By David Hill
A few months after the opening of Hampshire College’s R.W. Kern Center, something began to smell. Bad. The scent was not one typical of new buildings, such as off-gassing paint or floor finishes, for reasons that will become clear. Rather, the odor lingering in the two-story atrium was distinct and unpleasant. “It was a kind of swampy smell,” says Sara Draper, the building’s educational program and outreach director. “It was gross. There was a little bit of a panic.”
Turns out baristas working at the Kern Kafé coffee bar were pouring unused milk and cream down the drain at the end of each day. In most buildings, that wouldn’t be a problem. But the Kern Center, in Amherst, Mass., is just one of 20 Living Buildings in the world, one that generates its own energy and handles its own waste. As such, graywater from the café sink is directed to indoor planters and constructed wetlands for filtering and treatment. Essentially, the plants in the atrium and the lobby were being irrigated with rotten milk.
“Once we figured out the problem, it turned out to be an easy fix,” Draper says. Instead of sending waste down the sink, café workers now collect leftover dairy products in plastic buckets, which is then trucked to the college’s working farm. “The pigs love it,” says Jonathan Wright, founder of Northampton, Mass.–based Wright Builders, the general contractor for the Kern Center, and a Hampshire alum.
Designed by Bruner/Cott Architects, in Boston, Mass., the Kern Center adheres to the rigorous green-building certification program known as the Living Building Challenge (LBC), administered by the International Living Future Institute (ILFI). Certified in April 2018, the two-story, 16,940-square-foot structure houses the college’s admissions and financial aid offices, classrooms, a gallery, and, of course, that café.
For Hampshire, the Kern Center is more than just a building; it’s a symbol of the college’s commitment to sustainability and a model for future campus construction. On its opening day, April 29, 2016, Hampshire’s then-president Jonathan Lash declared, “We want this building to not just be a structure that houses some activities, but a part of who we are and how we teach.”
This is a story of how the Kern Center is meeting those goals.
On the day I arrive at the Kern Center, in late May, it is 80 F by mid-afternoon and the sun is shining. Inside, I am mostly comfortable though I notice some temperature variations as I make my way through the building. The south-facing admissions-office lobby is warm and stuffy, even with the building’s automated exterior shades down. Behind the reception desk, associate director of admissions Miguel Santiago insists that he is comfortable. “The blinds keep the temperature pretty regulated,” he says. “In the winter, it gets a little chilly every now and then, but I’ve never complained. We used to be in an old farmhouse—that building got real cold!”
For years, Hampshire’s admissions office was located in the Red Barn, an 1820 structure on the east edge of campus where prospective students and their families would meet for an information session before walking to the main campus. “We wanted visitors to actually see life on campus, as opposed to being on the edge,” says Susan Darlington, dean of Hampshire’s School of Critical Social Inquiry and a professor of anthropology and Asian studies who served on the Kern Center’s planning committee.
Lash, who presided at the World Resources Institute before being named Hampshire’s president in 2011, spearheaded the building effort. More than 100 donors, led by Hampshire alum William “Bill” Kern and his family, funded the $10.4 million project ($7.1 million for construction, or $420 per square foot). The building is named after Kern’s father, the late New York real estate developer Ralph W. Kern.
Given Lash’s background and Hampshire’s environmental leanings (it’s a signatory of the Carbon Commitment, formerly known as the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment), there was never any doubt that the Kern Center would be green. But it was Lash’s longtime friend Denis Hayes, the founder of Earth Day and president of the Bullitt Foundation, who urged Lash to consider pursuing the LBC. At the time, construction was underway on the Bullitt Center in Seattle, which Lash and members of the Kern Center planning committee would later tour after it opened in 2013.
“What they were able to do on a tiny urban lot is just remarkable,” Lash says of the Bullitt Center, which would attain Living Building status in 2015. “At Hampshire, we had the luxury of space.”
Indeed, Bruner/Cott sited the Kern Center smack-dab in the middle of Hampshire’s 800-acre campus, replacing a road and bus shelter with a wildflower meadow and creating a human-centered landscape. Now, when visitors drive onto the wooded campus, it is the first building they see.
“The building reaches out and embraces visitors as they arrive,” says principal-in-charge Jason Forney, AIA, who led the center’s design alongside project architect and fellow Bruner/Cott principal Jason Jewhurst, AIA.
The Kern Center comprises two stone-clad wings that join at an angle, in plan, with a more transparent volume at their intersection, all unified by a “soaring and lifting” shed roof with deep eaves, as Forney describes it. Oriented on an east-west axis, the building is about 230 feet long, but the east and west wings are only 38 feet and 44 feet deep, respectively. “I think of it as a building with two front sides,” Forney says. “Visitors tend to use the entrance on the north side, closer to the road, but students tend to use the entrance that opens onto the campus.”
As hoped, prospective students and their families now come face-to-face with faculty members and current students as they make their way through the center’s light-filled atrium to the admissions office. The atrium has become a popular gathering place; professors hold office hours at the coffee bar and students toil on their laptops for hours in the café. Wright, who walks me through the building on the second day of my visit, points to a tiered wooden platform under the monumental staircase that leads to the second floor. “That’s probably the most popular place on campus,” he says. “It feels kind of cozy.”
