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The Gilder Center: Intentional Design for Environmental Sustainability

Sept. 8, 2021 — When complete, the Gilder Center will be the “greenest” building on the Northfield Mount Hermon campus. The building, designed by Flansburgh Architects of Boston, highlights the use of natural light and local building materials to support NMH’s goal of reducing its carbon footprint. Named in honor of the late Richard Gilder ’50, the $30 million, 42,000-square-foot structure situated between the Rhodes Arts Center and Forslund Gym is full of flexible, multi-use academic spaces that can adapt as educational needs change over time. As Head of School Brian Hargrove put it,“We want this building to be a living laboratory, and a place that embodies our commitment to being good environmental stewards.”

Design

The Gilder Center was intentionally designed to meet sustainability standards laid out in the global “2030 Challenge,” which recommends greenhouse gas-reduction targets for architects and builders, specifically by incorporating materials that are produced using less carbon, such as cross-laminated timber and local slate and granite instead of less-sustainable concrete, metal, and brick.

Materials

According to NMH project manager Jeffrey Seymour, the cross-laminated timber used for the three floors of decking and roof makes up about 25 percent of the structure. Cross-laminated timber is a renewable, green, and sustainable material since it is made of wood, which naturally sequesters carbon, and it requires much less energy to produce than steel or concrete. But Seymour said there were additional benefits to using this building material. Timber floors can be constructed much more quickly than using concrete, which involves a time-consuming process of pouring and curing. Seymour said, “The material itself is so green, but on top of that, the speed with which it was installed translated into efficiency, and that means savings. A process that would have taken months, only took a few weeks.”

Local materials were used as much as possible. Slate on the exterior was sourced from Vermont, and the building’s granite facade, which grounds the building physically and visually, comes from northern New Hampshire. 

About 10,000 square feet of glass maximizes natural light and provides stunning views stretching across the Connecticut River. The glass is bird friendly, frit-patterned to break up reflective surfaces with a uniform dot pattern, preventing birds from seeing glass as an extension of the sky.

Systems

All lighting is LED, and all toilets are low-flush/high-efficiency models that use significantly less water than traditional toilets. For now, the existing campus steam system will be used to heat the building, but the Gilder Center has been constructed to be ready to convert to a geothermal system if that becomes feasible in the future. NMH has reduced its carbon footprint by 70 percent since 2006 when the school shifted to the use of biofuels to power its steam plant, so it made good sense to hook Gilder into the existing system, said Becca Malloy, science teacher and NMH’s sustainability director.

Unique features

Malloy, who has stepped into the role of Gilder Center program coordinator, says “immersion” in environmental sustainability guided the development of unique features both inside and outside of the new building.

The building’s main “hub” will have a screen that displays a real-time feed of the Gilder Center’s energy and water use, and a fleet of thermal-imaging cameras will be available for students to observe how efficiently — or inefficiently — resources are being used. Using the hand-held cameras, students will see spots “light up” with energy, such as when daylight streams through a window or “heat” is emitted from a video projector even when it’s turned off. 

There will be an augmented reality interactive sandbox and other opportunities for “playful engagement,” according to Malloy. “As you play and move your hands in the sand, it senses your actions in real time on a contour map projected directly onto the sand surface, with a color spectrum that reflects the surface contours,” Malloy said. “For example, you can interact with a watershed, use your hand to generate a rain cloud, and see the water flow and the impact that has.” Students will also be able to see reports from a campus weather station, or learn about levels of dust and smoke in the air through a special air sensor. And these feeds will funnel into classrooms.

Step outside the building, and you’ll find a rainwater management garden, as well as pollinator houses and gardens, that will serve as outdoor learning spaces for students and benefit the local ecosystem. Sixty new trees will be planted around the building, primarily elms and maples.

“For too long, the environment has been marginalized from our lives,” Malloy said. “So, in Gilder, we’re going to give students literal lenses and a sense of immersion, so that the ‘environment’ isn’t something way over there. Gilder grounds us in a place where we can employ systems thinking and interdisciplinary connections to keep our work as environmental stewards at the forefront of everything we do.”

Watch this video of the construction and see the building’s unique features!