Planting Ideas

Traditional Building

Lynne Lavelle

01 October 2010

Established in 1929, the Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, PA, is a living memorial to Arthur Hoyt Scott, an 1895 Swarthmore alumnus, avid horticulturist and, with his invention of the throwaway paper towel, public health pioneer. Along with his wife Edith, Scott was active within the American Peony Society (of which he was a founding member) and the American Iris Society, even hybridizing his own breeds. To his mind, "if a person was interested in horticulture and loved flowers, then he had to be a good man."

Today, more than 105 good men and women volunteer at the arboretum, helping to maintain Swarthmore College's reputation as the "most beautiful college campus in America." It attracts more than 35,000 visitors annually, and is supported by the arboretum and the campus' newest addition, the Archer & Buchanan Architecture-designed Wister Education Center and Greenhouse. Completed in November 2009, the sustainably designed facility provides 5,200 sf of public, exhibit, greenhouse and support spaces for arboretum staff and volunteers. The building has received LEED Gold certification, reflecting its high level of inherently sustainable design.

The new facility replaces a much smaller '70s era "solar designed" greenhouse that had become functionally obsolete, and complements the architecture of the college and the Victorian Arts & Crafts-style building that serves as the arboretum's headquarters. "The campus is a traditional American campus, where the architecture of the buildings form beautiful outdoor spaces and reflect the various architectural styles that were dominant in their day as the campus grew," says Dan Russoniello, AIA, LEEP AP, principal in charge of the project. "There is a committed program to sustainability at Swarthmore College, so we, as architects, felt it was important that this building be fully sustainable, but also fit into the broader context and aesthetic character of the campus. The appearance of the Wister Center says more about the college, its history and tradition, than it does about sustainable design. In that sense its appearance really belies its green credentials."

The center's state-of-the-art greenhouse provides space for plant propagation, overwintering, cultivation and display, while hands-on workshops, educational seminars and social gatherings are accommodated in the building's education center. At every step of the design process, the firm utilized energy-efficient green building techniques. "We took advantage of the location, which is close to public transportation and walkways," says Russoniello. "It is close to a train station and bus routes, to be easily accessible and not necessarily by car. We also provided bicycle racks, and dedicated parking spaces for low-emission, high-efficiency vehicles."

To keep the center's footprint small and minimize disruption of the ecologically sensitive setting, the firm utilized the site's natural slope. Components of the design program are stacked on top of each other – service areas at the lower hillside level and public activity at street level. "The campus itself is an arboretum – the landscape forms an environment you want to protect," says Russoniello. "We were able to take advantage of the natural slope of the site so that people who visit for educational programs do not cross traffic with people bringing in soil or taking out wheelbarrows as they maintain the campus."

The building contractor was mindful, particularly during exam times, of the center's proximity to a residence hall. "There were periods during construction when quiet times had to be maintained," says Russoniello. "The contractor was also sensitive and respectful of the students' privacy throughout the duration of the construction."

Remaining true to the sustainable design effort, the building is constructed of locally harvested, FSC-certified wood products. For example, a stand of dawn redwood trees, felled for the construction of the Alice Paul Residence Hall in 2005, was cut into siding shingles and stored on campus in anticipation of being used on the Wister Center. The locally fabricated shingles form a good portion of the building's exterior siding. "The trees were sent to a local mill and fabricated into shingles for the walls of the building," says Russoniello.

"Another example," he adds, "Is how construction waste was diverted from landfills and directed toward recycling facilities for a second life. The contractor orchestrated the process of sending waste materials to recycling plants as opposed to landfills."

Initially, the mechanical engineer considered a ground-coupled water-source heat pump system for heating and cooling the building. However, a cost/benefit analysis determined that the first-time cost of the system could not be recovered in a reasonable time frame. "For this small building, the number of geothermal wells that a ground-coupled system required was prohibitively expensive," says Russoniello.

Thinking outside the box, the college's chief maintenance engineer noted that the campus operates its central chilled-water loop on a year-round basis and suggested using the constant temperature of the circulated water as the heat exchange medium for the system rather than the earth. The design places a heat exchanger in the basement of the nearby McCabe Library where it ties directly into the chilled water loop. Underground piping, run between the new building and the new heat exchanger, connects to the Wister Center water-source heat pump system. "The beauty of the design is that not just the Wister Center benefits from the heat exchange," says Russoniello. "But so do all the buildings on the loop."

The structural engineer specified fly ash, a waste byproduct of coal-fired power plants, as an ingredient in the concrete mix, thereby recycling material that would otherwise be sent to a landfill. Likewise, the landscape architect specified native plant materials and designed rain gardens that will "scrub" and direct storm water to the underground rainwater storage cistern. The harvested rainwater is used to irrigate the formal gardens and landscape vignettes that surround the Scott Arboretum headquarters building, located in the historic Cunningham House. The Wister Center also has a green roof(one of six now on campus) over a portion of the building that captures and directs water to the cistern and lessens the heat island effect that is common with flat roofs.

Swarthmore College honors its Quaker principles by educating students to be responsible citizens and practices this tradition today through good stewardship of its land and building resources. A majority of interior spaces have large windows to provide scenic views and minimize the need for electrical light sources. Internal spaces that do not have windows or views do receive daylight through "light tubes" – a skylight product with a highly reflective tubular shaft, again lessening the need for artificial light. Outside lighting is controlled by daylight sensors and all lighting fixtures have energy efficient lamps. Russoniello adds, "The college does purchase some of its energy supply from renewable sources and producers, so the building benefits from that as well."

"Sustainable features were considered from the early design and pre-construction phases all the way through the maintenance and operation of the building," says Russoniello. In pursuing LEED certification, low-flow plumbing fixtures and high-efficiency mechanical equipment was specified. Pre-construction and post-occupancy storm water management controls were designed, the building was tested for air quality prior to occupancy and all building systems were commissioned to meet energy use targets.

The arboretum is considering new programs such as the collection and recycling of all plastic plant pots. Measures such as this, along with educational programs, make the Wister Center a demonstration and teaching tool for the college and the community at large. "The college has implemented its sustainable cleaning policy – the use of non-toxic or environmentally damaging cleaning products – as part of the standard cleaning regimen of the building," adds Russoniello. "I have heard people comment that the building looks like a Swarthmore College building, like it belongs here," says Russoniello. "I like hearing this because our objective was to create a Swarthmore College building that is sustainably designed, not to create a sustainable building that happens to be on the Swarthmore College campus."

After a 14-month construction period, the Wister Education Center and Greenhouse is now open for volunteers and visitors. "All of us at the Scott Arboretum are extremely excited to see the Wister Education Center and Greenhouse open," says Claire Sawyers, director of the Scott Arboretum. "At last we have a space designed for hands-on horticultural education programs, where soil and pots, plants and people can flourish."

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