Living Certified


The Hitchcock Center for the Environment (HCE) is a recognized environmental education leader known for its innovative, interdisciplinary educational approaches that support a growing body of environmentally literate citizens who are far seeing enough, flexible enough and wise enough not to undermine our natural or social systems of support.

When it came time to build a larger facility to meet the rising demand for greater environmental understanding and action, it was mission-critical for HCE to create a building that was not only more restorative than destructive to our natural world, but that would also further serve as an innovative teaching tool.

Completed in 2016, HCE’s 8,950 square foot Certified Living Building not only helps students recognize that science and engineering are critical to meeting many of the major challenges that confront society today, such as generating sufficient energy, maintaining supplies of fresh water and food, and addressing climate change, but that the natural world itself holds abundant wisdom from which to learn from. This is achieved through the rich and varied curricula that include hands-on and minds-on activities, laboratories, investigations, and design challenges that introduce students to the creative world of biomimicry, ecological design, and sustainable technologies.

Today HCE is a powerful new learning destination that helps to close the the gap between people’s aspirations for a healthy and sustainable future, and the knowledge, skills and attitudes they need to achieve that future.

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Certification StatusLiving Certified
Version of LBC2.1
LocationAmherst, MA
Gross Building Area8,950 SF
Start of OccupancyOctober 2016
Owner OccupiedYes
Number of Occupants75
Photo Courtesy of Peter Vanderwarker


OwnerHitchcock Center for the Environment
Owner’s Project ManagerChris Riddle
General ContractorWright Builders
Architect designLAB Architects
MEP EngineerBuro Happold Engineering
Civil EngineerThe Berkshire Design Group, Inc.
Structural EngineerStructures Workshop
LandscapeStephen Stimson Associates
Landscape DesignerAbound Design
CommissioningColliers International
GeotechnicalO’Reilly, Talbot, & Okun
Lighting DesignSladen Feinstein Integrated Lighting
Interior DesignerdesignLAB Architects
Exhibit DesignerObject Idea
LBC ConsultantIntegrated Eco Strategy
Environmental Performance ConsultantLinnean Solutions


Photo Courtesy of Ngoc Doan


The building site was formerly an apple orchard that had been abandoned for many years and overgrown with many invasive and nuisance plants.  Geotechnical studies discovered arsenic contaminated soils from long-term pesticide use when it was an active orchard. A total of 6-9 inches of topsoil were removed and buried under the center’s parking lot as a remediation measure. The result was a site “scrubbed” clean of all vegetation. New healthy topsoil was delivered and native landscaping was put in place to include: 1) varied native shrubs and hedgerows including Winterberry, Inkberry, Bayberry, High bush Blueberry, Red Twig Dogwood and Witch Hazel; 2) Varied native trees including Red Maple, Sugar Maple, Beech, Crab Apple, Tupelo, Pin Oak and Hawthorne; 3) a native fern garden; 4) a native bird and pollinator garden including Butterfly Weed, Joe Pye Weed, Anise Hyssop, Black Eyed Susan, Little Blue Stem, Pink Muhly Grass, Drumstick Allium and New England Aster; and 5) a rain garden, bioswale and constructed wetland including Swamp Milkweed, Common Rush, Indian Grass, Fox Sedge and Blue Flag Iris.

Through the Hitchcock Center’s Nature Play and Learning Places Master Plan, grounds are being further enhanced to create new and engaging teaching gardens, interpretive and accessible nature trails, and nature play areas.


The Hitchcock Center offset approximately 3 acres of land as part of the Habitat Exchange. To complete this requirement, Hitchcock scale-jumped with land that Hampshire College had set aside for this project and other Living Buildings. Hitchcock Center gained approval from Hampshire College Board of Trustees to participate in the 46-acre permanent conservation restriction (easement) on college land that was set aside in 2015 and held by Kestrel Land Trust. The land is located along the northeast flank of the Mount Holyoke Range and is to be used as a resource for outdoor education and research as well as for public access to existing hiking trails. As part of this habitat exchange, the Hitchcock Center agrees to assist Hampshire College with the maintenance and upkeep of the existing trails within the conservation area.


