The National Conversation

The Greenest Building Is The One That Is Already Built

Bringing Bennington’s buildings into the next century sustainably and responsibly by Charlotte West


Until very recently, with the rise of MOOCs and online college attendance, the idea of a college education has been bound up with a sense of place created by the buildings and campus that make up the essence of the learning environment. For many, the physical space they learn within is a central facet of the student experience. As campuses grow and change, colleges must choose between renewal or building new. For many years many institutions chose to build new, and in many well reported cases, not just new but expensive.

But throughout most of Bennington’s history, the choice was not to build new but to repurpose existing structures to meet new educational needs, address environmental concerns, and maintain core campus aesthetics. The College’s first foray into adaptive reuse was at its founding in 1932, when economic conditions required founders to think creatively about the use of each existing building. Now the College has launched its biggest adaptive reuse project yet: restoring Commons.

Renovations began last June, with the upgrades slated to increase the building’s energy efficiency, add a new entrance to the north facade, and open 15,000 square feet of academic space on the third floor, all of which come without increasing the building’s footprint. While the practice of renovation and renewal is not LEED certified, it is perhaps the greenest way to build. As Carl Elefante, principal and director of sustainability for Quinn Evans Architects and the current president of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), put it in a seminal essay, “the greenest building is one that is already built.”

One of the first phases of the Commons renovation was to relocate several of the student services that were housed there, including health and psychological services, to the $2 million dollar renovated chicken brooder and now a state-of-the-art health services center.

“It turned out to be about the right size in terms of its footprint and it’s in a really central location, but it was underutilized,” Andy Schlatter explains. “We essentially rebuilt it, but retained the historic character of it through an agricultural vernacular.”

Most campus renovation projects are financed in part through Bennington’s campus renewal fund. According to Matt Rizzo, Vice President for Institutional Advancement, during the last four years the College has raised more than $15 million in donations earmarked for campus renewal, with an ultimate goal of $30-40 million.

The fund, which will support ongoing campus renovations as well as the College’s general capital expenditures budget, is relatively modest when compared to other institutions that have pursued similar renewal endeavors. Yale University’s School of Art and Architecture, a building originally designed by modernist architect Paul Rudolph in 1963, is one such example. In 2008, Yale invested $126 million to restore and extend the building, with a focus on more purposeful use. But, Rizzo says, “Small colleges like ours don’t have large endowments and therefore we must be creative.” While well-endowed institutions such as Yale and others can draw down their endowment to reestablish its buildings, Bennington cannot. The campus renewal fund, though, scales what the College does have to, as Rizzo put it, “invest in our strengths.”

And that fund remains an essential driver that will fuel plans to upgrade other iconic buildings such as the Barn, Jennings, VAPA, and the Colonial Houses during the next 10 years will rely on the campus renewal fund.

“I think there’s a higher ambition to introduce and adapt buildings to new technology and needs in a small-scale way. We are interested in working within existing buildings to upgrade them in a more targeted way,” Schlatter says.

While renovation and reuse is often less expensive than new construction, campus renewal at Bennington has been driven by much more than cost savings. “To us, the value of Commons and other projects we’ve done around campus is not necessarily monetary. The value of these buildings is about the sense of place ... you would lose a lot in terms of the cultural value of those pieces of architecture,” Schlatter explains.

Of course, there is the environmental benefit too. In the book, University Trends: Contemporary Campus Design, authors Jonathan Coulson, Paul Roberts, and Isabelle Taylor argue that “reuse can provide an efficient means of meeting new spatial requirements at a mitigated environmental cost.” That mitigation is apparent in the main idea behind the Commons overhaul: to expand its impact without increasing its footprint.

“As the plans for renovation evolved, the thing really started to get distilled back into the footprint of the existing building. It became a lot more about just stripping the building down to its original intent in terms of what functions happened there,” Schlatter says. Martin Finio, the architect leading the renovation, adds they had to rethink how dining happens within the building so they could double the capacity without changing the footprint. To get there, the solution was part architectural and partly about extending the hours of operation and revamping the meal plans.

