The I&I will be carbon neutral. Here’s what that means.

Courtesy of the Office of the President.

Something new is coming to the corner of Raymond and College Avenues. Nestled on the south side of the Alumnae/i House lawn will soon be the Inn and Institute (I&I), a building that will combine a conference space with 50 guest rooms and a restaurant following its completion in July 2022. The project is designed to host scholarly and academic programming while providing event accommodations.

Since the official announcement of the I&I by the President’s Office on April 4 (and for some time before then), the campus community has buzzed with questions about the building to be—some contentious, others curious. Notably, students and professors alike have cited concerns over the building’s displacement of faculty housing and anticipated environmental impact, remaining critical of the I&I’s anonymous donors for investing in a new building instead of in other existing projects on campus. 

Concerned that the construction would set Vassar further behind on achieving the 2030 carbon neutrality goal set in the 2016 Climate Action Plan, Vassar’s Students for Equitable Environmental Decisions (SEED) began an online petition to Vassar’s I&I Planning Committee and the Board of Trustees demanding “100% renewable energy and combustion free heating in the I&I.” On July 9, only three months after its petition began collecting signatures, the organization made a celebratory Facebook announcement: “WE WON!!” the post reads. “The Inn & Institute is going to be carbon neutral on site!! That means no fossil fuels will be burnt at the building.”

In the months following the President’s Office’s community announcement, SEED pushed to keep the project on the agenda in Climate Action and Sustainability Committee (CASC) meetings and utilized the petition to keep pressure on administrators, receiving regular updates on the I&I’s planning progress from President of Vassar College Elizabeth Bradley and Dean of Strategic Planning and Academic Resources Marianne Begemann throughout the summer. Viewing the creation of any new fossil fuel-burning building as a step in the wrong direction, SEED stressed in a joint statement by members Melissa Hoffman ’21, Jack Oliver ’22, Izzy Rico ’22 and Kira Peterson ’20 that “the cost of inaction on the climate crisis is greater than postponing sustainability projects and doing what at a glance seems economical.”

While SEED continued to spread their message, administrators were at work in the design and development process, trying to determine whether a neutral building would be achievable in their financing scheme. SEED explained that administrators had hoped from the start that green technology would be integrated into the development, but observed, “After meeting with the sustainability consultants, they did not think we would be able to go completely carbon neutral with the funding that was available for [the project].” Bradley agreed, stating, “The [sustainability] concept was there at the get-go,” most visibly in the College’s selection of Frederick Fisher and Partners (FF&P), an architectural firm known for having built the greenest public building in the United States.   

In July, after ongoing fundraising efforts and additional donations to the project, the College determined that constructing carbon neutral would indeed be affordable. Bradley underscored, “Our alumnae are incredibly generous to Vassar.”

Although plans were still falling into place at the time of SEED’s most recent post, the majority of demands outlined in the petition are projected to be met. In a call with Bradley, Begemann, Vice President for Communications Amanita Duga-Carroll and Assistant Vice President of Finance Bryan Swarthout, The Miscellany News verified plans to use geothermal and solar energy, as opposed to fossil fuels. The Inn will feature solar panels on its roof, generating a portion of the building’s electricity on site. The restaurant, which will be located on the first floor beneath the institute, will utilize an electric, gas-free kitchen. Further, the building’s outer shell will consist primarily of recyclable material that does not require the fossil fuel burning involved in baking brick. 

The proposed heating system would use geothermal energy through ground source heating pumps. Begemann confirmed that tests are underway to determine how many geothermal wells, which are drilled into the ground to extract the heat needed to both warm and cool a building, are needed, and whether the surrounding soil can accommodate them. SEED remains hopeful: “Including geothermal in this project would…be a step towards decentralising the campus from the central heating plant, which is a necessity if the campus wants to be free from fossil fuel combustion.” ME Engineers, the project’s sustainability consultant and engineer, is designing the I&I’s large, sustainable engineering systems. 

Beyond addressing pragmatic issues, administrators spent time conceptualizing the “heart” of the building without the originally planned architectural focal point of a carbon-emitting hearth. Duga-Carroll observed, “Discarding a fireplace structure gave us a new opportunity to…envision other structures we could convene around and feel warm.” Carbon neutrality had influenced planners to consider how sustainable architecture within the I&I would foster communal space.

Because the I&I will not be constructed net zero (generating as much electricity as it uses), most of the building’s power will still come from New York’s “dirty” grid, which burns fossil fuels to create electricity. However, according to Associate Professor of Philosophy Jeffrey Seidman, who was on both CASC and the Campus Master Planning committee last semester, “the New York electric grid itself will be moving very quickly toward carbon-free electricity.” In June, Governor of New York Andrew Cuomo signed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), which aims for the state to transition to a 100 percent renewable, zero-emission economy by 2050. For a zero-emission building like the I&I, the CLCPA’s impact is especially salient. As Seidman put it, “[T]he I & I will be on a glide path to become cleaner as the grid greens.”

To minimize dependence on the New York grid, sustainability goals extend beyond these larger engineering and architectural feats, touching every detail of the I&I. Ranging from the implementation of LED lighting with motion sensors to the inclusion of landscape features like native planting and green stormwater infrastructure for treating runoff, administrators emphasized the creative process of reimagining the detail work that goes into construction. “The building is going to be efficient from an envelope perspective, and then will include these other sustainable features that make it more efficient. Then no matter what your heat source and cooling source is, you’re using less energy,” Begemann summarized. “It’s all part of the package.” The I&I will emit 45 percent less carbon dioxide compared to a standard hospitality project of its size, according to Swarthout.

As the design and development process moves into its final stages, Bradley, Begemann, Swarthout and Duga-Carroll continue to observe their process with FF&P become increasingly creative and exciting. With meticulous detail work and large sustainable energy systems, the I&I now has sustainability at its heart—literally. 

For more information about the Inn and Institute and Vassar’s path toward carbon neutrality, check back in with The Miscellany News in September for an in-depth article.

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