After ascending the stairs, visitors are treated to expansive views of the campus and the nearby Holyoke Range. Along the way, they may catch a glimpse of the 10 visual puzzles scattered throughout the building—think engraved letters on underside of the stair treads and mysterious inlays in the floorboards—created by computer science associate professor Ira Fay. Many of the solutions allude to the LBC.
Every building material and product that makes up the Kern Center was carefully curated. The dark schist exterior cladding derives from Ashfield Stone Co., a local family-owned quarry with which Wright has worked for many years. The horizontal slats of eastern cedar running between the second-floor window heads and roofline warm the stone’s cool tones and hint at the abundance of wood inside.
The heart of the timber-framed Kern Center is the double-height atrium, which features exposed glulam columns and beams made from black spruce harvested by Nordic Structures in Canada and fabricated in Walpole, N.H., by Bensonwood home builders. The underside of the second floor decking, composed of 4-inch-thick glulam, is left exposed as a ceiling for the first floor. Meanwhile, the second-floor ceiling is made of pine boards finished to match the glulam look. Doors and frames are made of ash, while the stair treads and second-story flooring are made of oak salvaged from a tannery in Maryland. The coffee bar’s round café tables were manufactured from several pin oaks that were cut down on the building site.
The overall effect is a modern take on an old timber-frame barn. “We chose to use wood for its warmth and beauty, and because of its low carbon footprint,” Forney says. “Leaving the wood structure exposed was part of our strategy of optimizing design solutions by having them do more than one thing at a time.” In this case, the wood is structural, aesthetically pleasing, and a strategy for carbon sequestration. While the LBC does not mandate the use of wood, the material appears in many Living Buildings given its verifiable provenance and ability to fulfill the LBC imperative for biophilic design. All wood in the Kern Center is also certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.
One of the biggest challenges of the LBC is ensuring that all building materials are free of any chemicals and compounds found on the ILFI Red List. Wright’s company had constructed about 40 LEED-certified homes throughout Massachusetts, but the LBC—often called “LEED on steroids”—was uncharted territory. Wright, however, saw the Kern Center as a “lifetime opportunity,” especially given his ties to the college. He quickly hired Integrated Eco Strategy, in North Adams, Mass., to handle the materials documentation.
But not all of Wright’s regular suppliers and subcontractors jumped on the bandwagon. Some manufacturers were wary of having to reveal their product makeup: “We had to seek alternatives, and we found them,” Wright says diplomatically. There’s also a growing brain trust about Red List–compliant materials among the building community. Integrated Eco Strategy, for one, maintains an online database called Red2Green that provides documentation for products vetted for the LBC.
Still, Wright and his team encountered some obstacles. About 60 sheets of drywall—about 1,900 square feet—had already been hung in the center’s basement when the team learned that the sheets had been shipped in error from the wrong National Gypsum plant. Drywall from National Gypsum’s New Hampshire plant contained 5 percent recycled material, but also a raw material that could not be verified as Red List–compliant. The sheets came down and were replaced with compliant drywall from the manufacturer’s Maryland plant, which was able to use a compliant alternate raw material for this project.
Similarly, when Wright’s team learned that FSC-certified plywood free of urea-formaldehyde was simply not manufactured in the Northeast, they had to venture beyond the 500-kilometer radius from which the LBC requires at least 20 percent of a building’s materials to come, landing on compliant plywood manufactured in Louisiana by RoyOMartin. The LBC allows an additional 30 percent of materials to be sourced from within a 1,000-kilometer radius of the construction site, and another 25 percent of materials to be sourced from within a 5,000-kilometer radius.
Because many wood varnishes contain chemicals found on the Red List, Wright and his team used PolyWhey, a clear coat by Vermont Natural Coatings that is also a byproduct of cheese making. “We like this product for its low stink, local availability, ease of application, and durability,” Wright says. “Virtually all major paint companies have compliant products now. They work well, they’re durable, and carry little cost premium.”
Bruner/Cott’s design for the Kern Center employs a number of strategies for reducing energy consumption. The building’s tall, triple-glazed windows—portions of which are operable in every space—and narrow north-south profile allow daylight to penetrate deep inside. Many spaces have interior shades to control glare and LED lights controlled by occupancy sensors. Cellulose insulation, made from recycled paper, helps create a tight building envelope—the center’s walls are rated R-40 and the roof R-60. An inverter-driven air-source heat pump system by Mitsubishi conditions the space. Increasingly common in cold climates, air-source heat pumps are two to three times more efficient than conventional electrical heating systems. The LBC prohibits on-site fossil-fuel combustion, eliminating the possibility of gas furnaces.
“Even with the café, the building doesn’t have a lot of energy needs,” Forney says. Indeed, the café was specifically designed without a conventional stove or oven; food is prepared off-site. It does, however, have a microwave oven, several refrigerators, an ice machine, a coffee grinder, and an espresso machine.
