New R.W. Kern Center at Hampshire College produces own heat, electricity, water

Last modified: Saturday, October 24, 2015

AMHERST — Already home to the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art and the Yiddish Book Center, Hampshire College will soon have a new administrative and classroom building on campus that produces its own heat and electricity and does not depend on the town of Amherst’s water and sewer systems.

When it opens in March, the R.W. Kern Center is expected to be a model for how sustainable building practices can be pursued, said Hampshire College President Jonathan Lash.

“I hope we’ll get a stream of visitors who will ask how’d you do that and how’d you make it work,” Lash said.

Lash said the 16,000-square-foot building will be the largest timber-frame structure constructed in the Northeast in at least a century. The Kern Center’s ideals boil down to three concepts, he said.

“The building makes its own energy, harvests its own water and treats its own waste,” Lash explained.

Being part of the Living Building Challenge, which has certified just eight buildings since its launch six years ago, is giving further incentive to the college to take the project beyond the scope of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental design (LEED) program.

Coincidentally, Hampshire is host to a second Living Building Challenge building under construction, as the Hitchcock Center for the Environment continues to move forward with its project.

“Buy local and build natural are some of the themes the Living Building Challenge espouses,” said Carl Weber, associate director and project manager for the college’s facilities and grounds.

The challenge also emphasizes having a walkable campus, said Beth Hooker, director of sustainable initiatives at the college. This led to a decision to remove the once-prominent traffic circle that defined the core of the campus, seeding over this area to create a large green space with grass and wildflowers near the academic buildings.

During a tour of the still-under-construction, two-story building this week, Jonathan Wright, principal of the Northampton-based Wright Builders, explained his interest in undertaking the project for Hampshire, where he was a member of the first class in 1970.

“The Living Building Challenge is not about gaming the system, it’s about changing the system,” Wright said.

Stepping up to the challenge is not cheap. The total cost of the project is about $11 million, which includes $7.2 million to build, $2.5 million to design and $1.3 million in site work such as the traffic circle removal.

Jason Jewhurst, a senior associate with Bruner/Cott Architects and Planners of Cambridge, explained that the building is designed to use just 20 percent of the power of a conventional building similar in size.

Unique features

The 110-kilowatt solar array to be put on the pitched roof will meet the entire energy demands of the building, and perhaps generate additional power for the electric grid, Jewhurst said.

Water is collected on site and stored in two 5,000-gallon reservoirs below ground. Before entering those tanks, the water will go from the gutter system into a large cistern standing outside the building, which Wright explained includes a sophisticated cyclone separator and flush tank to clean the water “so the bird poop and other niceties of biological life get disposed of.”

Compost toilets will be used inside the Kern Center, with material deposited into large digesters housed in the basement. These will break down the waste and convert it to a fertilizer. Jewhurst said officials are working with the state to determine whether this can eventually be used on the college grounds.

The building’s framing lumber is produced in New England and eastern Canada, and, along with the plywood, is entirely certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. The engineered wood is produced by Bensonwood in Walpole, New Hampshire. Wright also noted that the plywood does not contain chemicals such as formaldehyde.

The thick wood walls will be filled with cellulose material, made up primarily of recycled newspapers, and the windows will also be highly energy efficient. Much of the wood, along with the concrete floor, will be left exposed.

“One of the tenets is no unnecessary finishes,” said Wright, adding, “It’s a very liberating part of the construction process.”

To meet terms of the Living Building Challenge, most of the materials come from a limited distance to reduce the carbon footprint associated with trucking products to site.

“It’s not about making a political statement, it’s about investing in the local economy,” Wright said.

The Ashfield stone that will be used for the exterior veneer comes from a quarry in Hawley, about 18 miles from the campus.

The water sealer used on the exterior is free of toxins.

“The goal is to change the way everything is made,” Wright said.

While limited in what products could be used, the subcontractors were all willing participants in the project.

“The trades people who work on this understand it’s for Hampshire College, but also part of a paradigm of a healthy lifestyle,” Wright said.

During the actual construction, Wright Builders was required to repurpose at least 80 percent of the weight of the material. “We’ve made it into the 90s,” Wright said, pointing to Styrofoam as the lone product that remains waste.

The need

Lash said the project began because the college had not built a new stand-alone building in more than 20 years, needed additional classroom space, and wanted to have the admissions office near the center of campus where, he explained, prospective applicants could encounter current students.

Inside will be advanced classrooms, meeting space, a “caffeinated” social area and the offices for admissions and financial aid. But in addition to the practical uses, college administrators and trustees also saw an opportunity for the Kern Center to be part of the larger mission of the college.

As a teaching venue, six different courses are using the building, including students in a game design course devising secret puzzles and mysteries related to the building, and biology and math students who are building mathematic models of the water and waste treatment systems.

“The building is designed to teach and provide space and to articulate the values we feel strongly about,” Lash said.

Lash said the project fits in with the goal of achieving “carbon neutrality” and generating 90 percent or more of the campus electricity from photovoltaics.

Elsewhere, the college has plans to install 7,542 solar collectors to be placed between the Eric Carle Museum and Yiddish Book Center, on the Hampshire College Farm and other nearby land. The college is seeking an agreement with Eversource and is doing impact studies.

Lash is a self-described lifelong environmental advocate who would have liked to venture to Paris for the United Nations Climate Change Conference next month. But he’s content with the hands-on work underway at Hampshire.

“This is going to make a huge difference for the next 50 years, and that’s very important,” Lash said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at


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