I am glad so many people in Amherst are thinking critically about building sustainability and about how the town should spend its energy and carbon “budget” to best fulfil our climate goals. The energy efficient, low-carbon Jones Library project is exactly where we should be spending those resources.
As a historic preservationist by training and a sustainable design advocate by trade, I was glad to be a part of the Jones Library Sustainability Committee. My litmus test for the Jones Library project was threefold: Does the proposed design improve the energy efficiency of the building without compromising the historic portion? Do the energy efficiency improvements of the new addition outweigh the carbon “cost” of demolition? And does the design help the Town of Amherst meet its sustainability goals? The answer to all these questions is yes.
By replacing the existing (leaky, inefficient) addition with a new high-performance structure, the overall energy efficiency of the Jones Library will improve by 60%. The new Library will have an EUI (Energy Use Intensity, a measure of energy use per square foot) of just 29 kBtu/sf/year, compared to the average 71.6 kBtu/sf/year for libraries nationwide. If we wanted to see comparable energy use improvements in the existing building, we’d need to undertake major work, like covering the existing stone walls with exterior insulation. This would drastically compromise the historic integrity of the original Library building—an outcome no one wants.
While these efficiency improvements are attractive, the Sustainability Committee wanted to make sure that the overall carbon impact of the project was positive- in other words, that the demolition and construction project would save more carbon than it emitted. The Sustainability Report put together by Finegold Alexander Architects shows that the overall carbon impact of the new Library would amount to 10,800 tonnes CO2eq over a projected 60-year span; this includes the carbon emissions associated with demolition and construction, and the carbon emitted during building operation (heating, cooling, electricity use, etc.). If left as it, the current Jones Library will emit 18,300 tonnes CO2eq over that same 60 years—without the improvements in service and community space the proposed project will bring.
Critics of the project say that the “greenest” thing is to do nothing, to leave the building as it is. But we can’t do nothing. The Library heating and ventilation systems are at the end of their useful life and need to be replaced. Without substantial energy efficiency work to the current structure, the only feasible option would be to replace them with another gas boiler system- a course of action that directly contradicts the town’s goal to reduce fossil fuel use. We indeed cannot “kick the can down the road.”
The project will reduce the town’s dependence on fossil fuels, lower the energy costs of the Library, and better provide for the needs of all the town’s residents. That in itself would be enough for me, but I am excited that this project can also provide a valuable example of sustainable historic preservation, an essential component of successful climate action over the next 50 years.
At this point in the climate crisis, there is nothing worse than a missed opportunity. We need to reduce our energy use and associated operational carbon NOW. We need to lead the way in showing how to reduce the embodied carbon of our buildings. The Jones Library renovation and expansion project is the way to do that for the Town of Amherst, today.
Sara Draper is director of the R.W. Kern Center at Hampshire College, a net-zero, low-carbon Living Building