This project is located on the Hampshire College campus with connections to public transportation and a network of trails. Bus routes, a very bike friendly population, and shared parking at Hampshire College, were considerations to limiting the number of cars that could park on site. Sidewalks at the street allow pedestrian connections to nearby amenities and neighborhoods. Covered bike racks were incorporated into the design to encourage bike riders.


Photo Courtesy of Peter Vanderwarker


The Hitchcock Center uses the local ecology of the Holyoke Range and the Connecticut River Valley watershed as its guide for the design and management of water on the site and as an active centerpiece of its educational programming.

The Center’s form is in direct reference to the range. The pitched roof is engineered to act as a watershed, optimized to channel the necessary amount of rainwater to the heart of the building – the Ecotone. Within this space, color-coded pipes show the water’s pathway through the system.

Four large, clear tanks capture the first 1/16″ of rain containing the largest amount of impurities. Beneath the tanks, a depiction of the Connecticut River watershed is stained into the Ecotone’s concrete floor, reinforcing the importance of place on the built and natural systems. A six-thousand gallon underground reservoir contains the raw water for use in the building. This water is piped into the building’s basement where it is treated with a series of progressively smaller filters and UV light. The Center is designed to harvest rainwater to serve 100% of its domestic water needs and to return 100% of its waste water back into the aquifer.


Composting toilets demonstrate an alternative to traditional plumbing and eliminate blackwater production. Greywater is treated through a constructed wetland in the landscape; mimicking the biological processes that occur in natural wetlands. Much of the grey water is dissipated through evapotranspiration from the constructed wetland. Any remaining water that has been filtered by the wetland is pumped to a leaching field for absorption into the ground. The volume of water entering and leaving the wetland is monitored to track how much of the building’s grey water is returned to the environment through each process.

Stormwater from the Hitchcock Center site is managed by utilizing meadow vegetation to minimize runoff, diverting a portion of roof runoff for use as a water source for the building. Nearly all site runoff is captured in a series of rain gardens that allow for infiltration to groundwater. These prominent demonstration systems serve as reminders that we constantly and simultaneously engage with our environment at many scales.


Photo Courtesy of Peter Vanderwarker


The Hitchcock Center was designed as a net-zero energy system utilizing a 60kW array on the building’s butterfly roof, and achieved net-positive energy production over the twelve-month performance period. The Center’s approach to energy consumption emphasizes their focus on humans as an active part of the natural system. They chose to automate as little of the system as possible, opting for manual light switches, ceiling fans, and operable windows. The design team created a simple device to assist the Center with the passive ventilation of the building: the mechanical system shuts off when conditions fall within the specified comfort zone, notifying building users of the shut-down through a series of lights that change from red to green. Green lights indicate that the Center’s staff can fine-tune the comfort through the building’s operable windows. When temperatures fall outside the outside ventilation zone, the lights change back to red and staff need to shut the windows to maintain comfort. While this risks energy loss to operational error, it also engages staff and visitors in the diurnal temperature cycles. Many of the visitors have been able to modify their behavior at home based on lessons learned at the center.


Photo Courtesy of Jessica Schultz


Health and wellness were achieved through a seamless continuity between building and nature. The project sought to teach environmental principles through the architecture, reinforced by healthy materiality through the interior spaces.

Orientation and relationships to the exterior environment were key determinants in the building design, with each space opening directly to the outdoors. Large south-facing windows with extended canopies and vegetal screens capitalize on the seasonal benefits of solar gain, while providing vast views to the Holyoke Range beyond. Smaller, high north-facing windows were chosen to mitigate the harsh north exposures, while still providing daylight access.


The Hitchcock Center for the Environment is committed to creating an indoor environment free from pollutants or chemicals. Indoor air quality is maintained during mechanized ventilation through a pair of Energy Recovery Units (ERUs) that act as a dedicated outdoor air system (DOAS). Spaces that contain contaminants such as the copy room, janitors closets, and kitchens are exhausted directly to the outdoors via an exhaust louver to prevent cross-contamination of other spaces. The building management system monitors outdoor temperature and humidity to determine when conditions are optimal for direct ventilation to the outdoors using the building’s operable windows. When these conditions are met, the mechanical systems are turned off and a green light indicates that windows may be opened without jeopardizing the performance of heating or cooling systems.


