A Living Building Challenge - The New Environmental Center Opens Its Doors

sign-building-300x169April 20, 2015  —  The Class of 1966 Environmental Center opened with much fanfare on Saturday with the dedication of the new building and a number of related events.

Dr. William Moomaw ’59, Chief Scientist at the EarthWatch Institute and Professor Emeritus of International Environmental Policy at Tufts, gave the keynote on Friday night; student tour guides welcomed visitors to the building during the Open House on Saturday; the directors of the Center for Environmental Studiesand the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives and President Adam Falk dedicated the building; students, staff, and alums planted perennial bushes around the site; and a number of faculty, staff, and students spoke on panels about topics that touched on the campus as a living laboratory and how the building might use technology to measure and convey information about energy usage.  Divest Williams also peacefully marched around campus ending at the Environmental Center during the dedication.

The Class of 1966 Environmental Center has ground-mounted solar in front of the building, roof-mounted solar on the roofs of both buildings and on the pergola, and two solar trackers to the right of the building.

The new building is designed to be a Living Building Challenge (LBC) building, but before it gets certified as such, it must complete a performance year in which it operates as a net-zero energy and net-zero water building.  The seven “petals” and twenty “imperatives” that buildings must meet to be LBC certified also include stringent materials guidelines that stipulate minimal negative impact on human and ecosystem health as well as supporting local and regional manufacturers.  So far only eight buildings have completed their performance year and are LBC certified.  The Environmental Center, which combines a historic building and a newly built structure will likely become the first historic campus renovation LBC building.  The historic building – Kellogg House – was the home of the first four college presidents and has moved four times.

Students help install the low-bush blueberry sod

Charley Stevenson ’93, of Integrated Eco Strategy, worked closely with the college and Black River Design Architects on the design and operation of the Environmental Center. He says a large part of the Living Building Challenge is about advocating for change in the market. “For years, we’ve had the technology and know-how to design and construct buildings that take care of all their own needs, while minimizing external impacts,” says Stevenson. “Achieving this high performance requires changes in the materials marketplace and new regulatory frameworks. LBC projects advocate for these advancements, and they serve to bring these approaches into the mainstream of construction.”

Cooking class group shot - March
The first cooking class in the Environmental Center’s kitchen.

The building is mixed-use and has the potential to be quite well used, which could make it more challenging to meet LBC’s net-zero energy and net-zero water imperatives and thus become certified as LBC.  The Environmental Center has office space for faculty and staff, a classroom, student study areas, a reading room, two small conference areas, a commercial kitchen, an outdoor amphitheater, a number of gardens, and, lest we forget, two composting toilets, which from a user perspective look like and work just like regular toilets, except they use only 3 ounces of water per flush and incorporate a biodegradable foam with each flush.

Students study on the outdoor amphitheater steps. In the background are Stetson Hall, two small orchards, ground-mounted solar (right), and pergola with roof-mounted solar (right).


Outdoors, 35% of the project site must be covered in edible landscaping – based on its LBC “Campus/Village” transect.  That means that our outdoor space is largely covered in food production, solar PV, and rain gardens.  The food-producing plants include a small orchard of fruit trees, perennial garden beds, annual vegetable beds managed by the Williams Sustainable Growers student-group, a multitude of berry bushes, and low-bush blueberry groundcover.

In addition to advocating for a change in the materials marketplace and serving as a model for what is possible in design/construction, Williams wants the new Environmental Center to be a place and an entity that facilitates learning both for the ardent environmentalists and for the casual passersby.  Currently staff, faculty, and students are in the midst of creating monitoring and data-visualization systems that enable users to learn and practice better ways to conserve energy in a building. (Think the fuel-consumption display on the dashboard of a Prius – but in the kitchen or at your desk.) With the abundance of data collection opportunities (energy, rainfall, water usage, etc.), there will be plenty of opportunities for student research projects that will enable building users to become smarter and smarter about resource usage.




A crowd gathers for the building's dedication. (Photo taken from under the building's pergola.)
A crowd gathers for the building’s dedication. (Photo taken from under the building’s pergola.)

Read more about the building and about the dedication weekend in the local news:

WAMC: Northeast Public Radio —  4/15/15 — Williams College New Environmental Center Reaching For High Bar
Berkshire Eagle — 4/18/15 — Williams College faculty, students dedicate sustainable building, march for fossil fuel divestment
Williams College Press Release — 4/8/15 — Williams College’s New Environmental Center Pursues Rigorous Living Building Certification

 Sun setting in February