Class of 1966 Environmental Center at Williams College

In spring of 2015, The Class of 1966 Environmental Center opened with the dedication of the new building and a number of related events.

Dr. William Moomaw ’59, Chief Scientist at the EarthWatch Institute and Professor Emeritus of International Environmental Policy at Tufts, gave the keynote on Friday night; student tour guides welcomed visitors to the building during the Open House on Saturday; the directors of the Center for Environmental Studies and the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives and President Adam Falk dedicated the building; students, staff, and alums planted perennial bushes around the site; and a number of faculty, staff, and students spoke on panels about topics that touched on the campus as a living laboratory and how the building might use technology to measure and convey information about energy usage.

The new building is designed to be a Living Building Challenge (LBC) building, but before it gets certified as such, it must complete a performance year in which it operates as a net-zero energy and net-zero water building. The seven “petals” and twenty “imperatives” that buildings must meet to be LBC certified also include stringent materials guidelines that stipulate minimal negative impact on human and ecosystem health as well as supporting local and regional manufacturers. So far only eight buildings have completed their performance year and are LBC certified. The Environmental Center, which combines a historic building and a newly built structure, will likely become the first historic campus renovation LBC building. The historic building – Kellogg House – was the home of the first four college presidents and has moved four times.

The Living Building Challenge

Charley Stevenson, of Integrated Eco Strategy, worked closely with the college and Black River Design Architects on the design and operation of the Environmental Center. He says a large part of the Living Building Challenge is about advocating for change in the market. “For years, we’ve had the technology and know-how to design and construct buildings that take care of all their own needs, while minimizing external impacts,” says Stevenson. “Achieving this high performance requires changes in the materials marketplace and new regulatory frameworks.

LBC projects advocate for these advancements, and they serve to bring these approaches into the mainstream of construction.” The building is mixed-use and has the potential to be quite well used, which could make it more challenging to meet LBC’s net-zero energy and net-zero water imperatives and thus become certified as LBC. The Environmental Center has office space for faculty and staff, a classroom, student study areas, a reading room, two small conference areas, a commercial kitchen, an outdoor amphitheater, a number of gardens, and, lest we forget, two composting toilets, which from a user perspective look like and work just like regular toilets, except they use only 3 ounces of water per flush and incorporate a biodegradable foam with each flush.

Outdoors, 35% of the project site must be covered in edible landscaping – based on its LBC “Campus/Village” transect. That means that our outdoor space is largely covered in food production, solar PV, and rain gardens. The food-producing plants include a small orchard of fruit trees, perennial garden beds, annual vegetable beds managed by the Williams Sustainable Growers student-group, a multitude of berry bushes, and low-bush blueberry groundcover. In addition to advocating for a change in the materials marketplace and serving as a model for what is possible in design/construction,  Williams wants the new Environmental Center to be a place and an entity that facilitates learning both for the ardent environmentalists and for the casual passersby.

Currently staff, faculty, and students are in the midst of creating monitoring and datavisualization systems that enable users to learn and practice better ways to conserve energy in a building. (Think the fuel-consumption display on the dashboard of a Prius – but in the kitchen or at your desk.) With the abundance of data collection opportunities (energy, rainfall, water usage, etc.), there will be plenty of opportunities for student research projects that will enable building users to become smarter and smarter about resource usage.

Starting the Clock on Living Building Challenge

The 12-month performance period to meet the Living Building Challenge has begun for the Class of 1966 Environmental Center at Williams College. For one year, the building, the renovation of which was supported by grants from the A.V. Davis Foundations and the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation, must meet stringent environmental performance standards to be certified as a Living Building by the International Living Future Institute.

The Living Building Challenge (LBC) is the most advanced measure of sustainability in the built environment. To meet the challenge, the Environmental Center must use for 12 consecutive months only the electricity it can generate and the water it can collect on-site. Additionally, 35 percent of its landscaping must be dedicated to food production.

The Environmental Center is intended as a living laboratory and a hub of student activity. Its design incorporates a historic wood-framed structure that was once home to early presidents of Williams College. Formerly known as the Kellogg House, the house was built in 1794 as a residence for the college’s first president, Ebenezer Fitch. It has been renovated and moved three times and was used as faculty housing for many years. In 1978, it became the home of the Center for Environmental Studies program.

Pushing the Boundaries

Today the Environmental Center houses both academic programs and the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives, the administrative operation that focuses on sustainability across the college. In addition to faculty and staff offices, the building has a classroom, kitchen, reading room, and an outdoor amphitheater. “We wanted to push the boundaries for what a sustainable building means on a college campus,” said Amy Johns, director of the Zilkha Center. “This building is well-used by students, and that will not change in the time we are pursuing the LBC certification. This building represents a way to teach our community about sustainable living every day.”

The newer part of the structure was built with locally sourced and sustainably manufactured materials. In some cases, the college worked with manufacturers to change material specifications of products to meet a higher environmental standard. The landscape around the building features edible plants, fruits, herbs, and vegetables. Rain gardens collect storm water and filter it naturally.

“This is an endeavor in which failure is an option—and it’s also a great educational opportunity,” said Ralph Bradburd, David A. Wells Professor of Political Economy and chair of the Environmental Studies program. Living Building certification is based on actual, rather than anticipated, performance, and so data on electric and water use will be collected monthly and displayed at the center during the performance period. In addition to achieving net-zero energy and water use, the Environmental Center must meet a series of imperatives within seven performance areas: site, water, energy, health, materials, equity, and beauty. A project pursuing LBC may stop its performance period and restart it at any time, incorporating learning and behavior changes as necessary to meet the imperatives for a consecutive 12-month period.

“There’s not a lot of accumulated knowledge yet for us to draw from when it comes to this challenge. We may fail in the first attempt at reaching this certification, but the lessons we will learn in our efforts are knowledge we can share with others.” Bradburd said. Mike Evans, assistant director of the Zilkha Center, said the Environmental Center’s greatest value may be in those long-lasting lessons about how to steward the planet. “We’re asking the Williams community to be more intentional about the use of resources,” Evans said. “And these are skills and behaviors we can take with us wherever we go in our lives.”

About the Author
Williams College is a private liberal arts college located in Williamstown, Massachusetts. For more information on the Class of 1966 Environmental Center and the Living Building Challenge, go to