Sustainable Building Policy Update

At its June 2023 Board meeting, the Trustees of Williams College endorsed the college’s new Sustainable Building Policy. The policy continues Williams’ history of integrating its sustainability values and goals into building projects while updating the policy to expand the breadth and rigor of green building design principles. 

Williams’ began including environmental performance goals in its building projects in the early 2000s and received its first two green building certifications in 2008 for Hollander and Schapiro Halls using the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standard. Since adopting “LEED Gold or higher” as the basis for design for capital projects in 2004, the college has added more LEED buildings to its portfolio. 

At the same time, green and sustainable building codes and principles continued to mature and diversify. The International Living Future Institute’s Living Building Challenge (ILFI LBC) and the energy efficiency-focused Passive House Institute U.S. standard, in particular, have gained traction in North America. Although very different in their approaches and scopes, both are more performance oriented than LEED and can better demonstrate how design principles lead to improved outcomes for occupants and the environment.

Williams began exploring ILFI with its first ILFI LBC project in 2015: the Class of 1966 Environmental Center, which earned Petal certification (akin to a partial Living Building certification) and is currently in its 12-month performance period to earn full Living Building certification. Two more ILFI petal-certified buildings were added with the CDE Fellows Hall (ILFI Zero Energy, 2019) and Fort Bradshaw (ILFI Petal certification, 2021) and two more are on the way (Davis Center and the new WCMA).  

Recognizing the important role of building energy efficiency for reducing climate and air pollution, improving indoor thermal comfort, and reducing building operating costs, the college has long used Energy Use Intensity (EUI, measured in kBtu per square foot per year) as a metric for its capital projects. Indeed, Garfield House proved to be so energy efficient, that in addition to meeting LEED Gold standards, certification as a PHIUS Passive House was possible. 

The significant green building experience the college has accumulated through these projects informed the 2021 Strategic Plan sustainability goals for the built environment. The new goals also call for the development of rigorous sustainability criteria for building maintenance and renewal, for a systems perspective in managing building use and square footage within the campus development guidelines promulgated in the Campus Framework Plan, and for the improved connection of the built and natural environment through the lenses of sustainability, access, aesthetics, equity and connections between campus and town.

In response to these goals and larger trends in green building design codes and standards, the Zilkha Center collaborated with Planning, Design and Construction and consulted with the Provost and Office of the VP for Finance and Operations to review and update the 2016 Green Building Guidelines. The new policy adheres to maintaining a LEED Gold or higher standard but leans heavily into ILFI’s philosophy that buildings need to become regenerative for people and the environment rather than simply being structures with “reduced environmental impact” and also favors ILFI’s and PHIUS’s performance-based design goals. In addition, the new policy distinguishes between two levels of capital projects and continued asset maintenance, the first two having been endorsed by the Trustees to date, and gives the college and project team more flexibility in choosing the appropriate standard or sustainability goals. 

Across all project types, the policy considers the full range of sustainability areas impacted by building-related construction (e.g., human health, energy, natural resource use, landscape and habitat) as well as the college’s educational mission and commitments to diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility. 

While climate protection is a central theme, the policy clearly recognizes that building projects are part of the larger campus and regional infrastructure, including utilities and transportation networks. The policy makes those links more specific by asking the project teams to consider how existing space use can be optimized to reduce the need for new buildings and how energy, water and other resource use can be made more efficient, less polluting, and enhance our resilience to disruptions.

For larger capital projects, the selection of one or more building certification standards is required, while it is optional for smaller projects due to their more limited scope and funding. Asset Maintenance projects will incorporate sustainability through a checklist that reflects the wide variety of project scopes within this project category and aims to foreground sustainability while enabling easy navigation for project managers.

The policy’s efficacy vis-à-vis its usability and capacity to deliver demonstrable environmental benefits and superior occupancy experiences will be tested over the next few years. We will also incorporate what we learn from applying the policy to campus projects as well as future developments in green building standards.