The Hitchcock Center for the Environment, located in Amherst, Massachusetts, aims to “educate and inspire action for a healthy planet.” The organization is primarily geared towards kids, offering youth summer camps, after-school and day-time programs. In 2016, 54 years after its establishment, the Hitchcock Center moved into a new building. This new location was the twenty-third building to ever receive the Certified Living Building Award, the most rigorous green building certification in the world. The building itself can be used as a teaching tool regarding sustainable engineering. Speaking from personal experience, the organization has a positive impact on the local environment and succeeds in inspiring kids to grow an appreciation for the world around them. In fact, my own interest in sustainability stemmed from attending their programs as a child.
The Living Building is constructed from locally sourced, toxic-free materials. During planning and construction, the Hitchcock Center used a Red List of the worst chemicals in each category to avoid. Some of these chemicals include perfluorinated alkylated substances (PFAS), a toxic substance that persists in animal and human tissue, BPA (found in plastics), formaldehyde (in many composite woods), asbestos, lead, mercury, and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). The ideology behind avoiding these materials is largely focused on community health. The average person spends 90% of their time indoors, so why would we cover indoor spaces with toxic materials? Instead, the building uses materials with green chemicals, which can be processed naturally. Personally, I feel relieved stepping into a building that I know avoids toxins and wish other buildings would follow lead.
The land itself was previously an apple orchard but became unusable because of arsenic build-up in the soil from excessive application of pesticides. During construction, they removed the top seven to nine inches of soil and replaced it with new topsoil. It’s great to see construction take place on already unusable land, rather than destroying ecological habitats or farmland. Furthermore, the landscape is made solely from native plants. This helps to keep the natural biodiversity as it ensures the continuation of symbiotic relationships between species and avoids introducing invasive species. Additionally, avoiding petrochemical fertilizers or pesticides helps protect the surrounding air, water, and environment.
The Living Building Certification requires the organization to designate an acre of protected land for every acre built. This helps develop a balance between conserved natural land and developed land. All of these requirements make development slower and more costly but every decision along the way appears to benefit the environment.
Materials are primarily sourced within a 300-mile radius from the center. Why are local materials better? Local materials reduce emissions related to transportation. This criteria does not tend to be cost-effective, making it clear that the organization prioritizes sustainability over finances. In fact, the organization is a non-profit, further demonstrating its emphasis on community and environmental well-being. One example of savvy, sustainable design is the site’s pin oak benches which utilize wood salvaged from the site.
All power is generated on-site, meeting 100% of the building’s electricity needs. Solar panels cover the roof, producing nearly 57,000 kWh each year. The panels are Sunpower SPR-E20-327-COM, a certified Cradle-to-Cradle product. This certification sets standards for circular and responsibly-made products. These panels are only certified at the Bronze level, meaning that complete reutilization of the materials is not required. While I would like to see a higher score in terms of the cyclic manufacturing of these panels, the Hitchcock Center used the most efficient and sustainable panels available.
In addition to producing their own electricity, the construction of the building focuses on reducing energy usage. The architecture utilizes natural lighting, with a total of 71 windows. The lights use LED bulbs which require 75% less energy and last 25 times longer. Additionally, the building has a tight envelope to prevent thermal leakage, decreasing unnecessary energy usage associated with letting heat in during the summer and out during the winter.
The building’s sloping roof collects 220 gallons for every sixteenth inch of rain. The rain is stored in a 6,000-gallon underground reservoir and supplies the environmental center with all of its water needs. The entire building uses an average of 35 gallons of water each day, significantly less than an average household at 110 gallons. This is achieved by using foam flush composting toilets which require 1/127 of the water a normal toilet uses. Inside, the chemical-free water filtration system is visible as a teaching tool. Outside, the constructed wetland naturally filters gray water from the indoor sinks using plants, rocks, sand, and soil. The landscaping also prevents runoff so the gardens have sufficient water.
Inside the building, a digital dashboard can be found with information about the building’s performance regarding energy and water collection and usage. This transparency reassures visiting community members of the sustainability of the building. I would love to see other organizations and businesses follow this model of transparency. It is clear the Hitchcock Center considered their environmental impact from every aspect of construction.
Ethel Dubois founded the Hitchcock Center in 1962, to provide low-income kids with nature programs to inspire them to connect with the world around them. The organization today continues to work in underserved communities and provide low-cost and free programs to children who otherwise would not have access. The programs include classroom time as well as time spent outside, hiking in the woods, identifying plant species, and learning about the natural world. The Living Building has provided another learning tool for kids and adults alike to see sustainable engineering including water collection and filtration and energy production.
The goal of the organization’s Living Building is not to pressure everyone to build a Living Building. In reality, most people do not have the economic resources to afford the materials and construction processes required to reach that level of sustainability. Instead, the Hitchcock Center aims to teach and inspire the younger generation to apply ideas about sustainability to their careers and lives. In fact, I believe the Hitchcock Center had a role in developing my own interests in sustainability.