On several occasion Ephblog has queried the carbon impact of the Stetson-Sawyer project as part of the blog’s consistent and to my mind inexplicable hostility to the nation’s nascent efforts to rein in energy waste and carbon emissions. Sure, there’s a fair amount of sanctimony and even some hypocrisy associated with this movement. But is there any social movement that isn’t afflicted by an element of sanctimony?

As for Stetson-Sawyer, let me preface my remarks by saying that I’m no expert on carbon budgeting, a complex science. Presumably, doing carbon budgets for new construction not only requires information on existing energy usage and the projected usage by new buildings, but also close attention to the energy costs of demolition/construction and the cost of producing all the raw materials used in the project, less recycled materials, etc., etc. That’s way beyond my competence or analytical inclination. Anyway, I prefer to pay attention to my day job as a professor.

That said, if we use increased square-footage as proxy for a carbon footprint, Stetson-Sawyer has a modest impact. The office buildings are replacing several structures that have been, or will be, razed : Fernald House, Seeley House, and two large additions to the rear of the original 1923 Stetson Hall. Weston Hall, which will be vacated by the language faculty when the two new academic buildings are completed, will be not demolished, largely because it has historic significance. It eventually will be occupied by some other administrative unit that might otherwise have needed new construction. [Preemptive strike on Dave K: Please don’t ask me for data on the net square footage gain because (1) I don’t have it; (2) Early efforts to assemble it raised a host of apples-to-oranges problems associated with comparing the square footage of residential-scale office buildings with the more institutional scale of Stetson-Sawyer. In other words, the data are accessible in theory but not particularly useful in practice. What I can say with absolute certainty is that if Williams weren’t building new offices, it would be spending a lot of money renewing the existing ones, which were long overdue for renovation. And the result would still fail to meet institutional needs, an example of throwing good money after bad.]

The 159 faculty offices in the North and South Academic Buildings are no larger than 160SF each, which is hardly extravagant. The space is needed, first, for faculty books and files, which are the tools of our trade and thus (within reason) merit institutional support; and second, to accommodate tutorial classes and student meetings. The comparison to corporate office settings is risible. When I examined the furniture layouts initially brought forward by the project’s furniture vendor, I almost fell on the floor laughing: one bookcase, which I guess is the business standard. Instead, we’ll need 4-7 bookcases per office (each 36’x 84″), and that won’t fully house the books that some faculty wish to bring over from Stetson. A few faculty will, in fact, be moving to offices smaller than their current ones, although those of us currently in the old Stetson stacks will be grateful finally to have ceilings higher than the existing 6’7″.

The new Library/IT center replaces the existing Sawyer Library and will likely be only modestly larger than Sawyer. This works because as many as a third of the books held by Sawyer, Archives, and the Chapin Rare Books Library will be stored in a utilitarian facility offsite. The original Stetson Hall will be restored and reused after renovations related to code-compliance and energy efficiency. I’ll spare readers a discussion of why it didn’t make economic sense to renovate the existing Sawyer, an option that the college and a raft of consultants spent more than a year studying in painstaking detail. Trust me: it didn’t. As an added benefit, Williams gets a vastly superior site plan for this part of the campus, including a new green in front of Stetson.

My understanding is that college policy already calls for demolition materials to be taken to recycling centers when possible. The new construction associated with Stetson-Sawyer will meet high standards for energy efficiency–much higher than the existing buildings that they replace. They include planted “green” roofs, strategic trellises to limit heat gain through glass, considerable material sourced in local, sustainable forests, and thermostats in each faculty office to maximize efficiency. Additional information about the building’s LEED status will probably be available later this year.

Will the buildings be on the bleeding edge with respect to sustainable technologies? No, that’s not likely. But they strive to hit the sweet spot between budget constraints and an institutional commitment to sustainability. OK, I confess: the buildings will be connected to the college’s cooling plant, which means that Div I and II faculty will get air conditioning for the first time ever. Those of us who don’t have summer estates in Kennebunkport or Edgartown will count our blessings.

We all want to reduce our carbon footprint, but of course this has to be balanced by a modicum of common sense. Dave K is exercised about corporate jets, but why not make the case, say, that Williams could reduce carbon emissions considerably by terminating Winter Study and sending students home from late December until mid-February, allowing the college to set back the thermostats of all the dorms in the heart of the heating season? We could turn off the lights at the new turf field and cancel all away games because they require the use of buses. We could cashier the Williams-Exeter Program at Oxford on the grounds that every student we send to the UK is responsible for two tons of CO2 emitted during the flight from New York to London.

The college isn’t contemplating such approaches, at least as far as I know, because these activities are part of the institution’s core mission. Having an adequate main library and enough offices for staff is another element of the institution’s core mission. Can Williams do a better job of balancing progress and attention to sustainability? You bet it can, but so can every institution in the United States. I believe that given the college’s commitment to leadership, Williams will be fighting its way to the forefront of the sustainability movement in the coming years. Yes, that might entail some tiresome sanctimony, but that’s a small price to pay for real progress and, it might be added, helping the US kick its petroleum addiction, with all its implications for our national security and self-respect.

I apologize for the length of my post and regret that I won’t be able to respond extensively to any comments that it might occasion. I want to emphasize that these are my personal opinions alone. And to those Ephs who contributed sensible correctives to some of the silly or egregiously inaccurate things said about Stetson-Sawyer in earlier discussions, I wish to express my admiration and thanks.

Print  •  Email