Environmental Sciences

Greening of Aiken

Release Date: 09-01-2010

Author: Thomas James Weaver
Email: Thomas.Weaver@uvm.edu
Phone: 802/656-7996 Fax: (802) 656-3203


Eco-friendly renovation has begun at the Aiken Center. This rendering shows the natural light-filled atrium that will grace the building's south side.

If ever a building needed, deserved, and, to take some license, wanted to be green, it is the George D. Aiken Center. Yet for years the home to UVM's Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources has been a place where students listen to lectures on the natural world in a windowless room with poor air circulation. Filled with students, carbon dioxide levels spike to the point that even the most engaging professor would have a fight to keep heads from nodding.

This infamous Room 116 is just one example of the ways the Aiken Center is energy inefficient, uncomfortable, cramped, a place where form has never quite risen to function as the university's central headquarters for study of the environment. Renovation of the building, first opened in 1981, has been on and off the table among UVM facilities priorities since 2002.

But with a green light from the university's board of trustees last October, Aiken's time has come. Though work continues on adding more critical private support into the building's funding mix, crews broke ground on the renovation this summer. A rapid construction schedule anticipates cutting the ribbon on the newly green Aiken Center during the 2011-2012 academic year.

Working with Willam Maclay Architects, a Waitsfield, Vermont firm focusing on environmental design, the UVM team on the Aiken project anticipates that the building will earn LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification from the U.S. Green Building Council at the gold or platinum level.

It's one thing to build a new green building, says Mary Watzin, dean of the Rubenstein School, but it's a very different challenge to renovate your way to a lighter ecological footprint. She adds that as UVM and other institutions increasingly green their campuses, renovation of existing structures will be an essential strategy for both fiscal and environmental reasons. Aiken positions the university as a potential leader in green renovation practices.

Watzin and her predecessor as dean, Don DeHayes, have shepherded the Aiken project with a team of many players. Gary Hawley '78 G'83, a longtime research staff member in the school, has been a central figure, taking on a role as director of the Greening of Aiken Initiative when the project began to take shape. He's worked to land grant support, including significant funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and has joined faculty Al McIntosh, Deane Wang, Carl Waite and others in creating ways to involve students in the richly educational process of envisioning and designing a better building.

Hawley and McIntosh initially started with six "Greening of Aiken" interns in their first go at a class focused on issues related to the project. Now in their fifth year of teaching the course, the enrollment is nearly thirty. Beyond taking on practical projects related to the building's renovation, the students have also joined with the school's faculty to take part in the planning process every step of the way.

"I remember a meeting that normally would have four people in it, but we had twenty people there," Hawley says. "Our goal was to reduce costs on the project by $860,000, and we did it in an afternoon. And I think we had a better building because of it. Whenever we bring more people in, we're able to solve problems that many of us have been scratching our heads about."

As Professor McIntosh considers his hopes for the finished, or refinished, product at Aiken, he says "We're extending education beyond the classroom and into the building, helping students recognize that in environmental science, the buildings you live in can be as important as the natural systems you're studying."

Toward that end, the new Aiken promises to be as powerful a teaching tool as the renovation process. The building's efficiency will be on display in public monitors on site and on the web. That constant feedback will help faculty and students continue to tweak and further evolve and improve the building after the renovations.

Perhaps the most dramatic display of the commitment to sustainability at the new Aiken will be in the south atrium, which will feature an Eco-Machine, the invention of faculty member John Todd, to treat the building's wastewater and cycle it back into use. It promises to be a striking, greenhouse-like public space for the school.

That south face of the renovated Aiken building will complete an area that has become a new focal point for the campus. The Davis Center and newly completed James M. Jeffords Hall are neighbors bordering an oval at the top of the hill that has become UVM's "front door" on Main Street. At a university and in a state where the study and stewardship of the environment run deep, it will be a strong statement in a prominent place.

Al McIntosh puts it simply when he considers what the Aiken renovation will mean to the school and the university: "We're walking the walk."

This article appears in the summer 2010 issue of Vermont Quarterly magazine. To read more stories related to the Greening of Aiken, see the online version at alumni.uvm.edu/vq. To request print copies of the magazine, contact University Communications, (802) 656-2005, tweaver@uvm.edu.

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