The Hitchcock Center for the Environment is founded on the idea of promoting environmental literacy in learners of all ages. This was the foundational principle for the design of the building as well, creating classrooms, offices, and learning spaces with direct views and access to the outside at all times. Even as the project managed tight financial and energy budgets that limited large areas of glass, several key principals were maintained throughout all value management sessions that prioritized biophilic elements of the design through to the ultimate realization of the project.

  1. Design for landscape: Working closely with the landscape architecture team, and our interpretive planners, the entire design is built around using the shape of the building to create two outdoor play spaces. The two spaces – “the den” and “the nest” – are sized to accommodate two classrooms (one bus) of children in each space, allowing two groups of different ages to play outside without interfering with each other.
  2. Physical access to the outdoors: The educational experience at the Hitchcock Center is primarily an outdoor experience. Classes are designed around time spent outside, which almost always significantly eclipses indoor time. As such, each classroom is designed with direct access to the outdoors so that classes can move seamlessly in and out, without disrupting other classes, or causing prolonged interruption to teaching time.
  3. Daylight and Views: Time spent inside is meant to create as much of an appreciation for nature as time spent outside, and the design and planning around window size and placement was optimized to support this goal. In addition to being optimized for solar orientation, windows are located to highlight views of the Holyoke Range in the distances, as well as pollinator garden, and green wall immediately adjacent to the building
  4. First Flush System: Lastly, the first flush system was designed to increase appreciation and understanding of rain as a necessary and captivating part of the water cycle. Focused on the idea of creating watersheds at all scales, the First Flush System also creates a moment of fascinating whimsy and observation for children, making rainfall exciting rather than disappointing. With each rainstorm, students rush to ecotone to see the first flush tanks fill with water, and observe the dirtiness of the collected water change firsthand as the first flush system performs its role.


Photo Courtesy of Peter Vanderwarker


The team faced challenges in several areas regarding the elimination of Red List containing elements. The team needed to utilize the Small Components Exception for many fixtures, focusing on due diligence and discovery. Given the small number of each fixture type, lighting also presented a significant challenge. However, many manufacturers were able to provide RoHS-compliant information and work with the team on paint to improve transparency in this market segment.

The project engaged a concrete artist to stain a mural into the concrete floor at the center of the building. Initially the pigments used for this process were non-compliant, but the artist was eager to work with the manufacturer Prosoco to identify and then test compliant alternatives to his typical pigments and processes. The artist was able to modify his entire library of colors to include only compliant materials, which have now become a permanent modification to his work. Prosoco worked with the artist to document his process and now uses this documentation as part of their promotional material.

The Hitchcock Center is using the Red List as an opportunity to highlight the intersections between human and environmental health, building toxics awareness at the community level. Examples, case studies and emerging trends are discussed during each community building tour. Through grants from the Toxics Use Reduction Institute at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell, community based programs including the Educating for a Healthy Material World program, bring together toxicology experts, project consultants, and professionals to highlight the issues and challenges presented by the worst in class chemicals.


As part of a wholistic effort to reduce the carbon footprint of the center, the Hitchcock Center utilized an innovative all-wood structural system. The all-wood frame and shell system is built from locally sourced eastern white cedar. The timber frame is clad on all sides – both wall and roof – with continuous tongue-and-groove decking that acts as diaphragm, lateral system, and interior finish. This shell is covered in an air and vapor barrier to create a watertight all-wood structural shell. The all-wood envelope and structure is based partially on the research of Kiel Moe, who promotes solid wood as a building material for both its carbon sequestration properties and its thermal effusivity (its capacity to radiate thermal energy). In this way, the all-wood structure provides the structural capacity of the building, its strong visual character, and both literal and figurative “warmth” to the space.


