Guest columnists Alex Lefebvre and Lee Jennings: Jones Library project would create a sustainable and resilient building

  • Jones Library gazette file photo

  • Jones Library JERREY ROBERTS

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

As a town we have stated our commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and building resilience in our community. Amherst created an Energy & Climate Action Committee, a net-zero bylaw, and has committed to prepare for carbon neutrality by 2030 (achieved no later than 2050).

Our community recognizes that the impacts of the climate crisis affect all of us but falls the hardest on our most vulnerable community members. How we chose to address the needs of the Jones Library building will be one of our first major opportunities to make climate action our priority.

The Jones Library created a sustainability committee made up of individuals who are passionate about climate action and professionals in the field of sustainability and sustainable design. This committee created an updated schematic design based on the stated sustainability goals that was approved by the board of trustees on Oct. 15.

A renovated and expanded library will move the town closer to its goals of carbon neutrality and community resiliency by converting an inefficient, fossil fuel-powered building to a class-leading, sustainable, net-zero ready building with the space, programming and resources to help our most vulnerable neighbors.

We hope this building design and the work of the sustainability committee will serve as a model that we can build efficient buildings where the net carbon footprint is actually better and still create a building that serves the needs of the whole community.

The goals of the sustainability committee that were incorporated into the current design are listed below, along with an explanation of their impact.

Energy Use Intensity (EUI) between 25-30. Sustainable buildings must be highly efficient in how they operate. Building efficiency can be measured and put into a number that can be compared to other buildings. The measurement reflects the energy used per square foot (EUI). The current building does not operate efficiently (EUI of 72.3), but is typical of libraries nationally (EUI 71.6). The updated design will cut the building’s EUI by more than half (new EUI of 29).

This means that even though the overall square footage of the building will increase, the building will be so efficient that the actual operational carbon and financial cost to run the building will decrease significantly.

Net-zero ready. A net-zero energy ready building refers to a building that is efficient enough that all of its annual energy needs can be provided by renewable energy. The library’s new addition would be the workhorse, increasing the operational efficiency to the point where the entire building can be powered solely by renewable energy, making it net-zero ready.

While some solar panels would be added to the addition, the historic nature of the original building and the limited on-site space for renewable energy preclude a net-zero building on day one. The building however could easily move from net-zero ready to net zero with the purchase of off-site renewables.

Use of low embodied carbon materials. If the goal of the committee and town is to lower its carbon footprint, creating an efficient building is only part of this formula. The construction process has a large impact on the environment, generating 11% of all global emissions. Every time we make or build something we are using fossil fuel energy to create that product and emitting carbon. There are product choices and construction techniques that can be used that emit less carbon than others. Low embodied carbon refers to the environmental impact of materials that are used in construction.

The library project would be one of the first major projects for the town that addresses embodied carbon. The committee wanted to be sure to find a balance between creating more efficiency in the building with using low carbon materials. By changing the major structural system from steel to cross-laminated timber, the carbon impact of construction was reduced by 70%.

Whole building life cycle analysis. The committee also recognized the challenges of making an existing historic building sustainable. It was important to make sure that improving the building and creating the addition made sense from both an energy efficiency as well as sustainability point of view.

To determine if the renovation and expansion are in fact the more sustainable option, the architects were directed to conduct a whole building life cycle analysis for the proposed design. This means they analyzed the carbon impact of all stages of construction and operation and compared it to the carbon emissions of the existing building.

The resulting analysis concluded that leaving the building “as is” created significantly more carbon emissions than the combined impact of the demolition, new construction and operation of the renovated and expanded building.

The library will soon come to the final stage of a seven-year process in which it successfully won an unprecedented state award of $13.87 million for the renovation and expansion project. Additionally, the trustees have committed to raise an additional $6 million (a guarantee that is backed by the endowment) toward the cost of the project, including the additional costs ($656,576) to make the library sustainable.

The cost to the town of Amherst for a sustainable, net-zero ready, renovated and expanded building would be $15.9 million.

At the request of Town Council, the library also sought an estimate to determine the cost of repairing the library and making it accessible. The repair estimate, which ranges from $14.4 million to $16.8 million (depending on how many years the project is spread across), does not include or incorporate any sustainability or energy conservation measures, nor does it address fundamental flaws in the layout and lack of space for important library programs/user groups. It is simply the lowest cost repair option which includes making the building accessible.

With the grant award from the state and the fundraising commitment by the library, we have a rare opportunity, for roughly the same cost as a repair, to take our first major step as a town toward reducing greenhouse gases and creating a sustainable and resilient building. We hope you will join us in supporting this necessary and important project.

Alex Lefebvre is a trustee and member of the Building and Facilities Committee, Feasibility and Design Committee and Sustainability Committee. Lee Jennings chairs the Jones Library Sustainability Committee, PLA.