Letter to the Editor: The Need for a Sustainable Student Center

I write to thank Margot Lurie ’21 in “The Need for a Sustainable Student Center” for advocating that the college embrace sustainable design principles for the new student center and for highlighting the importance of minimizing embodied carbon as part of a holistic sustainability strategy. I also want to offer some clarifications and insights on the college’s sustainability goals for the new student center.

Amherst College has a history of renovating and constructing buildings that are exemplars of sustainability and energy efficiency. The science center is testament to that commitment, having received the American Institute of Architect’s (AIA) highest honor for sustainable design excellence with the C.O.T.E award in 2019. That award, granted to only 10 buildings per year, reflects not only the Science Center’s industry-leading energy efficiency, but the skillful integration of sustainable design into every aspect of the building. The Greenway residence halls also are hyper-efficient due to their inherent design features such as robust thermal insulation, energy reclamation and radiant heating/cooling.

While energy efficiency has been the traditional measure of building sustainability, in just the past couple of years there has been nothing short of revolutionary change in the design community’s focus on holistic sustainability and progressive sustainable design. Architects and engineers are rapidly adopting the use of new construction materials that require significantly less energy to manufacture, come from renewable resources, and can be produced locally, all of which significantly minimize their embodied carbon compared to conventional building materials like concrete and steel.

As Margot has urged in her article, the college will strive to minimize embodied carbon in the design of the new student center. To that end, we have selected Herzog & de Meuron (HdM) as the lead architect, in part because their work embraces the most advanced sustainability principles. Another partner in the project, Transsolar Engineers, is a German-based firm considered by many to be the most innovative and forward-leaning sustainability consultant in the world. Transsolar has been instrumental in leading the field of embodied carbon mitigation strategies. Their collective charge from the college is to design a student center that is a standard bearer for energy efficiency and embodied carbon reduction.

It is important to note, counter to Margot’s concern, that the demolition of McGuire will not in fact “release thousands of metric tons [of carbon] into the atmosphere.” In reality, carbon emissions occur when a building is constructed; the act of demolition does not release carbon into the atmosphere. To continue this line of thinking, however, it is fair to ask if the demolition materials (bricks, concrete, steel, etc.) that contain embodied carbon will be put to beneficial use and if low-embodied carbon materials will be used to build the new student center.

Herzon & de Meuron will directly address these questions, among many others. For example, the use of low-embodied carbon materials such as fly-ash concrete, mass timber and cross-laminated timber (CLTs), will be at the forefront of their thinking as they consider the conceptual design of the building. Additionally, while architectural studies have concluded that demolition of Merrill and McGuire will be necessary to create a student center that achieves our community’s programmatic goals, there will be deep analysis to determine what components of these two buildings can be reused. Minimally, current plans involve reuse of their foundations, massively thick concrete structures with the highest density of carbon in the current buildings, which will mean they don’t have to be recreated for the new building. This will significantly reduce the embodied carbon of a new student center. HdM also is exploring the possibility of retaining demolition materials in a subterranean tunnel surrounding the base of the structure, through which fresh air would flow and create a thermal “flywheel” to seasonally preheat or pre-cool the air before it is introduced into the building. Using the mass of these materials to create thermal inertia will lower the operational energy profile of the building and will put the embodied carbon to beneficial use.

From the announcement of the new student center by President Martin last October, we have engaged the community in the planning and design process for the project, and we continue to welcome comments, questions and conversation. There will be numerous opportunities for participation in open meetings with the architects and others over the next year. Please feel free to reach out to me or to Tom Davies, our director of design and construction, or to Laura Draucker, our director of sustainability, if you have any questions or thoughts about the project. Through the aforementioned and other innovative strategies, we are confident that the student center will be highly sustainable by all operational and embodied carbon measures, and a building that we will all be very proud of.