In fact, the Kern Center’s 118-kilowatt rooftop photovoltaic array generates about 17 percent more energy than the building uses. (Hampshire’s recently completed 19-acre solar farm allows the college to produce all of its electricity on campus.) Bruner/Cott modeled the Kern Center’s energy use intensity (EUI) at 23.2 kBtu per square foot per year; the building’s actual EUI during the LBC’s mandated one-year performance period was 23.4—or, as Draper notes proudly, 86 percent more efficient than an average campus building in the Northeast.
Dalton Lewis, an admissions counselor and alum whose office is on the north side of the second floor, tells me that thermal comfort has been “the one small issue with the building,” which a post-occupancy evaluation (POE) by Bruner/Cott and Hampshire College has confirmed. Sixty-eight percent of staff respondents and 82 percent of students and faculty who use the building gave the Kern Center a positive rating for thermal comfort.
“It can get a little cold in the winter,” Lewis says, “and a little stuffy in the summer, but it’s just a couple of degrees in either direction.” He brings a sweater to wear in the winter “just in case,” and in the summer, his sleeves are often rolled up. He’s also a big fan of the Kern Center’s aesthetics—the natural light, the wood and stone, and the exposed pipes and mechanical systems that “give you a sense of everything that’s happening with the very complicated functions of the building.”
Other wish list items that the POE revealed included more electrical outlets, more comfortable furniture in the atrium, and “music and pillows,” presumably to prolong lingering in the center.
Net-zero water systems are rare in the United States, largely because of regulatory issues, but they are required by the LBC, at least on paper. (The LBC allows exceptions where local or state regulations prohibit on-site water treatment and reuse.) The Kern Center’s system, engineered by the Berkshire Design Group, also in Northampton, treats harvested rainwater through a series of carbon filters and ultraviolet-light purifiers, without using chlorine. Technically, to meet LBC rules, drinking water must be purified “without the use of chemicals,” but exemptions have been made in the case of existing regulations.
Two oversized downspouts, one on each end of the building, direct rainwater from the roof to their respective 5,500-gallon concrete cisterns adjacent to the structure; the water is then pumped into the basement for treatment. Even with 30 full-time employees and about 100 daily visitors, the building only uses about 180 gallons of water a day; a similar office building with a conventional water system might use four times as much, Forney says. The highly visible downspouts and cisterns were a deliberate choice, he adds. “We could have hidden them inside, but we wanted them to be a visible part of this exploratory environment.”
After treatment, the water is then pumped upstairs to sinks and drinking fountains—at least that was the plan. When the building opened in 2016, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) was still developing guidelines for UV water treatment, so potable water initially came from the town of Amherst’s water system. Once Hampshire got the green light, the Kern Center’s net-zero system worked as designed—for a few months. Then, routine water monitoring showed bacteria levels over MassDEP’s limit. The Kern Center’s facilities team made several improvements to the system and was allowed to reconnect to the rooftop water supply. But the victory was short-lived; recently, the bacteria levels spiked again, forcing yet another switch to town water.
Undeterred, Draper and her colleagues are looking at next steps. “One of the goals of the Living Building Challenge is figuring out how to do this stuff,” she says. “Net-zero water is definitely the most cutting-edge aspect of the building. It’s still very new. Chlorine-free potable water systems remain a challenge for the Kern Center and other LBC projects.” She hopes, at the very least, that they can develop a hybrid system that uses less of the chemical than in municipal water supplies. “I’d still consider that a win,” she says.
Meanwhile, visitors to the Kern Center can expect to encounter composting toilets in lieu of flush toilets. The toilets use no water, but there’s also no unpleasant odor. Solid and liquid waste drop straight through 12-inch pipes to composters in the basement. The liquid waste goes into separate tanks that get emptied by an external contractor when full. The solid waste is mixed with wood shavings and will eventually break down for use as compost by the college.
Sitting in an empty classroom, associate mathematics professor Sarah Hews describes how she became acquainted with the Kern Center prior to its completion despite being based in Hampshire’s Cole Science Center. She and several other professors had been looking for ways to tweak the curriculum for students in the college’s first-year integrated sciences program, which combines math, hydrology, ecology, and microbiology. “We wanted something more focused on ‘systems thinking,’ ” Hews says. She recalls her colleague Christina Cianfrani, an associate professor of hydrology, then asking, “Why don’t we use the building?”
Bingo. “The Kern is the perfect interdisciplinary object to study,” Hews says. To date, Hampshire students have done independent research projects on the center’s wetland planters, HVAC system, timber-frame structure, and more. In a 2016 American Ecological Engineering Society student design challenge, six Hampshire undergraduate students, armed with knowledge acquired from researching the center’s water treatment system, bested seven teams of graduate students with their design of a filter to remove pollutants from stormwater. No wonder former president Lash calls the building a “living laboratory.”
In a Hampshire College video about the Kern Center, Lash, who retired in June, marvels at its potential. “You can build a building that absolutely challenges all of the assumptions about what a building has to be, and enhances rather than detracts from the quality of people’s lives,” he says. “Why wouldn’t you do that?”
Photos: Robert Benson Photography
Construction photos: Courtesy Bruner/Cott & Associates
Floorplans and Diagrams: Courtesy Bruner/Cott & Associates