The Need for a Sustainable Student Center

“The new center will be situated on the current location of Merrill and McGuire,” reads an Oct. 30 email sent by President Biddy Martin to the college community. To many, this line of the email probably wasn’t noteworthy. However, it filled me with distress. We have known that the college plans to convert the former Merrill Science Building into a student center. What troubled me was the assumption that McGuire needs to go too. Without student input or sharing the rationale behind tearing down McGuire, the college has decided to embark on an unsustainable path forward.

Taking down both Merrill and McGuire will release thousands of metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Though they are immobile, the buildings on our campus teem with embodied energy. Embodied energy refers to all of the energy required to produce, transport and use a material, in addition to the carbon contained within the material itself. While the embodied energy of some materials, such as wood, is low, the embodied energy of materials like concrete — which Merrill is made of — is very high. Once torn down, concrete cannot be reused. Instead, all of the carbon is released into the atmosphere.

Thus, rather than advancing the college’s goal to reach carbon neutrality by 2030 through the Climate Action Plan, this project undermines any effort to decrease our carbon and ecological footprint. I strongly urge the college to leave McGuire standing and retrofit the building instead.

Taking McGuire down after fewer than 25 years of use would be a tremendous waste of resources. McGuire’s embodied carbon sits between approximately 990 and 1,680 metric tons of carbon dioxide. This is equivalent to the annual carbon emissions of hundreds of cars. Globally, embodied carbon emissions from construction represent 11 percent of annual greenhouse gas emissions. Building on the Merrill site is already guaranteed to release thousands of metric tons of carbon dioxide. Amherst has the opportunity to substantially decrease its contribution to global carbon emissions by preserving the McGuire site.

McGuire remains a perfectly functional building. Unfortunately, McGuire cannot currently function independently of Merrill, because the electricity and HVAC between the two are linked. However, there is no reason not to retrofit McGuire to overcome these concerns. Renovating parts of McGuire’s interior to meet the needs of the new student center would surely be more carbon-efficient than tearing down the entire structure. Moreover, maintaining McGuire will meet students’ desire for the student center to reflect both the old and the new.

The college is concerned about the cost of maintaining the McGuire building. But how would constructing a new building be any more cost-effective? Retrofits and renovations are commonplace on old campuses for this reason. Think about how many spaces on our own campus have been preserved in this way: the Powerhouse, the Mead and Converse, to name a few. Moreover, if the college plans to meet its 2030 goal of carbon neutrality, it will need to retrofit nearly every building on campus. If retrofitting McGuire were actually prohibitively expensive, the college could not carry out the Climate Action Plan. Justifying the removal of McGuire with the costs of preservation opens a new conversation about the college’s ability to keep its carbon-neutrality promise.

As the college moves forward with a new student center on the Merrill site, I highly encourage the college to pursue the most resource- and energy-efficient building possible. While the new Science Center is a wonderful addition to our campus, claims about its energy-efficiency are somewhat disingenuous. The Science Center was built with steel, concrete and glass. The embodied energy of steel and concrete is among the highest of any building materials. The extensive use of glass means that the building’s R-value, or resistance to heat loss, is extremely low; it takes a lot more energy to cool or heat the building than it would if it were built with different materials.

When building the new student center, the college now has an opportunity to be on the cutting-edge of sustainable design. I urge the college to prioritize the use of carbon-efficient building materials, such as cross-laminated timber. Living in Western Massachusetts, we are ideally located to take advantage of this exciting new trend in construction, while also contributing to campus and regional carbon neutrality.

Responsibly managed forests in New England have the potential to produce timber, all while sequestering carbon, maintaining wildlife habitats and promoting recreation. Our peers, Hampshire and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, have already made use of these advances in technology. The results at these institutions are beautiful, sustainable and efficient buildings. The architect the college has chosen, Herzog & de Meuron, is equipped for this project; the firm is currently working on the new Vancouver Art Gallery, which is to be constructed from wood to reflect the local environment.

The new student center is an indication of the college’s values. The project demonstrates the college’s commitment to the community’s well-being. In the process of advancing these laudable goals, the college can also show its commitment to sustainability, which is enshrined in our Climate Action Plan. By maintaining the McGuire building and constructing the new student center from the most responsible materials available, the college can create a student center for this century. A sustainable student center is not only the right choice for the planet, but will also send a message to our students and peer institutions that Amherst College is a place for forward-thinkers, innovators and leaders.