Columnist Jonathan Wright: Kern Center a first for the the planet

  • R.W. Kern Center at Hampshire College.

Published: 7/12/2017 11:11:53 PM

A recent Gazette article on the award-winning R. W. Kern Center at Hampshire College, also commenting on its beautiful sister-ship, the Hitchcock Center for the Environment, on the Hampshire campus, gives the reader a sense of the scope of the Living Building Challenge undertaking and the achievement (“Hampshire College’s new building earns national award for sustainability,” June 5).

The occasion also offers the opportunity for some additional reflection on this remarkable milestone on the campus of a young, visionary, well-led and modestly funded college, in partnership with a trend setting environmental organization. Two Living Buildings on one campus, built by one local construction team. A first for the planet, in more ways than one.

The Living Building Challenge reminds us that buildings are creatures of place, born of purpose and mission, inhabited by humans from that same place, and made, at best, of materials from landscape and larger community. The closer to origins, the better, like native plants. The Kern Center and the Hitchcock Center thrive because they were created in this valley, and specifically in Amherst, where leaders, officials and citizens reached out to help, endorse, encourage, facilitate and improve the projects. The town embraced the role of gracious host, for which all of us involved in the projects are very grateful. We could not have ventured as far or as well without them.

Around the country and around the world, as these projects get underway, the governmental collaboration here is universally envied. Further, the growth of cultural tourism around sustainable development, agriculture and the education that underlies them bode well for the future of the region.

Within the last few weeks, another milestone has been accomplished. The R. W. Kern Center is collecting and processing its own drinking water to public water supply standards. The Hitchcock Center, finished a little later, is close behind.

One might ask, as I did early on, why all the fuss about producing 120 gallons per day. Yet, we will remember that last year’s drought conditions imperiled campus and business operations. We are moving deeper into extreme climate change and variance. Resilient thinking asks us to reach over the short term goals of convenience and see what is possible and durable.

I was recently living only with a well and hand pump for two weeks, and found that three gallons per day is manageable, yet much of the world survives on 5 gallons per week. Seventy percent of the world has no reliable supply of potable water. We, in our region waste so much of ours, with 95 percent of drinking water being used to flush toilets.

The R. W. Kern Center water is nearly bacteria free, a level 90 percent below the required thresholds, before it is ultraviolet-treated. This water is entirely free of added chemicals, and tastes, remarkably, like nothing at all. I was not prepared for the mysterious and irresistible sense of promise and well-being that emanated from that first long drink of pure water. Like a mountain stream, or lips open to a downpour.

The town of Amherst actively encouraged and supported our efforts, and helped the teams navigate the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and federal Environmental Protection Agency requirements. Even Seattle, a Pacific Northwest hub of sustainability, could not arrange for site drinking water at the Bullitt Center, a five story Living Building, and home to the Living Futures Institute and the Bullitt foundation. Thank you, Amherst!

Seeking out and researching materials with reduced toxicity reveals the many levels and layers of toxins in our building materials process. The extraction, manufacture of raw product, fabrication, installation, scrap disposal, and the materials behavior over time. all have environmental and human implications, some of them dangerous and irreversible. Unlike most approaches to building toxins that focus on the end product, the Living Building Challenge also looks closely at, and challenges, the human and environmental damage being done earlier in the process, through workforce and neighborhood exposure.

For example, phthalates are a viscosity control additive, a plasticizer that makes coatings go on easily, PVC pipe a little slippery, and the oil in the elevator lift ram a stable consistency. Presumably, once manufactured and installed, they make life easier and literally smoother. But exposure during manufacture and application causes serious endocrine disruptions and aggressive forms of prostate cancer. But, as more and more manufactures are discovering, they are often unnecessary. So the Living Building Challenge asks us to attend to the people in factories, in neighborhoods and on job sites all along the way – deeply respectful of the effects of products on ordinary working people.

Phthalates are also used in dryer sheets, fabric softeners, many plastic items including children’s toys and dishware, and many hair and laundry products. Studies show that young children in households which use these laundry products have reduced brain development. They are avoidable, and like so many products and processes invented to make our lives easier, they are also killing us.

These Living Buildings are the only ones we at Wright Builders Inc. have ever built where we wanted to and could eat our lunches inside during construction. They were beautiful and toxin-free. By my rough calculations, these two building account for approximately three human lifetimes of work, in the design, fundraising, fabrication and assembly and management. Those combined lifetimes are cared for by these buildings, and those are the lives of talented men and women of our region, who, like the town of Amherst, call this place home, and who make the Valley the remarkable home that it is.

Jonathan A. Wright is a founder and senior advisor with Wright Builders Inc. in Northampton.


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