projects helped the team to find efficiencies and influence some suppliers to adapt their practices and supply more sustainable products. This is one the aims of the LBC, to develop a successful materials supply chain and economy rooted in sustainability.
To complement the Kern Center, Hampshire eliminated a long-standing oval driveway from the middle of its main quad and converted it back into a wildflower meadow, to bring nature and pedestrians back to the center of campus, and also stopped mowing 10 acres of lawn to further reduce CO2 emissions. Hampshire also permanently protected 46 acres of land it owns on the Mount Holyoke Range.