Letter: Jones Library Renovation Offers Sustainable Design

Architects rendering of the proposed renovated Jones Library. Feingold Alexander Architects. Photo: Jones Library

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

Sara Draper is director of the R.W. Kern Center at Hampshire College, a net-zero, low-carbon Living Building

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12 thoughts on “Letter: Jones Library Renovation Offers Sustainable Design

  1. Ms Draper,
    Would you please direct me to specifics regarding when and where and, more specifically, who you refer to when you state, “Critics of the project say that the “greenest” thing is to do nothing, to leave the building as it is.”
    As someone who has been involved in the Library “issue” since it was first discussed by the Director, over 5 years ago at Town Meeting, I have not heard or read that anyone made such a statement.
    I appreciate your professional expertise, and sustainability is indeed a concern of many. However, I do hope that you can appreciate other concerns critics have publicly expressed regarding the impacts the plan will have on who live here. Thank you.

    Rita Burke

  2. Thanks for your comment Rita. I was referring to several instances I’ve seen of folks quoting Carl Elefante “greenest building is one that is already built” (for example, on the Vote No website, and in Micky Rathbun’s letter in the Bulletin). I appreciate that these folks may not be insinuating that we should completely “do nothing,” but I also believe that substantial renovation of the 90’s addition is not a viable solution if we are concerned about energy efficiency and lifetime carbon impacts. Of course it is up to Amherst residents to decide what they think is best for the town. I simply wanted to provide a clear view on some of the sustainability data on the project that seems to be getting muddled in the public discourse.

  3. What an odd choice of words, Sarah. Since you refer to the Vote No website, it must be clear to you that, of course, no one is “insinuating that we should completely ‘do nothing’“ Far from it, it is unambiguously clear that Start Over Smart members want a library renovation that makes the best of the 40% of the Jones that already exists. Knowing what we do about climate change, we really can’t justify tearing it down, nor should we have to pay for the demolition. Architects with a dual focus on sustainability and libraries could easily solve this false “all or nothing“ dilemma.

  4. There are several misleading statements in Ms. Draper’s comments. No one has proposed doing “nothing” to the Jones Library. The quote Ms. Draper refers to, “The greenest building is the one that is already built” has been used for several years on the website (savejoneslibrary.org) in support of RENOVATING Jones Library within the existing footprint of the building, rather than tearing down the 28 year-old brick addition with a metal roof that has a 50-year life-span. Further, Ms. Draper’s statement that the 1993 addition is leaking is misinformation. It is only the ATRIUM in the 1993 addition that is leaking and that could be replaced without tearing down the building. If an atrium installed on a brick house leaked, no one would consider it reasonable to tear down the house in response. A handful of residents (including myself) who attended Library Trustee meetings and early meeting with the architects, witnessed firsthand that there was no concern with sustainability or historic preservation. In fact, Library Trustees chose to forfeit up to $450,000 in green library incentive grant funds with this proposal, which began as a 110,000 square foot behemoth. Concern with these two aspects of green design has only appeared in the last year or two in marketing materials following objections raised by the public over this poorly considered building plan.

  5. If the architects’ rendering of the emperor’s new Jones were any reflection of what’s planned to be built, I predict that it will also leak: consider flat roofs and skylights in a wet climate with heavy winter snowfall – don’t those raise all sorts of alarm bells?!?!?

  6. Sarah, thanks for bringing your passion to the Jones Library Sustainability Committee. I am sure it is exciting to talk to folks every day about the Kern Center. Amherst’s carbon budget needs to stretch to many buildings, heating, cooling, and lighting plus transportation. I don’t think Amherst has any obligation to being an example of sustainable historic preservation unless it is to retrofit the current building under a new plan and inspire other historic buildings to do the same. Given that Amherst has a goal of reducing our carbon emissions of the town by 50% by 2030 projecting savings over a 60 year span is not helpful. The crisis is now. A bigger library means bigger energy. Total energy use, not Energy Use Intensity is what we need to be comparing. No building in Amherst should have replacement heating or ventilation equipment that isn’t all electric. I know that your committee wasn’t given the task of preparing a plan as an alternative to the Trustee’s plan and I am sorry that your expertise was not used in that way.

