The taps are flowing at Hampshire College’s Kern Center

  • Chris Chamberland, a civil engineer with the Berkshire Design Group, explains how water is collected from the roof of the R.W. Kern Center at Hampshire College, cleaned by this ultraviolet system and then moved through the building. Berkshire Design Group devised the water system. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Chris Chamberland, a civil engineer with the Berkshire Design Group, stands by the composting bin in the R.W. Kern Center at Hampshire College. The bin is where solid waste from the building’s bathrooms ends up. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Chris Chamberland, a civil engineer with the Berkshire Design Group, explains how the water system of the R.W. Kern Center at Hampshire College works. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The very first glasses of drinking water from the R. W. Kern Center’s rainfall collection system, which came online on June 15. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Published: 7/12/2017 4:08:12 PM

AMHERST — When state inspectors came to Hampshire College’s R.W. Kern Center this February, the team who designed the state-of-the-art green building fully expected to get approval for its innovative rainfall-to-drinking water system.

“We thought that afternoon we’d be able to turn the key,” said Chris Chamberland, a civil engineer at The Berkshire Design Group, which devised the center’s water system.

The state Department of Environmental Protection, however, put those hopes on hold.

The problem was that the process the center used to collect and disinfect rain for its drinking water was so cutting-edge that state regulators had to update drinking water guidelines to provide relevant directions for the college to follow.

The college applied the guidelines to its process and finally began supplying its own water on June 15.

“They’ve worked really hard to accommodate what’s still an experiment,” Hampshire College President Jonathan Lash said of state regulators. Attempts to obtain comment from officials at the western regional office of the DEP were unsuccessful.

The Kern Center was designed by the firm Bruner/Cott & Associates and built by Hampshire alum Jonathan Wright of Northampton’s Wright Builders.

The regulatory delay and other challenges the builders and designers faced may have caused them to lose sleep, but they think the extra effort was well invested. As climate change casts uncertainty on the future, they hope that the logistical and bureaucratic hurdles they’ve cleared will lead the way for other institutions seeking to become more environmentally sustainable. In an era of increased water scarcity, the center’s designers say, providing a template for more resilient buildings is a necessary task.

“It’s part of what we’re trying to do, is to make these buildings and campus more resilient to extreme weather events, which we know are coming,” Todd Holland, projects and operations manager at the college, said.

The issue in February was the amount of ultraviolet light to apply to disinfect the rainwater.

After initially saying the college could apply a certain level of UV light to kill pathogens, inspectors reversed course and said a higher UV level was needed, Chamberland said.

It took a month and a half for builders to purchase a new UV disinfection unit, install it and get the letter of approval to proceed. During that wait, the building’s planners were worried that the state and the federal Environmental Protection Agency would also require them to use chlorine to disinfect the rainwater.

“That would have been tough to accept,” Holland said.

That’s because Hampshire College entered the Kern Center into the green building certification program known as the Living Building Challenge. The challenge requires builders to follow strict policies to protect the environment, workers and those who will eventually use the building. Among other best practices, that means avoiding the use of chemicals like chlorine.

Luckily, after the state’s adjusted guidance, the system began supplying drinking water in June.

However, as regulators try to keep up with advancing green technology, the situation faced by the Kern Center likely won’t be unique. Holland and Chamberland already anticipate possible negotiations over another new practice they’d like to employ.

As part of the Living Building Challenge, the center produces its own energy through solar panels and also processes its own waste, using composting toilets.

The compost, under current state policy, will need to either be buried on site or taken to the dump when it is removed from the composters in two or three years. The college’s science department, Holland said, hopes to collect a data set that will convince the state that the compost can be safely spread on the campus farm.

“And thus close the loop,” he added.

On top of regulatory roadblocks, the team faced additional logistical obstacles — a fact that became obvious last summer when a fetid smell filled the building. It took a month to figure out the culprit: dairy products that baristas at the Kern Kafe were pouring down the sink at the end of the day. The dairy products were collecting in the center’s greywater system. From there, the liquid was pumped back into gardens on the ground floor of the building.

“And boy did that stink!” Holland said.

The solution? Baristas now dump the day’s unused dairy products into a compost bucket, which is fed to pigs on campus.

“You discover it’s how the user is using the system,” Chamberland said. Like “desire paths” created when people tread an unplanned trail through grass, how people actually end up using a system dictates the slight tweaks needed to make it work.

Fine espresso grounds were a problem when they clogged up the building’s greywater system. The fix? A simple knee-high stocking put over the pipe to catch the grounds. Urine from the zero-waste toilets quickly corroded a brass fitting in the composter system. The fix? A plumber replaced the part with a stainless steel fitting.

Dealing with those logistical issues, both big and small, is creating a lesson plan that Hampshire College and others buiding similar projects will be able to follow, officials say.

“That’s part of our mission, to influence others,” Lash told the Gazette.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at

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