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Building Green

Can Kenyon reconcile its drive to develop with its commitment to sustainability?

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In February 2016, President Sean Decatur committed Kenyon College to carbon neutrality within decades by signing Second Nature’s Climate Commitment, a voluntary carbon reduction program undersigned by more than 600 colleges and universities.

Since signing, Kenyon has launched Our Path Forward, a $300 million campaign for the College’s future, which includes the West Quad project and Village Revitalization. These construction campaigns are among the most ambitious and rapid in the College’s history, continuing the building boom that began with the completion of the Kenyon Athletic Center (KAC) in 2006 as part of the “We Are Kenyon” strategic plan. 

New construction projects spell new environmental concerns: Besides the usual emissions from construction, like the fuel needed for the machinery and transportation of materials, replacing old facilities creates a large quantity of waste from demolition. With such conflicting ambitions of development and sustainability, the College must reckon with its commitment to carbon neutrality.

“From our standpoint, the best building is the building you already have,” David Heithaus ’99, Kenyon’s director of Green Initiatives, said. “We would always prefer to see intelligent upgrades to existing facilities rather than scrapping a building that was built in the ’80s and putting a brand new one up.”

Thomas Stamp ’73, the College historian and keeper of Kenyoniana, noted that the building boom at Kenyon is not unique to our campus — colleges across the country are constantly constructing in response to upticks in the economy and state population growth. However, an increasing fear that “the population of college age and college-bound students is about to drop off a cliff” has led to a new sense of urgency, he said. As the number of students seeking higher education declines, colleges will need to compete more fiercely for their attention, and this often means having the newest facilities.

But at the same time, some prospective students and families may be attracted to a college’s commitment to environmental awareness. “More and more, colleges and universities just see [sustainability] as part of their educational role in society — to be out at the leading edge of environmentally sensitive development on and around their campuses,” Stamp said. 

As a result, the College’s newest projects hope to balance the drive to build with environmental concerns. One aspect of this is a greater attention to the waste created by demolition.

Like Olin and Chalmers Library, the KAC’s predecessor, the Ernst Center, was completed in the 1980s before being demolished twenty years later. “I hate to tear buildings down that are 20-odd years old,” Heithaus said, even if they aren’t the most efficient. The building’s demolition was quicker than that of Olin-Chalmers, in large part due to differences in process. For the Ernst Center, the building was simply demolished and carted away; this time, however, the demolition was done with an eye toward reuse: the glass was removed first for recycling and all non-hazardous materials were crushed for use as filler and gravel.

Furthermore, the College is now more focused on green architecture and efficiency. These increased standards weren’t as present in the construction of the KAC, which Heithaus noted is “a bit of a burden” to operate.

Based on 2018 submeter and billing data, Heithaus estimated that electric systems at the KAC cost approximately $180,000 annually, although the KAC’s consumption is difficult to estimate because its electricity is funneled through a loop with several other buildings. In 2017, the College reported that improvements made to the KAC’s water and electric systems saved the College $268,000 yearly, signaling that the cost was originally much higher. Historic data from Olin-Chalmers indicates that electricity for the facility cost approximately $133,000 annually (based on data from 2017). 

In contrast, energy models for the new Chalmers Library and parking garage project that the facility will cost $178,134 to power yearly. While the square footage of Chalmers Library will be almost the same as Olin-Chalmers’ was, this estimate also includes energy costs from the new underground parking facility, which substantially increases total area, thus impacting the cost reported here. Considering this, Heithaus said the efficiency of the new building will be an improvement from that of Olin-Chalmers.

“Since [the KAC] was completed, I’m not aware of any facilities on campus that have been constructed without a thought of energy efficiency,” Heithaus said. 

Kenyon now requires that all construction on campus conform to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) version 3 Silver standards at a minimum. LEED, which is administered by the U.S. Green Building Council, certifies green buildings across the country through a point system covering sixty-nine categories, divided between sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, material and resources, indoor environmental quality, and innovation, according to their website. 

The West Quad project, which includes Chalmers Library, an admissions building, social science building, an underground parking garage, and the two new English buildings, Keithley House and the English Cottage, has been designed to LEED v3 Gold standards.

Partly, this will be done through increasing energy efficiency: According to Seth Millam, the College’s construction project manager, Kenyon has hired a third-party engineer to do enhanced commissioning on the new Chalmers Library, a process the College has never done before. This commissioning includes rigorous testing on all lighting and HVAC systems in order to ensure proper function. Such testing means that the new facility will be running as efficiently as possible from the beginning, reducing energy that may have been consumed during a trial and error period and thus saving the college money in energy costs while also saving energy. “Usually, it’s kind of trial by fire for the first year,” Millam said. Kenyon will also be purchasing green power for at least the first two years of the library’s life to account for 35 percent of building electricity. 

But meeting such high standards on a large project requires that Kenyon find even more ways of reducing the project’s carbon footprint. For this, it must look beyond construction to the ways it is offsetting carbon emissions around campus. Programs at the BFEC, the Kenyon Farm, and the green burial ground at the Kokosing Nature Preserve contribute to its LEED certification, as well as new efficiency projects, like a future solar installation on Gund Commons.

Heithaus said that the new projects have given the Office of Green Initiatives the opportunity to consider land management in the College’s carbon footprint, including the College’s efforts to restore prairie habitats and conserve land surrounding the College through the Philander Chase Conservancy, which help with carbon sequestration.

The Philander Chase Conservancy works to protect land within a five-mile radius from Kenyon by using conservation and agriculture easements to prevent development. An easement requires a landowner to accept payment in return for their right to develop that land, although they can also be donated. Easements can be expanded to increase conservation value but never undone, meaning that the 5,500 acres that the Conservancy has protected through 43 easements will remain so forever. 

Amy Henricksen, project coordinator for the Philander Chase Conservancy, noted, “We’re not anti-development by any stretch of the imagination, but we’re just pro-smart development, making sure development is happening in ways that it’s well planned.” 

Managing Director of the Conservancy Lisa Schott ’80 commented that, considering the current pressure to combat climate change with carbon sinks — natural environments that can sequester carbon — the Conservancy is especially important.  “Kenyon was really smart to have looked at [the surrounding land] back in the 1990s, to say ‘we can’t take this for granted,’” she said.

The Conservancy is the only land trust partnered with a college in the country. Still, Kenyon’s campus itself is not protected through the conservancy, which allows the College to build freely. 

While Kenyon’s construction process accounts for a new building’s projected emissions, neither Kenyon nor LEED yet have a means of measuring and accounting for embodied carbon, the periphery emissions that lead to a building’s construction. These emissions include extraction, transportation, and operation of machinery on site.

“Design of buildings and the life cycle of the buildings after the building is constructed has been very well accounted for,” Millam said. “Unfortunately, I think [for] emissions during construction—we have a long way to go. Everything that we use down there, to the trucks to the excavation equipment to the cranes and temporary heat during the winter, and all that stuff. None of it is very carbon friendly,” Millam said. 

Certainly, Kenyon has made strides in its focus on green architecture: Its newest projects have coincided with an environmental awareness that permeates the construction and surrounding efforts at the College. “It’s not as simple as construction, bad. I mean, there are compelling reasons to add or upgrade facilities,” Heithaus said. However, as Millam points out, there are many factors that just can’t be balanced out. 



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