The Hitchcock Center utilized combination of certified, locally sourced, and reclaimed materials to create and advocate for a responsibly sourced building. Wood is the dominant material, and ultimately all was either Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) Certified, site harvested or salvaged. The majority of the wood was FSC certified and included engaging two millwork contractors to renew their FSC Chain of Custody (COC). Black locust bollards, from this Massachusetts invasive species, were harvested only 25 miles away, by a small family-owned facility using FSC principles. Counter stone was locally sourced schist from an Ashfield, MA, family-owned quarry.

Salvaged rigid Polyiso insulation provided full envelope insulation, including walls and roof. Success was multifaceted: the reclaimed foam was purchased in bulk, and first used on another nearby Living Building Challenge project, the surplus was used on Hitchcock, with final remnants awaiting use on a third LBC project.


Hitchcock incorporates place-based solutions—rooted in sustainable practices, products and services—to expand the regional economy. Nearly all materials were sourced within a 300-mile radius.

Site-salvaged materials include oak benches from cleared wooded areas, and a “basking boulder” installed inside to illustrate warming techniques of cold-blooded animals. The stone used for counters (schist), black locust parking bollards, and landscaping were all sourced from the immediate area.


The design team worked closely with the general contractor and owner to coordinate the specification of highly durable items. The design team also created and managed an online platform for all project documentation that allowed for a paperless submittal process with all project documentation accessed via tablets on site. The construction team managed a tightly controlled waste sorting and management process including full documentation of all waste streams.

For occupancy and end of life, the team worked closely to integrate collection of recycling and compost throughout the building in order to make collection as seamless as possible for staff and visitors. The all-wood building structure is primarily bolted and screwed together to facilitate disassembly and reuse in future years.


Photo Courtesy of Jessica Schultz


The Hitchcock Center works within its rural context to bring people to the site through a variety of modes including car, bus, bicycle, and public transport, and then to bring them together in spaces that are designed around human scale and promote human interactions. The center is located along the Amherst bike path and includes a bike pavilion providing covered bike parking immediately in front of the center. The parking area includes a bus drop-off and parking area, and a hedgerow separating the parking from the rest of the center visually. The parking surface (except where required by ADA) is a crushed stone to create a more tactile surface underfoot, and to slow traffic moving through the lot.

Once at the center, the design of both indoor and outdoor spaces features elements to promote human interaction. Outside, a series of log benches – salvaged from site work during construction – serve as places to sit, talk, climb, jump, or hang. These simple elements are sized specifically around human dimensions in their width and height, inviting interaction with the simplest of intention.
Similarly, the edge of the deck in the nest courtyard sits above the landscape to create a place for seating, with the inside corner at the edge of the ecotone, providing the perfect place for casual conversation or a small gathering. Inside as well, the reading nook in the visitors center is lined with a low bookcase that doubles as a seating ledge, with a similar row of storage cubbies in the north hallway performing the same function. The center was designed with human-scaled spaces in mind at all times, with a particular eye to the benefits of spaces designed for children. Large pillows facilitate sitting on the floors, and spaces are meant not just for polite sitting, but for lying, climbing, crawling, and engaging with at all shapes, scales, and sizes.


The Hitchcock Center for the Environment is committed to serving as a public resource to promote environmental literacy. In addition to its classes and events, the center does not charge an entry fee to its building and visitor center. As well, its outdoor classroom, including teaching and demonstration gardens, courtyards, nature play areas, including the mud kitchen and discovery yard, are accessible and free to the public. Much of the Center’s programming is offered at no- or low-cost and the center’s scholarship program breaks down barriers for low-income families to participate in its summer camp program.

The center and its programs are widely advertised to underserved communities. This includes programs focused on environmental and social justice that highlight the struggle to improve and maintain a clean and healthy environment, especially for those who have traditionally worked and played closest to sources of pollution.


