Hampshire College Defies Amenities Arms Race with R.W. Kern Center

Hampshire College Defies Amenities Arms Race with R.W. Kern Center

 An Arms Race in Amenities

It’s a disturbing trend in our modern world that buildings are no longer being built to last generations. Too often, buildings are constructed for a single purpose and discarded when their purpose is fulfilled. This is most apparent in higher education where schools are engaging in what many in the industry are calling an “amenities arms race” to attract new students.

"I think what we're trying to do here is prove to higher education the facilities arms race doesn't just have to be about building bigger." - Wesley Evans, Student at Hampshire College

It’s no secret that private and public higher education institutions rely on enrollment for funding. For many universities and colleges, every qualified student who passes through their campus and isn’t wowed is lost revenue. This led to many schools building bigger, better amenities including dorms, welcome centers and classroom facilities to outduel competitive schools. Because so many schools have limited real estate, in many cases this arms race means demolition of older buildings.

That was the landscape that faced Hampshire College when they needed a new student center. But they weren’t interested in taking part in an arms race with a building designed to be replaced in a few short years. They wanted to build something that represented their college now and for generations into the future.  

At A Glance
The Facilities Arms Race

Billion Dollars Spent

On Higher Education Facilities in 2015

Million Sq. Ft.

New Space Built in 2015

“I think what we’re trying to do here is prove to higher education the facilities arms race doesn’t just have to be about building bigger,” Said Wesley Evans, a student at Hampshire College and member of the Kern Center planning committee. “If you build really precisely, really well, you can build a structure that’s cost effective, amazingly sustainable, but also really welcomes people.”

Hampshire College’s goal was to invite students with a new building that not only satisfied their expectations for state-of-the-art facilities, but also reflected Hampshire’s mission and connection to the New England environment. The result is the R. W. Kern Center.

The R.W. Kern Center at dusk. Photo by Robert Benson Photography

Designing The R.W. Kern Center

"They started out from a point to say ‘We know we want this institution to last, so we have to think about a building that’s going to last.'" - Christopher Nielson, Bruner/Cott.

Hampshire College officials requested proposals from over 40 local architecture firms for the R.W. Kern Center with two goals in mind: to design and build a space for generations of Hampshire College students, and to help the college achieve carbon neutrality by 2020. Cambridge, Mass.-based architecture firm Bruner/Cott & Associates was one of the submitting firms.

“(The college) started out from a point to say ‘We know we want this institution to last, so we have to think about a building that’s going to last,'” said Christopher Nielson of Bruner/Cott & Associates



Intended Life of Kern Center

Net Positive

Water and Energy

Million Dollars

Budget - 2/3 of comparable projects

The design from Bruner/Cott included every amenity required by Hampshire College and featured classroom space, offices for admissions staff and a small café for students.  

In an effort to stand out from the other proposals, Bruner/Cott & Associates took on an even bigger test when designing the Kern Center: The Living Building Challenge. An initiative of the International Living Future Institute, the Living Building Challenge is one of the most demanding sustainability standards for new construction. Buildings not only have to meet long-term energy, water and waste efficiency goals, but must also be built entirely of materials that don’t contain any of the harmful chemicals from the infamous ILFI Red List. At that time only six buildings nationwide met that extreme standard.  

If successful, the design from Bruner/Cott would make Hampshire College a leader in sustainability for higher education institutions.  

Interior woodwork, concrete floors, and an abundance of daylight provide a wonderful combination in the foyer of the R.W. Kern Center. Photo by Robert Benson Photography

R.W. Kern Center

Location: Amherst, Massachusetts

Owner: Hampshire College

Architect: Bruner/Cott & Associates

Contractor: Wright Builders

Size: 17,000 sq ft

Opened: 2016 (1 Year Old)

Cost: $7.1 Million

Awards and Certifications:
American Institute of Architects COTE Top Ten Award
2016 Boston Society of Architects Sustainable Design Honor Award
2016 AIA Western Mass Sustainability Merit Award
2016 Forest Stewardship Council Leadership Award
2016 USGBC Massachusetts Green Building Award- Beauty

What Is the Living Building Challenge?

With its design chosen, Bruner/Cott began the process of making a Living Building — something it had never done and few architecture firms had attempted.  

“The Living Building Challenge really is inspired by this vision that buildings can give more than they take from the world,” said Greg Norris, Chief Scientist, International Living Future Institute. “That basically when we build a building that is a Living Building, we are not creating a habitat at some cost to the planet. We’re actually creating a building that’s going to enrich the future in many ways, environmentally, socially, human health and well-being.”  

