Assessing the potential of a ‘living building’

What seems clear after nearly a year of work, is that the Stetson-Sawyer construction project – a multi-year effort to construct new office and teaching spaces, create an off-site shelving facility for library resources and renovate Stetson Hall – is well under way. It is not as clear what part the Kellogg House will play in the new design. One idea that has been proposed by the administration is that the College should work with the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives, the Center for Environmental Studies (CES) and others to turn the Kellogg House, which has been sitting on blocks for the majority of the construction process, into one of only a handful of “Living Buildings” in existence globally.

While we commend the College for considering such a progressive move in efforts to make our campus buildings more sustainable, we at the Record want to ensure that this decision is being made with primarily environmental motivations and is not just a ploy for a more attractive public image. Plans to turn Kellogg into a Living Building have been largely supported and funded by the Class of 1966. The alumni are planning to back the endeavor as part of their 50th reunion gift. On one hand, we do commend the Class of 1966 for trying to put the College on the environmentally-friendly map, both in an attempt to help us catch up to other, greener schools in the NESCAC and to grant us world-wide recognition for our efforts. On the other hand, we hesitate to support an idea that has been spearheaded by people with our school’s reputation as the primary focus, as opposed to what might actually be most effective in reducing the College’s environmental impact. We also have lingering questions about the feasibility of such a monumental project.

To date, only six projects have achieved certification through the Living Building Challenge, a program launched in 2006 by the International Living Future Institute. Without going into the details of the certification’s imperatives, it is clear that it is no easy task to achieve full certification and that creating a Living Building will involve a lot of money, time and energy. We at the Record hope that the College, Zilkha Center, CES and all others involved will be realistic in their expectations. Although full certification and living status is the ultimate goal, no building so far has managed to achieve living status through renovation. It may also be more practical to pursue a lesser certification. Moreover, there are likely other ways that the money intended for Kellogg could benefit other campus-wide sustainability initiatives. The Stetson-Sawyer project will be following in the footsteps of both Hollander and Schapiro by achieving LEED certification; perhaps instead of aiming for Living Building certification for just one building, we could try to renovate many more buildings up to LEED status. Although we hope this potential Living Building will inspire and not thwart later projects, we worry that by concentrating our efforts solely on one building, we might be missing opportunities for more widespread change, or we may be funneling so much money and energy into one project that we might not even have the funds to support future projects. A single greener building is only the first step of many the College needs to undertake to reduce our environmental impact.

If, however, the College and its partners are able to successfully construct a Living Building, we think it could be just the demonstration we need to signal our community’s commitment to becoming a more sustainable campus. Furthermore, construction plans include expanding the building, giving it the capacity it currently lacks to serve as a new central hub for many of the currently displaced environmental groups on campus. Some groups that have already expressed interest include Real Food and the Williams Sustainable Garden Project, who may grow food in or around Kellogg, thus satisfying one of the certification requirements for the building and giving the Garden the space it needs. Other plans include fashioning administrative offices for members of the CES and the Zilkha Center. These administrative offices will undoubtedly make communication between the environmental organizations easier on campus and give them the home base they need to see projects through from start to finish.

The idea of “green building construction” is intriguing, and the lure of fame from becoming the proud owners of the world’s first renovated Living Building is tempting. But we at the Record hope that the administration will not be too distracted by this temptation. A lot of time and resources must be put into determining if a building could really “survive” on our campus. If this ultimate dream of Living Building certification does become a reality, however, we look forward to welcoming it to campus.