Notes from the Field Station: Designing the Bechtel Environmental Classroom

7 Oct

Future Lab Space

Future Seminar and Dance Space

Site clearing has just recently started for the construction of the Bechtel Environmental Classroom at the MacLeish Field Station. The new facility will include administrative, seminar, and lab spaces allowing for increased accessibility to the many resources available at the Field Station. The design process, which began in Fall 2010, has been quite extensive due to the complex conditions required to achieve Living Building certification.

As the imperatives outlined by the Living Building Challenge (LBC) tend to be more focused on urban landscapes, the rural context of this new project forced the design team to reexamine green building precedents, and in some cases revert to traditional systems. For example, as discussed in a previous post, LBC requires net-zero water to be utilized by the building. At first, designers looked to the potential for a rainwater catchment system, in which all potable water could be harvested and treated on site. However, water treatment facilities of this magnitude were found to require considerably more space and money than an alternative method, the traditional well. This conclusion was reached through the help of a special studies student in the Engineering department who examined all the systems by which the Bechtel Environmental Classroom could achieve net-zero water, and ultimately proposed a well to be drilled on site. Although not typically associated with green building and sustainable design, this well utilizes water from renewable aquifers, recharged by both precipitation and the facilities greywater system, supplying the most sustainable, and cost efficient, method.

In line with LBC guidelines, total water use in the operation of the building will be very low, as there will be no water used in toilets or the mechanical systems of the building (heat, A/C, etc.). The building will be using composting toilets instead of traditional flush toilets, which will drastically reduce water use as well as producing nutrient-rich humanure for use on the nearby permaculture garden. Additionally, a small rainwater catchment system will be established to irrigate the permaculture garden. The complete site plan will also include a native wildflower meadow, and in a great feat of creative transplanting, will incorporate many saplings already exiting on site.

In yet another example of state building codes lagging behind the innovations of green buildings, the Bechtel Environmental Classroom will be required to install a septic system, despite the fact that no blackwater is being produced and the limited greywater produced will be returned to the surrounding landscape.

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All mechanical systems will be powered exclusively by electricity generated by a photovoltaic array. This includes all lighting throughout the building, which will be LED and equipped with day-lighting sensors, only allowing lights to be turned on if current day light is insufficient. Additionally, lights will be controlled via manual on/off switches, which act as points of education themselves, reinforcing the behavior of turning off lights when exiting a room. Interestingly, the PV will not be located on the roof of the building, as is typically seen in many designs, but acting to create a small pavilion nearby, creating a space for class gatherings during poor weather in addition to increased accessibility to the panels themselves, for both teaching and maintenance purposes.

Considerations of materials for the classroom were especially important to this design, as can be seen in the enhancement of polished concrete floors with embedded rocks local to the area and specified by the Geology Department. Furthermore, a portion of the building will have wood flooring, allowing for classes and performances for the Dance Department. The siding for the building will be sustainably harvested wood, or preferable salvaged from an old barn in the area. Lastly, all paving on site will be permeable and constructed from fieldstone on site.

Another interesting aspect of Living Building designs is the downgraded role of the automobile. However, as it is required to drive to our site, the design team was challenged to encourage a pedestrian friendly environment despite the isolation of the structure. Ultimately, all vehicular access to the building itself was eliminated, and all visitors will be required to park a slight distance away and walk along a leisurely path through the woods before reaching the classroom. As you might have guessed, emergency personnel, such as the fire department and the police, were very resistant to the implementation of restricted access to the building. However, through the inclusion of fire-safety hoses and water tanks on site, in addition to other precautions, the design was approved. Additionally, when the building is completed, the reinforced road used for construction will be loamed over and allowed to return to pasture, however, it will exist as a highly drivable pasture, allowing a point of access in times of emergency.

Although I will have graduated by the time the building is operational, I look forward to visiting the Bechtel Environmental Classroom in the future as an alum, and am thrilled to be here to experience a great step forward in Smith’s green building initiatives. Stay tuned for updates throughout the construction process.

-Jessa Finch (’12)

CEEDS MacLeish Intern

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