By Konstantine Fekos
On its 40-year anniversary, the Allegheny College Environmental Science Department finally found a home, said its chairperson and professor, Eric Pallant. Surrounded by tropical flora in the lobby of the Richard J. Cook Center for Environmental Science, Pallant dedicated the site, the former Carr Hall science building, to the college’s president emeritus, and national collegiate leader of environmental sustainability efforts, Richard J. Cook.
“This center reflects everything great about Allegheny College and Liberal Arts education,” said President James Mullen Jr. “The vision that Richard Cook started is now a reality.”
About 200 friends and supporters of Allegheny, including trustees, alumni, faculty, staff and students, began gathering at 4:30 p.m. Friday in the recently renovated Carr Hall, which houses the department that was formerly wandering the wilderness, according to Pallant.
“His love for environmental science and ability to share it with others helped make Allegheny a leader in sustainability and environmental respect,” said Eddie Taylor, Board of Trustees chairman. “There was no greater champion in this regard than Richard Cook.”
Cook, who began his academic career as a chemistry professor, served Allegheny as president for 12 years from 1996 to 2008, after which he left for travels between Michigan and Minnesota.
“He’s a national leader for environmental stewardship,” said Mullen. “This building couldn’t have been named more appropriately.”
“The trustees took me totally by surprise by announcing this in 2008, my very last year,” said Cook. “It’s been a while since I’ve seen the building, but it’s been worth the wait. Everyone here has worked very hard.”
Renovations on the almost 50-year-old building took just over a year from last summer with a total cost of approximately $5.6 million, according to Cliff Willis, director of the Allegheny College Physical Plant.
“The main student input involved primary focus for improved lighting, air quality and plantings inside and out,” he said “Watching this building slowly come to fruition was a real treat. The feel of the building now is exhilarating.”
The new facilities merge the college’s latest in environmental technologies with the biology and nature its students work to study and preserve, with features like an aquaponic sustainable food system, all-natural lighting, and laboratory and classroom facilities made from recycled and renewable resources.
“The tilapia (fish) in the bottom tank produce ammonia which turns into nitrates absorbed by the lettuce in the area above,” said junior environmental science major Kirsten Ressel, explaining the aquaponic system as part of a student and faculty-led facility tour. “The water cycles through the system and by the time it reaches the bottom again, it’s clean.”
The resulting growth of produce and fish will then be sold to Parkhurst Dining Services, Allegheny’s catering company. Students plan to renew the aquatic resource of that equation by breeding the tilapia.
“There’s no soil, which means no pesticides or fertilizers, and the whole system is self-sustaining,” said Ressel. “The food’s as local as you can get.”
Traditional faculty offices, research labs, student classrooms and more are all outfitted with similar “green” energy-efficient technologies.
“Up until the building’s finish in the fall, the environmental science department didn’t have a permanent home,” said Kate Darby, assistant professor of environmental science. “Classes were held all over campus; in the library and biology building, for example.”
When the project was conceptualized, the department’s students were called upon to prioritize the building’s features, including fresh air, natural lighting and noise reduction.
“This center pushes resource conservation so we tried out with different furniture, surfaces and flooring made from recycled and sustainable materials we could potentially use in other buildings,” said Darby. “Solar tubes collect natural light which passes through a series of mirrors and connects to these lights on the ceiling.”
The end result is no-glare sunlight with dimming capabilities that looks as though it’s coming though artificial lamps and bulbs.
Every room is also outfitted with carbon dioxide motion and light sensors that respond to occupancy levels and can adjust ventilation to save energy.
“Future plans include the production of an outside garden for fruits and vegetables to act as a living laboratory, the production of which we also plan to sell to Parkhurst,” said Darby. “We hope to use the revenue from those sales to fund management for that product so it will be self-sustaining as well.”
As if these features weren’t green enough, the center’s interior design showcases innovations like paperstone surfaces, made from 50 to 100 percent recycled paper resin sorghum ply board, produced through the compression of discarded stalks left over from the plant grown globally for food.
“It just shows what beautiful things can be made out of these sorts of materials, which are completely nontoxic,” said Darby.
All of these ideas were conceptualized through several student seminars.
“This building illustrates sustainability,” said Cook. “Students designed this building with the expert help of architects and guidance from faculty. The nature of the building is hands-on; it’s a living, breathing experiment that goes way beyond text books.”
Senior physics and environmental science major Carlyn Johnson is credited with the building’s solar panels and performance monitoring system installation as part of a senior project.
“The department is excited to have it’s own space,” said senior Kelsey Ream.
“I think the new building is great; it gives us better tools to get ideas out to the community,” said senior Amy Ochsenreiter. “It’s a lot of fun to come here every day.”
“Being down the hall from faculty and students instead of across campus makes for better communication and collaboration,” said senior Lauren Deem.
Complete with water-conservative bathrooms and an irrigation system that transfers the roof’s collected rainwater into the lobby’s “Living Wall” of tropical plants and surrounding edible growths, it’s no wonder this 100 percent solar and wind-powered building drew the attention of the U.S. Department of Energy.
“It’s a great space with interesting work,” said Maria Vargas, director of the Better Buildings Challenge and Senior Program adviser for the DOE. “I like that they did it for environmental reasons as well as teaching reasons.”
Allegheny College’s part in the Better Buildings Challenge, comprised of more than 50 participating corporate executives, higher education institutions and state and local leaders, is one of leadership, agreed Vargas.
“This is one of the many participants in the challenge agreeing to a 20 percent energy reduction by 2020,” she said. “The college is also sharing these ideas with the market so other organizations and institutions can follow without starting on square one.”
Vargas, along with Pallant, Mullen and Cook gave remarks and congratulated and thanked the school and all those who contributed to the center, which houses over 100 environmental science majors.
Words to the wise
Cook, who “couldn’t resist a scientific lecture” at the place of his continued academic leadership, called all those present to keep in mind the principles of conservation in the short time the current generation has to preserve future environmental safety on a local and global scale.
“The greatest honor is to be among friends like all of you,” he said. “You’re going to need these principles to teach the future what it means to have sustainability. The Earth is running low on its savings account. Future generations will either thank us or damn us based on what we do.”
Despite all he felt is at stake in the current environmental state of the world, Cook took solace in the supporters before him.
“This makes me hopeful,” he said. “This building makes me hopeful.”
After remarks, the speakers and guests left for a dinner reception at Schultz Hall featuring locally grown foods and guest speaker Sir Peter Crane, former director of the Field Museum in Chicago ad Dean of the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale.
As supporters and friends of Allegheny College exited through the lobby, they passed its crowning sculpture; a recycled metal and glass piece by Pittsburgh artist Jan Loney, who compiled materials reclaimed from Carr Hall’s renovations and various scrapyards and takes the shape of concentric circles, which can represent biological and astronomical themes from ripples on water to planetary orbits.
“It’s another piece that just stunned me at how beautiful it is,” said Cook.
“We couldn’t be prouder to honor him in this way,” said Taylor. “His is a deserved legacy for what he meant, accomplished and committed to Allegheny college. We’re proud he and his lovely wife Terry were able to come back to see the realization of his dream.”
Konstantine Fekos can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.