Responding to Student Center Sustainability Concerns

I write to thank Margot Lurie ’21 in “The Need for a Sustainable Student Center,” published in The Student on Feb. 5, 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 sustainability strategy. I also want to offer some clarifications and insights on the college’s sustainability goals for the new student center.

The college has a history of 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 highest honor for sustainable design excellence 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 are hyper-efficient due to certain design features such as robust thermal insulation, energy reclamation and radiant heating/cooling.

While energy efficiency has been one measure of a building’s sustainability, there has been revolutionary change in the design community’s focus on holistic sustainability. Architects and engineers are rapidly adopting the use of construction materials that require significantly less energy to manufacture, come from renewable resources and can be produced locally, all of which minimize their embodied carbon compared to conventional building materials like concrete and steel.

As Lurie urged in her article, the college will strive to minimize embodied carbon in the design of the new center. We have selected Herzog & de Meuron (HdM) as the lead architect, in part because its work embraces the most advanced sustainability principles. Another partner in the project, Transsolar Engineers, is a firm considered by many to be the most innovative sustainability consultant in the world. Transsolar has been instrumental in the field of embodied carbon mitigation. 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 Lurie’s concern, that the demolition of McGuire will not in fact “release thousands of metric tons [of carbon] into the atmosphere.” Carbon emissions occur when a building is constructed; demolition does not release carbon into the atmosphere. However, it is fair to ask if the demolition materials with embodied carbon will be put to beneficial use and if low-embodied carbon materials will be used for the new student center.

HdM will 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 will be at the forefront of the architects’ thinking as they consider the conceptual design of the building. Additionally, while architectural studies have concluded that the demolition of both Merrill and McGuire is necessary to create a student center that achieves our community’s programmatic goals, there will be deep analysis to determine what components of these buildings can be reused. Current plans involve the reuse of their foundations, 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. Using the mass of these materials to create thermal inertia will lower the operational energy profile of the building and put the embodied carbon to beneficial use.

From the announcement of the new student center by President Martin, we have engaged the community in the planning process for the project. There will be opportunities for participation in meetings with the architects and others over the next year. Through the aforementioned and other innovative strategies, we are confident that the new student center will be highly sustainable by all operational and embodied carbon measures and a building that we will all be proud of.