An energy-efficient Baxter

As I last saw it, the new Baxter will be a more inviting and a more functional space than is our current paddle-boat-inspired veteran. The venerable and lively mailroom is no longer center-stage, but replacing it is an inviting living room called the Great Hall. Flanking it is a bigger and better, light-filled snack bar. Bare wooden beams will keep the feel of the current one. The spaces seem wonderfully relaxing and informal while fostering the Baxter tradition of being the place to randomly run into the friend with whom you haven’t crossed paths in weeks.

Flow patterns, natural light and program spaces are all crucial to making this a useable building, and I assume that other students will address these aspects more fully. There is, however, another side to building design. We all live in a world now where global warming has been accepted as a reality by the international community and a significant number of major corporations (BP, DuPont and Shell, to name only a few).

It shouldn’t be a surprise that buildings use most of the energy consumed in the U.S. They use 65 percent of all electricity and cause 30 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, in fact.

What might be a surprise, however, is that those numbers can be cut down dramatically without a sacrifice of those functions we’ve grown used to. In fact, the most modern buildings being constructed do exactly that, including buildings like the California GAP Offices, the redesigned Ford Rouge Factory and the Oberlin Environmental Studies Center.

These new technologies and new methods of designing are only just beginning to penetrate the architecture community, necessitating extra effort on the part of environmentally conscious parties. The Polshek Partners, for example, had to hire an outside sustainability consultant for the Baxter project. In addition, the $1 million added to the budget would not have happened without an extensive study of the sustainable design options, which only happened after pressure from students. The report clearly showed that extra money spent on construction would reduce the energy the building consumed, lowering energy bills by so much that the investment would more than pay for itself. Everyone wins in the end, right?

The lesson to take away from this experience is that extra effort was needed to convince everyone. These ideas, from pre-heating water with the sun to refusing to ventilate rooms without anyone in them, are still not mainstream. Most students don’t think about these issues as they walk through a building. Most architects don’t make these suggestions because they cost more up front.

As much as I care about the long-term health of our atmosphere, reducing the energy consumption in Baxter or supporting certified timber harvesting won’t stop global warming alone. We are an educational institution, however, and in particular one that is well-respected and often emulated. The students we send out into the world are influential and the statements that we make have wide-ranging effects that ripple beyond the Purple Valley.

By designing Baxter according to standards of sustainability, we demonstrate to the academic community and to the country (and perhaps to President Bush) that the environmental issues facing us should and can be addressed. These are serious concerns, not fringe issues being cried about by hippies hugging trees. By doing the research that we did, we ensure that architectural design by others in the future will be an easier task.

Beyond that, this new Baxter needs to educate through the building itself. Generations of Williams students will pass through those halls, and one of the most lasting legacies we can leave is to ensure that those students depart with a greater awareness and sense of empowerment when it comes to environmental issues. We do that now by pointing out where we have made efforts to build Baxter sustainably.

Some aspects may be obvious, such as hot-water panels on the roof, but others may not, including radiant heating in the floors or certified wood. The architects, administration and the environmental advisory committee have only just begun to approach these issues, but a good model can be found in the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s building in Annapolis, Md. There, small plaques unobtrusively point out the special aspects of the building that might not be obvious. Visitors leave with a newfound appreciation for the range of solutions that a creative and dedicated institution can put into a building.

With a little extra thought in the coming months of design, Baxter, too, can have an impact on the people who will use it. Not only will it be an inviting, functional space and the center of student campus life, but it will also be an important part of our college’s educational mission. To quote President Schapiro, “Let history one day note that our community had the courage to seize the moment.”