Bechtel Environmental Classroom Named World's Fifth 'Living Building'

Photos by Ethan Drinker Photography

Smith College’s Bechtel Environmental Classroom, a new 2,300-square-foot learning center set on 240 acres of land in nearby Whately, Mass., has achieved top honors for environmental sustainability, becoming only the fifth building in the world to be certified as a Living Building.

The distinction was achieved after the building met the rigorous performance guidelines of the Living Building Challenge, which is overseen by the International Living Future Institute and is considered the most comprehensive design- and performance-based set of standards related to the environment, well exceeding LEED Platinum.

The Bechtel Environmental Classroom

The Bechtel Environmental Classroom

Supported by the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation and located at Smith’s Ada and Archibald MacLeish Field Station in Whately, Mass., the Bechtel Environmental 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. Inside are 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 manages the building. Reid Bertone-Johnson, field station manager, worked with many Smith students in 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 be certified under 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 things 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.

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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 range of departments on campus, from landscape studies to Jewish studies, as well as for writing retreats, concerts, poetry readings and dance performances. The building also serves as a launching point for many environmental science courses prior to their exploration of the ecology, geology and land-use history of the 240-acre field station property. “The Bechtel Environmental Classroom will continue to be an educational tool for any group that comes through,” Guswa says. “For example, the rocks inlaid in 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, and the project’s approach to Living Building Challenge Certification, visit the International Living Future Institute’s project case study.