AMHERST — Well known as a progressive bastion, Hampshire College has been at the forefront of sustainability efforts long before they gained widespread acceptance.
Still, the school’s latest foray into eco-friendly practices marks a major leap forward.
The private college’s first new building in 20 years is a model of sustainability, featuring composting toilets, rooftop solar panels to power the building, and a water supply that draws on rainwater stored in underground cisterns. The building, slated to open in April, will use zero net energy, produce its own water supply, and manage its wastewater.
After the R.W. Kern Center opens, the campus plans to begin installing two massive solar arrays that will generate 6.4 million kilowatt hours per year, enough power to eventually fuel the entire campus.
The projects are part of an ambitious campaign to make the school “carbon-neutral” by 2020, said Hampshire president Jonathan Lash. That means the campus will generate as much energy as it uses in a given year.
Lash became Hampshire’s president in 2011 after a career in energy policy, most notably as the head of the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank in Washington D.C. Several years ago, as the college was considering putting up a new building project, he saw an opportunity.
Lash had been talking with an old friend, environmentalist Denis Hayes, president of the Bullitt Foundation in Seattle, about its new center, which was described as “the greenest commercial building in the world.”
“It struck me that if we were going to spend millions on a building, it should be more than a structure,” Lash said. “This building was a way of getting students thinking about sustainable living.”
The idea sparked a year-long planning process. Students attended meetings to discuss plans, and five finalists presented designs in lecture halls filled with students, faculty and staff.
After years of wrestling with the issues of sustainable energy and climate change in an abstract way, shepherding concrete projects has been a refreshing change, Lash said.
“It makes me realize that I had been beating my head against a brick wall for a long time,” he said.
Hampshire, a liberal arts college in Amherst, is part of a large network of colleges that have pledged to work toward carbon neutrality. Only two colleges — Green Mountain College in Vermont and College of the Atlantic in Maine — have reached that goal, according to Janna Cohen-Rosenthal, climate programs director at Second Nature, a nonprofit group that promotes sustainable practices on college campuses.
The scope of Hampshire’s sustainability efforts is unusual, Cohen-Rosenthal said, and will hopefully provide an example for other schools.
“They’re a leader in the field,” she said.
At a cost of nearly $10 million, the Kern Center is a wood-framed16,000-square-foot building with dramatic views and impressive stone walls. It will soon become home to the admissions and financial aid offices, and include classrooms and areas for students to socialize and study.
It was designed by the Cambridge architectural firm Bruner, Cott & Associates and built by the Northampton company Wright Builders, whose principal owner, Jonathan Wright, graduated from Hampshire in 1974, in the college’s first class.
Building materials were chosen with health in mind — 41 harmful chemicals are not allowed.
“Every day our team here is monitoring everything that comes into the site,” Wright said. “This is about changing building habits.”
On a recent tour, Wright pointed with excitement to massive swaths of gray stone that came from Ashfield, less than 20 miles away. A wood finish, he said, is made from byproducts of Vermont cheese.
The center has served as something of a laboratory for students. Last fall, classes taught by a mathematician, microbiologist, ecologist, and hydrologist used the project in their curriculums.
“Students walked into Hampshire and immediately started doing original work on a cutting-edge system,” Lash said. “They’re all learning calculus but they didn’t know it was calculus so they’re not afraid of it.”
Wesley Evans, a senior at Hampshire, joined the building’s planning committee in his first year on campus, and calls his time on the panel “the most impactful educational experience I’ve ever had.”
He participated in design meetings, sat in on negotiations with bidders, and learned about the inner workings of a complex building.
“Hampshire teaches you how to learn how to learn,” said Evans, who plans to study integrated design management at graduate school. “You learn how to ask the right questions.”
Lash said that involving students in environmental projects will help prepare them for careers. He cites a statistic that more than 70 percent of today’s college graduates will work in jobs that don’t currently exist.
“The mission of this school is to create an education that equips students to respond and engage in a rapidly changing world,” he said. “Look how fast our world is changing.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the opening date of Hampshire College’s new building.