The Living Building Challenge issues performance standards across seven categories or “petals” — Place, Energy, Water, Health and Happiness, Materials, Equity, and Beauty. Petals can be earned individually, but all must be earned in order for a building to be registered as a Living Building, and must be re-earned regularly.  

“From a designer perspective it seemed very large and hugely difficult, but what we did was we sat down and thought about all the pieces that make up the Living Building Challenge,” said Jason Jewhurst of Bruner/Cott & Associates. The project team tediously looked at and formulated a strategy for each petal imperative. “That came down to a water strategy, material strategy, energy strategy. So then the Living Building Challenge actually was an opportunity more than a challenge.” 

Petals can’t be earned based on future projections, only by achievements in real-world conditions. For instance, in order to earn the water petal, a building must be net-positive in water usage over the 12-month evaluation period, but may fall short of projections if it was a dry year and less water was collected than anticipated.   

 Living Building Challenge Petals 

How the R.W. Kern Center Addressed Each Petal

Described by the ILFI as “restoring a healthy interrelationship with nature,” the place petal is awarded to buildings that balance keeping space compact without being too compact that they become unhealthy for their intended use. The R.W. Kern Center features open gathering spaces and healthy work areas for Hampshire admissions staff without excess or unused rooms.

The Water Petal is awarded to buildings that collect and reuse water wherever possible, treating water as a precious resource. The R.W. Kern Center collects rain water from its roof and stores them in two 5,000-gallon cisterns on either side of the building. The water is then purified on-site and reused. The Kern Center is designed to be net-positive, meaning it should collect and purify more water than the building needs.

The energy petal is awarded to buildings that rely solely on renewable energy. The R.W. Kern Center has a large solar array on its roof to collect energy, but also features an air-tight building envelope, energy-efficient windows and dense insulation to keep energy usage low, even in cold New England winters.

The health and happiness petal is awarded to buildings that provide ideal conditions for human happiness, productivity and well-being. The R.W. Kern center has windows in all spaces, allowing for natural light and fresh air in every room. The décor also features warm and inviting color tones and living plants throughout the building.

The materials petal is awarded to buildings that are constructed without use of harmful chemicals or materials when possible. The Kern Center team sought out materials that were certified Red List-free, and used local products whenever possible.

The equity petal is awarded to buildings that are designed to be inclusive of all people. The Kern Center was built as an entry point to Hampshire College for all students, potential students, parents and visitors.

Beautiful spaces are more likely to be treated with respect and preserved for generations. The Kern Center reflects the mission of Hampshire College for the future, and was intended to serve as the primary entry to the college for generations.

Up to the Challenge

The architects at Bruner/Cott pored through mountains of research on sustainable building practices and materials in order to rise to the Living Building Challenge. One of the many challenges they overcame was the identification and specification of LBC-compliant materials.

“You don’t realize before you’ve done a Living Building Challenge project is that your knowledge of materials is so small and what you really need are relationships with people who will help you,” said Nielson. “To disclose information ingredients, to help you identify products that will work.”

Nielson, Jonathan Wright of general contractor Wright Builders, and officials from Hampshire College travelled cross-country to consult with the project team of another Living Building, the Bullitt Center in Seattle. One of the first certified Living Buildings, the Bullitt Center is often called the world’s greenest commercial building. The Hampshire College team sought expertise on how to identify and source materials that met the Living Building Challenge. “It’s obvious what the hardest thing is, it’s finding the stuff,” said Wright. “My personal view is we want to use products that have the least impact just because that’s the kind and smart thing to do.”

The Kern Center team realized that the heavy lifting for materials sourcing had already been done by the Bullitt Center team. One of proudest stories they heard from the Bullitt Center team was the way they worked with materials manufacturers, like PROSOCO, to make their products more environmentally friendly by removing harmful chemicals and components.

“When the (Kern Center project) team visited the Bullitt Center in Seattle, the question was asked to Denis Hayes at the Bullitt Foundation, ‘What’s your favorite story about the effect of the Living Building Challenge?’ And right away, what he brought forward was the PROSOCO story,” Wright continued, “Most of the manufacturers wouldn’t talk about what was in their products, and PROSOCO was the company that said, ‘Why do you ask?’”

With a list of friendly materials and manufacturers, the Bullitt Center team provided a blueprint for making the R.W. Kern Center a certifiable Living Building.

The sky above Hampshire College reflected in the entrance to the R.W. Kern Center. Photo by PROSOCO

Locally Sourced

The Living Building Challenge not only requires environmentally friendlier materials, it also takes transport of materials into consideration when awarding the materials petal. The R.W. Kern Center team looked to locally source as many of the building materials as possible.

The exterior of the R.W. Kern Center features beautiful Ashfield Stone, a mica garnet schist quarried from only 30 miles away from campus. Even the aggregate in the polished concrete floor comes from just a few miles away.

