Berea College

If you’re looking for the greenest college in the United States, you can forget about New England and California. Instead, hitch a ride to central Kentucky, where tiny Berea College has been an eco-pioneer for 150 years.

Back in 1855, Berea College was an unlikely school in an unlikely place. Founded by the abolitionist John Gregg Fee with the belief that all humans share the same blood, the school sprouted like bluegrass in the rich Kentucky soil. Among other decisions, the college opened its doors to black and white students alike, long before society valued policies of inclusion and nondiscrimination. Even more curiously, the college didn’t charge tuition, and instead simply asked its students to provide honest work for an honest education.

“We believe there’s dignity in all labor,” says Steve Karcher, Berea’s vice president of operations and sustainability. “Doesn’t matter if you’re a teacher’s assistant, a custodian, or a grounds worker. It’s something you can learn from and use to contribute to the community.” And the scholars grew verdant alongside the bluegrass.

Fast-forward to the roaring end of the 20th century. The past 150 years had seen the American economy undergo a drastic change. First, the evolution from agriculture to industry. Then, the makeover from an economy forged by manufacturing to one built on information. All the while, Berea has continued to guide itself based on its ‘Great Commitments,’ a package of mission statements with focuses on diversity, unity, faith, the liberal arts, and Appalachia.

One segment of these core beliefs stands out from the rest: “…to encourage in all members of the community a way of life characterized by plain living, pride in labor well done, zest for learning, high personal standards, and concern for the welfare of others.” This particular credo has inspired the school’s leadership to turn its eyes toward sensitive and sustainable building practices to take the college into the modern world. The rest of the world calls it ‘green building’—for Berea, it’s just business as usual.

They started small: turning off lights, covering the pools, filtering with ultraviolet rays, installing low-flow sinks, toilets, and showers in dorms and offices. These are the kind of actions some companies are just now considering, but Berea has been tackling them for the better part of a decade. “We’ve pretty much picked clean the low-hanging fruit,” Karcher says.

For decades, Kentucky’s Berea College has made conservation a priority. After an energy audit from Aramark, the school identified ways to further improve its operations.

Invigorated by its first foray into the world of sustainability, Berea’s top brass decided to craft a manifesto. “We wanted to increase the emphasis and show evidence that we’re serious about sustainability at an executive level,” Karcher says. So they set about creating an updated mission statement. Building by building, they began a series of retrofit exercises and explored the next opportunities for energy savings by commissioning Aramark to perform an energy audit. The result was a $4 million bundle of potential improvement projects. “We wanted to approach this in two ways: both in dollar savings and energy reduction, but also as an educational opportunity,” Karcher says.

Nowhere is this formal thrust more apparent than the school’s plan for its brand-new Deep Green Residence Hall. The three-story, 42,000-square-foot building will house 120 students in 66 rooms. It’s a bit of a departure from the college’s usual practice of rehabbing existing structures, but it’s with good reason. ““We don’t build new very often,” Karcher says. “We’ve been around long enough that we keep using and reusing and renovating what we’ve got. [But] if we’re going to build something new, how can we make sure it’s consistent with our commitments, and how can we educate students about sustainability?”

Karcher and his team started putting the word out to attract suitable architects. After attending a conference in St. Louis, two Missouri firms were on their short list: Hastings+Chivetta and Hellmuth + Bicknese. Torn between the two, they partnered with both and developed some intrepid ideas about integrating challenge-based living into their new residence hall. “We wanted to work with them as equal partners,” Karcher remembers. “It made sense geographically, and they were excellent engineers and architects. We were really trying to make this a game-changer and be bold.”

The design they eventually landed on was reliant not on science-fiction bells and whistles, but on behavior that would hit several petals of the Living Building Challenge, a sustainability rubric that focuses on the building’s capacity to educate as well as perform efficiently (in addition to green construction techniques and materials).

“We’re holding ourselves to standards that go beyond LEED Platinum and beyond the LBI [Living Building Institute],” Karcher says. “What we’ve ended up with is this really interesting approach to a building that doesn’t require cutting-edge technology. And we think it’s going to be the greenest res-hall in the country.” Such thinking helped them arrive at a building that didn’t boast just one feature as a crown jewel of sorts—more like several gems that make the building a crown in and of itself.

Berea College has pushed boundaries since its formation in 1855 when it offered education to both black and white students. Today, it’s on the forefront of green building—even without the use of new technologies.

The Deep Green Residence Hall features a centralized geothermal system (six of Berea’s other buildings also incorporate the technology), and despite using fairly traditional methods, the team developed a highly effective building shell by keenly focusing on infiltration. There’s a 50-kilowatt photovoltaic solar array on the roof that generates about 14 percent of the building’s electricity. There are no red-list chemicals or PVC, and the recycled brick originates from within a 500-mile radius of the school.

Outside, there are rain gardens that incorporate native vegetation. The interior trim is made of wood harvested from Berea’s FSC-certified forest, located two miles outside of town. “We used some very sustainable techniques, like mule logging,” Karcher says. “It was part of the education process.”

Deep Green also incorporates what Karcher calls the “building dashboard.” The display technology, offered by a company called Lucid Systems, focuses on behavioral modification. It’s a real-time monitoring system already utilized in other areas across the campus, and it’s designed to generate dialogue around students’ actual energy usage in their own dorms. “In addition to screens around the school, there’s a Web interface, so you could be sitting in your room and pop on to compare your res-hall to others on campus, and even across the country,” Karcher says. “It’s an interesting way to foster competition.”

But perhaps the idea most central to Berea’s sustainability mission has been the involvement of the students and local community. Take the furniture, for instance. It, too, is harvested from the school’s forest and built by students in the college’s craft department, and students were involved in both the construction and design of the Deep Green Residence Hall. As for the community, special precautions were taken to preserve the heritage of the land and its former inhabitants. The area has a rich history of American Indian tribes (and later settlers), so Berea professors used the Deep Green site for an archeological dig before construction began. Some of the artifacts they found were integrated into the building.

Talking to Karcher, there’s a powerful sense of honor and sensitivity to those who came before. This land—this community—is immensely important to the decision-makers at Berea College. There’s a palpable commitment to taking the future and making it an homage to the past. Deep Green grew out of that.

“This has been about getting people to think and to talk,” Karcher says. “Students are seeing what’s possible in green design. It’s been a long process, but it’s been worth it.”