The site for the Hitchcock Center was chosen specifically for its adjacency to key natural areas to interpret and study, while also being a part of an educational campus community. The bulk of the building’s construction took place on a former commercial orchard that was situated between an active hayfield and a vernal wetland. The center’s low profile and distance from adjacent structures prevent it from casting shadows or obscuring views. The project was able to create new access to the site, without impeding on the 100’ wetland buffer. The adjacent hayfield remains an active agricultural resource and the center was designed to create no negative impact on it’s access to sunlight or water to ensure its ongoing productivity.


Photo Courtesy of Ngoc Doan


The design for the Hitchcock Center promotes a place-based mindset that uses systems thinking to illustrate the interdependent nature of our world. Like the Gaia hypothesis, which posits that the entire planet itself acts as a single self-regulating body; the building strives to function as a superorganism of its own, wherein it achieves homeostasis through the active engagement with its occupants.

The building is sited at the threshold between an active hayfield and a remnant orchard. A primary programmatic driver was the need for two separate, protected outdoor spaces to support independent play. From this, the Den and Nest Courtyards emerged, created by shifting two wings of the building to form two distinct microclimates that offer unique learning opportunities.

The Nest Courtyard is perched at the top of the hayfield, serving as the public view of the building and main entry. Its southern exposure provides a sunny, dry space that features a wooden deck and canopy, highlighting views toward the Holyoke Range. It provides habitat for light/dry species to thrive, hosts the Center’s pollinator garden, and presents the ecological impact of high-exposure to sunlight on the New England Environment. The Den Courtyard is carved into the hillside, surrounded by trees and the vernal wetland to the north. Its northern exposure and mature canopy are traversed by landscape boulders and stone dust paths. It provides examples of species that thrive in shaded/wet spaces and serves as the threshold to the forest trail system that is home to many more lessons in environmental literacy.

The southern wing of the building holds the visitors center and the main entry to the building. The visitors center focuses on observed principles of nature. A large wall-mural within identifies the six principles of all natural systems. Those principles are then referenced in a series of exhibits throughout the center that include three live-animal displays, a naturalists’ desk, and views to the micro-habitats beyond. The north wing includes the center’s three main classrooms, and is focused on applied natural principles. It contains a large wall graphic that illustrates how the six principles of natural systems are manifest in the building. A custom designed building dashboard monitors the performance of those systems in real time, giving visitors immediate feedback and demonstration of how their own actions create the balance necessary for a healthy ecosystem.

At the center of the building is the ecotone – named after the term for an ecological zone of transition. In this space visitors transition from the observed principles of nature, to applied principles, and from the microclimates of the nest courtyard to the den courtyard. It is also the center of the building as a watershed, serving as the literal valley between the two sloped roof structures where water is collected in the building. Within this space, color-coded pipes show the water’s pathway through the system. Four large, clear tanks capture the first 1/16″ of rain containing the largest amount of impurities. Beneath the tanks, a depiction of the Connecticut River watershed is stained into the Ecotone’s concrete floor, reinforcing the importance of place on the built and natural systems.


The design team worked collaboratively with Hitchcock Center’s educators to develop spaces that support the Center’s curriculum and pedagogy. Strategies like systems thinking, sense of place, and scales of impact were embedded into the site through teaching gardens and play spaces; into the building through systems and user interaction; and into the visitor experience through exhibits and signage that highlight observed and applied principles of nature throughout the building and site.

The building itself serves as a living laboratory where elementary students discuss and seek out building systems to understand energy, water, and waste cycles. The Center’s curricula helped leverage design as a tool for social change and environmental advocacy. Students model and test constructed watersheds to explore how building and topographical changes affect larger-scale systems. They design and test building rainwater capture systems in real-world simulations that mimic the design team’s process.

The Living Building Dashboard, organized around the Living Building Challenge petals, is a central and interactive learning exhibit. It provides real-time and stored historical performance metrics to allow building occupants, visitors and program participants to monitor and understand the building’s water, energy, waste production and use. This includes real time solar photovoltaic production and energy usage by use type (plugload, HVAC, lighting, etc.). This provides rich data for long-term study and promotes a better understanding of the societal “costs and benefits” of traditional versus sustainable building.

Photo Courtesy of Peter Vanderwarker