  7. Sara – thank you for submitting this article and all your work on this committee. Lydia – with respect – you are mischaracterizing several things. First – total energy use WILL go down. The current 47,000 sq ft building, at a 73.2 energy use intensity (kbtu/ sq ft/year), uses 3.44 million kbtu per year. The expanded 63,000 sq ft building, at 29.12 energy use intensity (kbtu/sq ft/year), will use 1.83 million kbtu per year. That is nearly half of the energy use. However, much more important than total BTUs is the type of energy. We currently use 4 natural gas boilers in the library. The new library will use NO natural gas. Natural gas boilers – in addition to creating potent greenhouse gases – create significant indoor air quality issues that impact our health. The most pressing thing we need to do to address the climate crisis is to stop using fossil fuels – in fact, wasn’t Russ and other climate activists arrested in DC yesterday carrying signs that said just that? I completely agree with him – we simply can’t wait – and I applaud him for putting his body on the line in that way. But why are we not applying that same sense of urgency to this building? The hard fact is, without this funding, we can afford to do the envelope upgrades required to convert the current building to heat pumps and get off fossil fuels. The current boilers – from 1990 – will likely need to be replaced in the next 5 years given their age. Without these upgrades we risk having to put in new fossil fuel boilers – this would be a huge waste of money. Our only hope to avoid this outcome would be that significant state or federal specific to building upgrades come down the pipe, and then we will have many other buildings in town competing for those same funds. Even if you have valid reservations about the programming needs of the expanded library, the urgency of the climate crisis should be reason enough to accept this funding and do these upgrades now. Finally, this committee did use Sara’s expertise very, very well in considering the embodied energy of the new materials needed – she is a true expert in this and it shows in our outcome. Without her, or the push to do this, we would have a plan that has a larger life cycle impact ( which by design requires a long time frame, that is how you do these assessments). It is also not apples to apples – this is only comparing to the operation of the current building, not the embodied emissions it includes. In summary, a bigger library does not mean bigger energy – it means a library that can operate without fossil fuels, among many other wonderful things that will support our town. You are, of course, welcome to have other reasons to oppose this project, but I beg you not to paint this as a climate “win” when it so clearly is not. The data I use here: https://www.joneslibrary.org/DocumentCenter/View/7210/Jones-Library-Building-Project-Introduction-July-16-2021-PDF , https://www.joneslibrary.org/DocumentCenter/View/6380/SchematicSustainability-Study—Updated-Presentation-by-Finegold-Alexander-Architects-October-8-2020-PDF ( slide 27 on life cycle whole building analysis) and a new report on health impacts of fossil fuels in homes that is applicable to this (https://rmi.org/insight/decarbonizing-homes/).

  8. So why not do just the (ground-coupled?) heat-pump conversion, and “start over smart” (“go back to the drawing-board”…) on the overall scale of any renovation/repairs?

  9. Laura – Thank you for your attention and reminder of the articles by Molly and Terry. Both were certainly worth the re-read. My question to Sara was specific to her (unsourced) claim that critics of the project say “to do nothing, to leave the building as it is”. I did not see that sentiment reflected by either author in the cited writings. I cannot weigh in on the topic of sustainability…“the greenest thing”…however, I do take issue with “people say” used as leverage. I am opposed to the current Jones library plan as are many with whom I’ve directly communicated. What I find particularly striking is that, to a person, each supports less costly, destructive and disruptive upgrade alternatives. Sadly, I have not heard any yes voters offer compromise. It would seem that the “nothing” shoe is on the other foot, as in all or nothing. Rita Burke

  10. Rob – why let the perfect be the enemy of the good? What evidence do you have that if we start over, as you suggest, we would come up with something everyone likes? I have lived in Amherst long enough to know that is impossible. We can only hope those that dislike it can see the larger benefit, which also hasn’t happened in my time here. Further, there is no guarantee that we will get matching state funds if we postpone. So we would be making a huge gamble, all while watching our own state tax dollars that go to MLBC fund another community’s library. We can not do any heat pump upgrades without an intensive envelope improvement, which the MLBC funds will under no circumstances pay for unless we bundle them with intensive programming improvements. We are getting a great deal here to be able to use these funds for this work, thanks in no small part to the great work of the library sustainability committee. I was speaking to someone who lives near the South Amherst common who remembers years ago that a grant was available to change traffic patterns to make that area more pedestrian-friendly. One neighbor made it their mission to ensure that never happened, and they were successful, likely arguing the same points – we could do it better later. It would be such a shame if the library went down the same way.

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