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Williams College New Environmental Center Reaching For High Bar

Credit Jim Levulis / WAMC
The renovated Kellogg House, built in 1794, features photovoltaic panels on the roof.

A bold project nearing completion on the Williams College campus hopes to meet strict eco-friendly criteria.If the new home of Williams’ Center for Environmental Studies is to pass the Living Building Challenge, it will have been a 220-year journey. One section of the roughly 6,800-square foot space dates back to 1794. In fact the college’s first four presidents called it home. After being moved to its current location in 2014 it is now an integral part of Williams’ bid to house what is likely to be the first historic renovation in the U.S. to meet the challenge.

“It’s really experimental,” said David Dethier, a geoscience professor at Williams and chair of the center’s building committee. “It should work, but we really don’t know if it will yet.”

The experiment involves fixed photovoltaic panels on the roof along with others placed on the ground nearby that track the sun to maximize energy gathered. Dethier says the system will be grid-connected with the expectation it can produce more energy than what the building needs. Water collected off the roof will be filtered into a 6,000-gallon cistern buried underground, heated by UV light and run back into the building. Dethier explains the challenge also requires that building materials originate from as close to the site as possible.

“The table I’m sitting at right here is made out of the original Hemlock planking, which was part of that 1794 building,” Dethier explained. “The biggest board here was about 26 inches wide and started to grow about when the pilgrims landed in Massachusetts.”

Another stipulation of the challenge is that 35 percent of the site must produce edible crops. To complement that the center contains a kitchen complete with the large Hemlock table for students to use. Brent Wasser, manager of the sustainable food and agricultural program at Williams, says students will plant and reap the benefits of berry bushes, fruit trees, rhubarb and asparagus.

“We can make jam, we can sauce apples and we can have a cider pressing party,” Wasser said. “All of that is in the future.”

A courtyard amphitheatre built into the ground, Adirondack chairs and movable grated outdoor window shades to limit the suns heating of the building complete the exterior. Thirteen offices, a classroom for 20, a library and study spaces round out the interior which displays some of the original 18th century beams. And of course composting toilets which use a foam to remove waste.

The project costs about $5 million. Dethier says it would have been cheaper and easier to tap into the existing water system or even demolish the original building outright.

“So we’re doing things that are really special and unusual,” Dethier said. “They might seem slightly silly, but if you think about the students who go here - many of them are going to go and end up places where there is a great water shortage or where waste treatment is very different than it is here. So I think there’s an awful teaching value in what we have.”

The building will also house the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives. Williams is planning a weekend of events to recognize the building starting with a lecture on campus at 7 Friday night followed by Saturday plantings and a formal dedication at 1:30. Whether the center meets the requirements of the Living Building Challenge will be determined after it operates for about a year. According to Williams College, only seven buildings worldwide have successfully reached the threshold.

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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