by Rebecca Berry and Lara Pfadt
In 2019, Finegold Alexander Architects was engaged by Wellesley College to study energy reduction, accessibility, and infrastructure upgrades at Severance Hall. The goal of the study was the creation of a model for addressing these issues across the campus’ large residential halls. Through Wellesley College’s E2040 program, it has set an ambitious goal: to reduce the college’s greenhouse gas emissions below 2010 levels by 90%.
A key component of achieving these goals is to address emissions from their existing buildings. Severance Hall, built in 1926, is part of Wellesley College’s iconic Tower Court complex. It contains 100 student sleeping rooms housing 162 students. Finegold Alexander studied a range of options to address energy use, accessibility, deferred maintenance, and life safety. Potential synergistic programming and student experience improvements were also assessed.
A previously completed Energy Master Plan determined that a key to reducing Wellesley’s emissions is shifting from steam and high-temperature hot water for space heating on campus to a low-temperature water loop. Determining the implications of this change for the architecture of the campus’ historic and existing buildings is a crucial step for the college to determine the first costs of the energy changes, as well as the ultimate ROI. Working alongside Salas O’Brien, the engineers who had completed the energy study, Finegold Alexander asked a series of critical questions to determine how to respect the historic nature of the building(s) while also achieving the E2040 goals. How can we think about envelope upgrades without changing the building facades? How can we address potential code triggers when infrastructure work exceeds certain dollar values? Were there synergies to be found by addressing deferred maintenance at the same time as energy infrastructure? How can embodied carbon be measured at the same time as operational carbon in these plans?
The Finegold Alexander team started at the building envelope, exploring various upgrades and energy conservation measures (ECM). Each option was tested through energy modeling and life-cycle costing. The energy conservation measures were also reviewed for their utility in addressing deferred maintenance issues such as water intrusion and occupant comfort issues. Through this comparative process, the design team and college determined that the combination of newly insulated walls at the exterior and interior storm windows allowed for a decrease in radiator size for the new low-temperature water system while also providing greater occupant comfort.
In addition to the envelope and infrastructure improvements, Finegold Alexander worked with residential life stakeholders to determine program opportunities synergistic with energy goals. This allowed the project to incorporate outward-facing improvements while keeping within strict budget parameters. The final scope of the project includes updates to the living room and other gathering spaces, focusing on infusing new A/V and IT technology and lighting to showcase the college’s historic features. Existing kitchenettes, bathrooms, and common spaces have been renovated for accessibility, and small gathering areas have been created off the long corridors of this Victorian-era residence hall.
With Phase I complete, executed by Elaine Construction, the final phase of construction will be completed this summer.
Rebecca Berry is principal, president, and director of sustainability, and Lara Pfadt is senior associate, architect, and sustainability strategist, at Finegold Alexander.