Smith College’s Bechtel Environmental Classroom Certified as World’s Fifth Living Building

Friday, January 31, 2014
Ethan Drinker Photography courtesy of Coldham & Hartman Architects
Smith College's newest building, a 2,300-square foot learning center at its nearby field station, has achieved top honors for environmental sustainability by meeting the rigorous performance requirements of the Living Building Challenge™, a green building standard overseen by the International Living Future Institute. The Living Building Challenge is considered the most comprehensive design- and performance-based building standard related to the environment. The Bechtel Environmental Classroom, as Smith College’s building is known, is only the fifth Certified Living Building™ in the world, and the first such building in New England.
Supported by the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation and located at Smith's MacLeish Field Station in Whately, Mass., the Bechtel Classroom was completed in 2012. The single-story wood-framed building was designed by Coldham & Hartman Architects, a firm based in Amherst, Mass., and built by the Deerfield, Mass. contractor Scapes Builders. The building comprises a seminar space, a multipurpose room and an instructional lab. An outdoor gathering space offers visitors a view of the Holyoke Range. 
“The Bechtel Environmental Classroom highlights Smith’s commitment to sustainability and the environment in a tangible and meaningful way,” says Drew Guswa, professor of engineering and the director of Smith’s Center for the Environment, Ecological Design and Sustainability (CEEDS), which is a primary user of the classroom. He notes that CEEDS students had input into the design of the building. 
“Helping students integrate knowledge from different disciplines runs through everything we do,” Guswa said. “The design and construction of this remarkable building has been a great way to engage our students’ cross-disciplinary abilities and put them in a position where they were making production decisions. The building has been, and will continue to be, an invaluable teaching tool.”
To meet the Living Building Challenge, buildings must fulfill the requirements of seven different “Petals”—Equity, Beauty, Health, Site, Water, Energy and Materials—that encompass issues of sustainability, aesthetics and social justice.
“The Living Building Challenge is straightforward, but immensely difficult,” says Bruce Coldham, one of the building’s architects. Even before ground was broken, Coldham and the contractors were conscious of the requirements of the Living Building Challenge. In their design, they incorporated elements like composting toilets and solar panels that return to the grid 50 percent more energy than the building uses. They used local materials and sited the classroom in an area that required clearing mostly invasive species. Also, all materials used were certified free of carcinogenic and endocrine-disrupting chemical agents.
Since the Bechtel Environmental Classroom’s opening in September 2012, students have monitored a range of data points around the building’s electricity and water usage to demonstrate that it operated over its first year of occupancy as a net-zero facility, meaning that it generates more energy than it uses and that it draws solely on a renewable water system.
"The Bechtel Environmental Classroom is a wonderful example of how the Living Building Challenge can inspire a new vision for educating our future generations,” says Living Building Challenge Vice President Amanda Sturgeon. “The project demonstrates the kind of commitment it takes for a group of people to make true positive change in the world." 
The building is used by a variety of departments, including landscape studies and Jewish studies, as well as for writing retreats and concerts. Future plans include poetry readings and dance performances. “The building will continue to be an educational tool for any group that comes through,” Guswa says. “For example, the rocks inlaid into the floor are placed in a geologic time sequence. So, without even realizing it, you’re learning about geologic time just by being in the building.” 
To learn more about Smith College’s Bechtel Environmental Classroom, an the project’s approach to Living Building Challenge Certification, visit our Project Case Study.