College debating environmental impact of Baxter

As the plans for the reconstruction of Baxter Hall become more concrete, there has been increasing discussion about whether the new Baxter should be designed as a “green” building. More specifically, project planners and students have raised the question of whether the project should be carried out to create a building with a variety of features designed to increase energy efficiency and add to the structure’s environmental sustainability.

There are several areas of the proposed plans that can be modified in order to make the new Baxter more environmentally friendly. Most of the key elements involved would be related to the mechanical systems that run Baxter behind the scenes. For example, floor radiant hot water heating would be installed in the public building. One of the largest expenses would be the creation of a ventilation system driven by carbon dioxide sensors that would lead the large energy savings, since it would respond directly to the buildup of carbon dioxide rather than to a preprogrammed schedule. Other parts of the plan include a heat recovery system for kitchen refrigeration equipment and the heat recovery of dishwashing water.

Of course, all of these changes and the many others outlined in the proposal would be expensive. Christopher Williams, the College’s project manager for the new facility, estimates that the entire environmental proposal will place the Baxter project over budget by approximately $3 million. He said, however, that there is “always a budget push at some point in the project.” In this one, that push happens to be the environment, which “makes an easy target.”

A variety of scenarios, each with a different financial and environmental impact on the project, will be presented to the board of trustees at their meeting in January. Dean Roseman, the head of the Baxter Renovation Committee, said due to the fixed budget for the building project, “anything we spend on one area means that there is less to spend on another area of the building.”

“The big question that we are studying now is how specific sustainable design options will impact future expenditures on the building in terms of maintenance and operations,” she said. Certain aspects of the proposal, such as the carbon dioxide sensors, will lead to future savings in terms of the operation and maintenance of Baxter. Williams said that there should be a good pay-back if the green proposal is accepted, mainly in the form of lower energy bills. The building “will pay for itself many times over in the life of the building.”

Carlos Silva ’04, one of the members of the Campus Environmental Advisory Committee (CEAC) made the same point. “The College could opt for cheaper, less ecologically intelligent design features and pay many times more in energy costs over the building’s lifetime,” he said. “Or the College could opt for marginally more expensive, ecologically intelligent design features and reap enormous financial savings over the building’s lifetime by significantly cutting the building’s annual energy consumption.”

Williams said the College is currently conducting a life cycle cost analysis of the plans in order to determine whether or not the proposed changes will in effect pay for themselves over the long run.

Silva emphasized that as the administration and trustees examine the issue and allocate money for the project, they need to keep in mind that “green design is not an all-or-nothing proposition.”

“It’s a matter of investing money in the sustainable features the College can afford,” he said. “It is unreasonable to just slash the entire budget allocation for sustainable design and claim that all sustainable design features are too expensive to be considered.”

At their most recent meeting, CEAC discussed the ways in which they plan to promote awareness and support for a “green” Baxter. Silva said that he believes the best way to accomplish these goals is to emphasize the educational potential. At their meeting, CEAC members discussed the various ways they could use a new building as a form of education, such as eventually creating a display contrasting the new and old Baxter in order to emphasize the striking environmental differences between the two.

Silva pointed to an overall lack of awareness among students regarding the environment. “If I walk into buildings every day that consume exorbitant amounts of fossil fuels, yet hide the actual consequences of that consumption, I will naturally assume that burning fossil fuels and emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere are completely normal and benign activities,” he said.

“On the other hand, if I walk into campus buildings with cutting-edge, energy-efficient design that are powered by renewable energy, and those features are made clear to me, I am introduced to a whole new realm of possibility for ecologically intelligent economic growth.”

Another factor in the environmental discussion surrounding the renovation of Baxter was highlighted at the “Meeting the Environmental Challenge” conference last week, which featured speakers from schools such as Oberlin and Tufts – both of which have state-of-the-art “green” buildings.

“Middlebury and Oberlin are helping to show that this is feasible technology and that institutions and build these buildings,” Malin Pinsky ’03, CEAC chair, said.

“It’s obviously an inspiration, and our role is to continue to validate and demonstrate the options,” he said.

Williams emphasized the idea that “green design should respond to the individual site profile.” Therefore, a new Baxter will most certainly not resemble the “green” building at Oberlin, since an environmental studies center does not have the same needs as a large student center. He said the College will also not be creating a building that looks radically different like the one at Oberlin, but rather a building based on practical sustainability.