Founded in 1782, Washington College was the first college chartered in the sovereign United States. Sited on the idyllic Chester River, Washington College has focused the planning of their campus to physically and programmatically integrate the River and the campus. In addition to maximizing scenery, the river acts as an important learning tool for a diverse array of environmental academic programs and research initiatives at the College, including interdisciplinary academic majors in environmental studies, biology, and the Chester River Field Station. The Semans-Griswold Environmental Hall (SGEH) creates an innovative place for these programs and connects students to their surroundings.
Due to the unique needs of environmental studies students, a variety of lab designs needed to be incorporated into the building. The environmental and biology lab serves as a learning space for environmental studies students. A wet lab featuring a state-of-the-art river flow system brings ambient water from the Chester River directly to students and faculty to study river ecology and marine biology in a controlled environment. The watershed innovation lab serves as the home to the Chester River Watershed Observatory allowing students to work with buoys that monitor the river’s quality, side-scan sonar, and build aquatic robots. The unique capabilities of these labs create a regional hub for hands-on research of the Chester River and serve as a magnet for thought leadership centered on the environment.
BUILT & NATURAL CONNECTIONS
Sited on a remediated brownfield, formerly a fertilizer plant and fuel depot, the 11,500 SF SGEH was designed to meet the rigorous standards of the Living Building Challenge Petal Certification. The Living Building Challenge focuses on regenerative buildings that connect occupants to nature and are designed to give back more than they take. A testament to Washington College’s waterfront renaissance, the net-positive building relies solely on renewable energy sources to operate pollutant-free year-round.
The building produces over 105% of its energy intake and puts more energy into the grid than it removes. This is accomplished by a rooftop photovoltaic array of 300 solar panels and a geothermal well field that allows the building to take advantage of the stable temperature of the earth to reduce energy requirements to heat and cool the building. Other key features include operable windows with electronic sensors, ample natural light, and a dynamic filtration system to improve indoor air quality.
The building’s design features clear visual and physical connections to the Chester River which reinforces the work done in the field and in the lab. The interior circulation spine is a vaulted space with clerestory reflecting the building’s exterior profile bringing daylight deep into the center of the building. A welcoming wrap around porch with warm wood finishes complements the scale of the building and its natural setting. Large expanses of south facing glass allow low winter sunlight to enter interior spaces while generous overhangs, porches, and other shading elements provide protection in the summer months. The simple honesty of structural expression coupled with the form and modesty of materials serve to inspire students while recalling traditional tidewater waterfront vernacular and reflects the history of Chestertown and the Chester River.
While the building and site design take maximum advantage of physical and visual connections to the river, the College wanted to ensure the riverfront was also made accessible to the community. The design incorporates pedestrian paths that roam through a diverse mix of native wildflowers, grasses, shrubs, and trees to work to restore the previously contaminated site to a productive habitat area. The curvilinear paths and carefully designed landscapes frame views to both the river and environmental hall. Along the paths, educational signage engages visitors, linking pedestrian networks in the surrounding community as part of a larger “rails to trails” waterfront connection.
In addition to enhancing the riverfront pedestrian experience, the landscaping also serves as an outdoor classroom for students learning about the benefits of sustainable landscape design. The landscape serves as an example of the importance of riparian buffer to protect a river from stormwater runoff, side grading and elevations to provide protection against storm surges, and low-impact, pervious material choices.
Ayers Saint Gross is an internationally recognized, interdisciplinary design firm with expertise in architecture, planning, landscape architecture, graphic design, interior architecture, and space analytics focused on supporting colleges, universities and cultural institutions. Since our founding in 1912, we have built a reputation for designing environments of enduring value. Our work is marked by a commitment to align the physical form of our designs with the mission, structure, and spirit of each institution. We do not design in isolation, but in a way that grows from the spirit of our clients. Our design is inspired by critical and analytical discourse, a respect for past wisdom, a mind for future potential, and a belief that we have an obligation to leave places better than when we found them. Our mission is to engage people and places to create designs that enrich our world.
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