Conscience of the campus
Alan G. Brake -- Interior Design, 6/1/2004 12:00:00 AM
The concept of environmentally conscious architecture usually conjures up one of two images. The first is a gleaming new building outfitted with high-tech gadgets. (Think solar panels.) The other is a Hobbit-like hovel tucked away in a forest. (No flush toilets.) So a late 19th-century academic building may seem a doubly unusual spot to find green design at work.
Nevertheless, at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, Dennis Wedlick Architect's evolutionary approach demonstrates how a small insertion can make a remarkable difference in the life of a structure—and the planet. With thoughtfulness and elegance, always useful tools for a designer, principal Dennis Wedlick transformed part of a classroom and office building into the home of the environmental-studies program—a veritable showcase of sustainability that serves a population of both students and faculty members.
Wedlick accomplished this by reconfiguring the 1,800-square-foot interior into three rooms. An L-shape entry, which multifunctions as an administrative and informal meeting area, also features a computer station and a "resource island" with storage and display space. The other two rooms are offices, a larger one for the department director and a smaller one for visiting faculty.
To divide the rooms, Wedlick installed 15-foot-high partitions framed in Richlite, made of wood pulp from managed forests—and normally used as a surfacing material, though it is in fact strong enough for vertical applications. The partitions' chest-height glazing, which allows maximum daylighting, is silk-screened with a student-designed assemblage of quotations and a time line relating to the history of the environmental movement. "Student participation," Wedlick says, "is what can make an institutional project so successful."
Students are also the target of the renovation. "It's image-driven, like a beacon, to draw them to the program," the architect says. A case in point, the resource island and computer station's cabinet doors feature black-and-white Hudson Valley landscape photographs—printed in organic dyes, of course. (The doors themselves combine Richlite and a wheat-chaff composite.)
When the time came to furnish the offices and informal meeting area, Vassar's collection of vintage pieces supplied chairs by Michael Thonet and Charles and Ray Eames as well as Eero Saarinen's Tulip table and chairs. Wedlick then re-covered the chairs in fabric made from recycled plastic bottles. The pattern repeats "waste = food," a mantra coined by revered sustainability-minded architect William McDonough.
A small solar panel on the roof powers the meeting area's ceiling fan—metered, like the standard full-spectrum fluorescent lighting, to show energy conservation in progress. Sensors enhance those savings by adjusting brightness according to daylight levels.
To soften the fluorescents' glare and improve the acoustics of the space, Wedlick placed a steel frame around the ceiling fixtures and covered it with a translucent fabric of recycled cardboard, silk, and hemp. In case of fire, the fabric's heat-sensitive seams dissolve, so the sprinklers can function.
Additional green elements include VOC-free paint on doors and walls, a beeswax-based floor sealant, and one unexpected find. During renovations, the architects uncovered an antique slate chalkboard, which they polished and engraved with the names of the first environmental-studies graduates, as requested by the project's donor. Hung on an entry wall, the slate is yet another of Wedlick's thoughtful recycling measures.