Semans-Griswold Environmental Hall construction on-schedule

By Erica Quinones

News Editor

WaterfrontCenter_MarkCooley.EDITEDWashington College’s waterfront campus is expanding, with the edition of the Semans-Griswold Environmental Hall.

The building, scheduled to open on Oct. 18, is nearing completion. Besides installing signs, adding furniture, paving the parking lot, and landscaping, the hall is nearly finished and on-schedule.

The building has been designed not only to provide the Center for Environmental Studies & Society a new home, but to create a space for all students and an example of what sustainable building can do by complying with the Living Building Challenge standards, which are notoriously difficult to complete.

As a Living Building, not only must the hall produce five percent more energy than it uses but it should create a healthy and beautiful environment for occupants.

“[The building should] do no harm but also do good while you are at it,” Dr. John Seidel, director of the Center for Environment & Society and Lammot du Pont Copeland associate professor of anthropology and environmental studies, said.

It boasts sustainably manufactured and powered conference, office, laboratory, and recreational spaces.

Many of the rooms are built with glass walls to create an open space with natural lighting. This includes a conference space crafted to host Chesapeake Semester students each fall.

Student recreation areas were given the same attention, with large operable windows that look out over the waterfront.

If looking outside is not enough, there is also a porch space adjacent to the recreational space. The porch sits beside a lawn that will be seeded with native grasses and pollinator habitat to create a natural landscape.

The hall is meant to be a comfortable spot for all students to come see the beauty of the river, whether it be for academic, artistic, or recreational reasons, according to Seidel.

“Having the building on the waterfront may make it easier for students to be directly immersed in that environment,” Chair of Environmental Science and Studies, and Associate Professor of Environmental Science and Studies, and Biology Dr. Robin Van Meter said.

One of the most important structures is not inside the building, but above it.

Looking up from the porch, the Environmental Hall’s roof is a puzzle of dark squares and transparent glass. Across it lays 300 solar photovoltaic (PV) panels. At capacity, they can generate 89 kilowatts of electricity. That is enough to power the entire building when paired with the geothermal system that heats the building.

Inside, the hall will host both students and staff.

A set of molecule-like open cubicles build the CES staff’s new office. They will move into the new hall the first week of October. Global Information Systems staff will move into CES’s Cross Street office. Like the recreational room, the waterfront wall is glass and the ceiling is open with natural light filtering in.

This office space is also available for students and interns. Any empty desk is available and a long table with chairs sits against the left wall.

Deeper into the building lies its biggest sustainability-related challenge, the laboratories.

As an aspiring Living Building, the hall must produce 105% of the energy it uses. This is made increasingly difficult by the laboratories due to the energy needed to run equipment.

The challenges posed by lab spaces in a Living Building have yet to be approached, according to Seidel. This would make the hall a candidate for the first Living Building with a laboratory in Maryland if it passes evaluation next year.

However, the challenge of creating a self-sufficient lab is increased threefold.

There are three separate laboratories, the Water Innovation Lab, faculty lab, and a drop-in lab.

Dr. Douglas Levin, deputy director and chief innovation officer, will use the Watershed Innovation Lab to continue developing technologies like buoys that monitor the Chester River’s water quality.

The faculty lab will house Assistant Professor of Environmental Science and Studies Dr. Jill Bible.

The drop-in lab is available for professors to schedule classes in. They are not meant to replace on-campus laboratories, rather be a supplemental tool, according to Dr. Van Meter. It is connected to Dr. Bible’s room through a lab prep station and mudroom. Both have outdoor exits for access to the river.

Dr. Bible’s space and the drop-in lab both have a flow-through water system that pumps river water into the lab through underground pipes.

“Dr. Bible studies oysters. So, for her to be able to study oysters in an aquatic ecosystem that is natural to the Chester River, this kind of a set-up is essential,” Dr. Van Meter said.

Fundraising for the project was completed within six month thanks to the hall’s namesakes: a founder of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Truman Semans, and Chairman Emeritus of WC Jack Griswold, according to Dr. Seidel.

However, the hall’s creation has not been a quick process. The $11 million building has been 11 years in the making, starting with a proposal in 2008, then purchase of property in 2009, and construction beginning last August.

Still, classes might not be held there until 2020.

Dr. Van Meter said that it is unlikely labs will be hosted there until the spring semester because professors have already organized their fall lab schedules and equipment.

There are also logistical issues. One problem is transporting students from campus to the Environmental Hall in a timely manner.

“Transportation is a big issue because we have to be able to get students down to that lab in the confines of a normal 10 to 15 minute block,” Dr. Van Meter said. “The transportation issue has not been solved yet. So, we are hesitant to consider scheduling labs down there until we know there is a way we can easily get students back and forth.”

Having the waterfront space will make it easier for professors to host waterfront labs without transporting their equipment to and from the College. But currently, the lab spaces on the river are empty.

The faculty who are interested in using the drop-in lab created a list of equipment they need duplicated for the waterfront space. However, until they know the supplies are purchased and delivered to the hall to create a functional laboratory, they cannot schedule classes there, according to Dr. Van Meter.

Some professors are considering scheduling waterfront labs in the spring semester..

“There are all these pieces that have not yet been melded together,” Dr. Van Meter said. “We are all learning and working together on this at the same time.”

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