Small colleges like ours don’t have large endowments and therefore we must be creative. —Matt Rizzo, Vice President for Institutional Advancement

In the mid-1980s, the third floor of Commons—once the center of performance and campus life—was shut down after failing to meet modern fire code and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accessibility requirements. According to Schlatter, the third floor was left fallow because a huge amount of structural work would have been needed to install an elevator, which was required to make the building accessible, and to ensure safe egress, which would have also meant renovating all stairwells. “While it may sound like a small thing to bring that space up to code, it affects the entire building, which is why the complexity and cost of it just got [to be] too much,” he says.

Once the College committed to renovating the building, renovating the third floor became a focus that allowed architects to reclaim the space without increasing the building’s footprint; Finio says, “we were able to add 10 new classrooms—almost the equivalent of a brand-new building for the campus.”

While adaptive reuse is not new, its strategic use has become more prevalent since 2008 when many universities’ large-scale expansion plans were put on hold following the financial crisis. Coulson, Roberts, and Taylor note that “the financial strictures of recent years have encouraged a more widespread and creative attitude to retrofitting and repurposing.”

Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), for instance, has purchased and converted nearly three million square feet of building space since it was founded in 1978. The school first reclaimed the former Savannah Volunteer Guard Armory, built in 1892. SCAD has subsequently preserved and revitalized more than 100 historic buildings on three continents, including a 12th-century structure on its campus in Lacoste, France.

Other institutions have also integrated adaptive reuse into their strategic planning for the entire campus. Boston University (BU), for instance, adopted an adaptive reuse program in 1971 to preserve its historic buildings, and an official historic preservation plan has been in place since 2005.

Similarly, in 2004, Bennington undertook a master planning process, led by Kyu Sung Woo Architects and landscape architects Reed Hilderbrand Associates, that explored how the fundamental character, unique evolution, and configuration of the campus could guide future growth.

From that plan, the College has focused its renewal strategy on breathing new life into overlooked, underperforming structures on campus. There have been three major, new construction projects on Bennington’s campus in the last 20 years: the Woo Houses, the Student Center, and the Elizabeth Coleman Center for the Advancement of Public Action in 2011. But during the same period, the College renovated six historic buildings from the Brooder to the Deane Carriage Barn to the Brick Garage, which was incorporated into the Student Center in 2005.

More than a decade later, Finio continued this approach in thinking about the Commons renovation. “We went through and documented every single building on campus, not only in terms of their physical manifestations, but in how they operated programmatically—when it was operational during the day and which students were in these buildings at any one time. That yielded several wonderful ideas about how certain buildings might be better occupied.”

In addition to preserving the core campus aesthetic, adaptive reuse also offers environmental benefits and enhanced sustainability. New buildings, however efficient, consume significantly more energy in raw material extraction, processing, transportation, and construction. A 2012 study from the Preservation Green Lab, for instance, found that building reuse almost always offers environmental savings over demolition and construction. It can take 10 to 80 years for the benefits of a new, energy-efficient building to overcome the negative environmental impacts that occurred during construction.

“There is a tremendous amount of embodied energy in all the materials and all the effort that goes into construction. The more years you can stretch that out, the less the carbon costs of that building,” faculty member Don Sherefkin explains, likening it to the life cycle of a car. While new cars such as Priuses are much more energy efficient, it may still be greener to keep driving a 30-year-old vehicle.

President Mariko Silver sees it in similar terms and has included renewal efforts as part of the College’s commitment to becoming a carbon-neutral campus by 2030. Focusing on Commons was one of the more obvious first starts. “It makes sense, especially when you consider that the building houses dining. That function alone accounts for why Commons uses more energy than any other facility on campus.”

But with strategic adaptive reuse and modern energy efficiencies that included adding insulation, reconfiguring the heating system to work with the College’s biomass plant, adding variable and energy-recovery ventilators, and reducing restroom water usage by a third, it is expected that the College will lower Commons’ energy load by 40 percent compared to a new building of the same style.

“We have to think about every object and every space through a lens of adaptive reuse. There are lots of practical reasons to redo an existing building, including our commitment to continuity in the community and looking forward to what we want our students to accomplish in the world,” Silver says. But ultimately, it’s all about sustainability because, she points out, “Sustainability is about the long-term view.”