And the local feel of the design elements doesn’t stop there. The building features wood from throughout New England and in some cases even Canada. The exterior white cedar is from Eastern Canada, the framing is from Maine and eastern Canada, and the finish Eastern White Ash is from throughout northern New England.

The Grand Opening of the R.W. Kern Center on May ‎27, ‎2016. Photo by PROSOCO

Constructing the R.W. Kern Center

Ground broke for the R.W. Kern Center on November 14, 2014, shortly before the design was finalized. Construction began in earnest the following spring, led by Wright Builders. The contractor was experienced in building green buildings, but this was its first Living Building Challenge project.

"It’s a very deep experience to build (the Kern Center) because we know that we’ve done everything we can," Wright said of the experience. "The materials, the systems so that it can have a 100-year service life and never require public water, never require net electricity. What an idea."

For Bruner/Cott’s Nielson, one of the most satisfying parts of seeing his finished work was knowing “we did this for a budget that’s two-thirds of the budget we do for most projects on campuses and universities.”

“[The Kern Center] story is as interesting as (anything,)” Nielson continued, “The fact that we did the building. We did the building and you can do this. You can do it.”

The construction process required buy-in from every member of the team to not only create a building that met strict environmental standards but also would last for generations of Hampshire students.  

“The team, from the designers to the contractors, have really gotten on board with this,” Said Wright. “They’ve grasped what the project means, and understand the impact of what’s happening here and that they’re on the cutting edge of sustainable building.” 

Generations of Impact

Even before the R.W. Kern Center opened its doors to the public, it was clear it would be a special place for students to gather. The bright, natural tones and natural light are immediately inviting, and hidden features like letter puzzles under the stairs give the Kern Center an interactive feel unlike any other space on campus.  

“The first time I entered the Kern Center, I was wearing a hard hat. It was September 2015, and I had only been at Hampshire for about a week,” said Claire Shillington, a student at Hampshire. “I was inspired by the space, trying to figure out how the then skeleton of a building would transform itself into a Living Building.”  

Claire was so inspired by the building that she dedicated herself to studying the Kern Center and the water systems the building boasts.  

“I was drawn to this research not only because of my interest in environmental science but because there was a real, live, completely accessible system that we could immerse ourselves into to study. Now, in my third year at Hampshire, the Kern Center is the foundation of my academic experience—almost all the classes I take teach me about the scientific processes occurring in the building daily, specifically in the greywater treatment system.” 

But its impact extends far beyond the students it has welcomed since opening in 2016. It also has an impact on every member of the planning and construction team.  

In an interview with the Boston Globe, Wesley Evans called working on the Kern Center planning committee the “most impactful educational experience I’ve ever had.”  

For professional members of the team, the impact of the R.W. Kern Center project was equally as profound. It’s meant to be an example of how a building can be sustainable, beautiful and long-lasting.  

“People are going to want to see these buildings and know how they work,” said Carl Weber, Project Manager for Hampshire College, in a 2015 interview. “The impact of these projects will go above and beyond what the Hampshire College community will experience on a daily basis.” 

Beyond the environmental aspect of the R.W. Kern Center, Nielson and the design and construction teams take great pride in the fact they built the Kern Center to last for generations, rather than a handful of years. Christopher Nielson mentioned the focus on longevity as a reason why he enjoyed this project. “It’s part of why we like working with colleges and universities, in general, is that they’re thinking about their future, investing in a sustainable way from a lot of different perspectives.” 

Because after all, the true sustainability of the Kern Center isn’t just a result of the forward-thinking, environmentally-friendly design, but also in the knowledge that the building is truly built to last.  

Additional Reading

Want to learn more about the R.W. Kern Center, Hampshire College and the future of sustainable, long-lasting buildings? Here are some resources and links used in the research for this article: 

AIA Kern Center Profile 

R.W. Kern Center Home Page – Hampshire College 

R.W. Kern Center – Bruner/Cott  

R.W. Kern Center on Archetizer 

At Hampshire College, sustainability efforts reach new level , Boston Globe, Feb. 20, 2016 

Boston Globe Sunday Reports Hampshire’s ‘Major Leap Forward’ Toward SustainabilityHampshire College, Feb. 21, 2016 

What a living building is made ofPROSOCO, Inc. 

R.E. Kern Center – Wright Builders  

Special thanks to Jonathan Wright of Wright Builders, Christopher Nielson and Jason Jewhurst from Bruner/Cott and Associates, Greg Norris from ILFI, John Courtmanche and Claire Shillington from Hampshire College.  

Kern Center photos courtesy of Robert Benson Photography – www.robertbensonphoto.com

Alex Boyer

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