The Great Hall of Middlebury College’s new Bicentennial Hall is a majestic, airy space with windows four stories tall and views stretching beyond the Addison County countryside to the Adirondacks; it is also an intimate place, with clusters of comfortable chairs and tables throughout where students, faculty, and staff can meet before and after classes. What gives this hall its warmth and makes it an inviting place to gather and chat are the dozens of red oak panels that reach from floor to ceiling.
These panels are more than beautiful. They reflect the college’s desire to use natural resources sustainably and help the local economy. In addition to the recycled materials in the insulation and the triple-glazed windows, nearly all the wood trim work in Bicentennial Hall, including the expanse of red oak paneling in Great Hall, was harvested locally using sustainable harvesting practices.

Middlebury College officials began planning Bicentennial Hall more than five years ago, with the goal of completing construction by 2000, the school’s 200th anniversary. The largest building on campus, its 220,000 square feet would house classrooms, a library, offices, and, sitting atop the $47 million marble structure, an observatory. Design of the building was well under way when college officials decided to make one important change.

“President McCardell a few years ago identified some peaks of excellence here at the college that need to be recognized,” says Randy Landgren, director of academic facilities planning. One of those peaks was the school’s environmental awareness. Landgren proudly notes that the school launched its recycling program before most schools and businesses, and Middlebury has initiated a more aggressive composting effort than most institutions.

The school stopped all planning on the building and brought together staff to identify possible changes in Bicentennial Hall’s design and construction which would produce environmental benefits. About 100 ideas came out of that day-long discussion, with proposals ranging from putting a sod roof on the building to installing composting toilets—two ideas eventually rejected—to using wood certified as “green.”

The architects, Payette Associates of Boston, had already planned to use red oak for trim and paneling throughout Bicentennial Hall, a wood traditionally used in academic buildings. Staff, however, argued that locally grown, sustainably harvested wood would have a double benefit: helping the environment and keeping money in the local economy.

“Here we are in one of the most heavily forested states in the union, we have an incredible mix of hardwoods here, we have wood products industry, and we have a strong environmental ethic in this state,” says Landgren. What the state had not fully developed, however, was a sustainable wood products industry.

The college connected with Richard Miller, of the Forest Partnership in Burlington. Miller, in turn, called Addison County Forester David Brynn, director of Vermont Family Forests, an alliance of wood lot owners in the Lewis Creek, Little Otter Creek, and New Haven River watersheds, about the possibility of supplying sustainably harvested hardwoods for the interior of Bicentennial Hall. Brynn and other members of Vermont Family Forests (VFF) saw a great opportunity: providing wood for a landmark building right in their backyards. Before they could sell their timber, however, the 31 VFF landowners needed to have their forest management and harvesting practices certified according to the internationally recognized principles of the Forest Stewardship Council.

Actual certification of VFF was done by the National Wildlife Federation=s SmartWood program, based in Montpelier. Examples of the kind of harvesting standards which landowners must meet to have their timber certified include the use of water bars, avoiding vernal pools,  and leaving dead wood for amphibians and reptiles.

“But, just because it’s certified isn’t going to get the landowners significantly more money,” says Brynn. The VFF landowners realized real economic gains in this project by efficiently moving the timber from logger to trucker to mill operator and back again without the need for brokers.

Landgren says Middlebury officials agreed to incorporate sustainably harvested paneling and trim expecting to pay a premium of about 2 percent. In the end, however, the extra costs exceeded 5 percent, in large part because this was the first project of its kind in Vermont. Landgren and Brynn agree that the next time a business or institution opts for wood harvested sustainably in Vermont, the cost should be lower. In fact, Brynn says the VFF intends to be competitive with typically harvested timber.

“This project was the first of its kind. None of us had done anything like this before,” he says. “There were all sorts of the associated inefficiencies in figuring this out.”

VFF landowners supplied two-thirds of the 125,000 board feet of sustainably harvested timber in Bicentennial Hall; the entire project provided employment to 30 loggers, truckers, and mill owners. The hardwoods used in the building are sugar maple, red maple, red oak, cherry, basswood, white ash, black birch, white birch, black cherry, and beech.

Each corridor in Bicentennial Hall now exhibits a single hardwood, and lecture halls also feature individual woods, giving each its own character. One lecture hall, for instance, is paneled in cherry that will darken and become even more comfortable with age. (Due to a decision to use softwoods, certified wood was not used in the structural work.)

“Using the different woods has made the building warmer,” says Landgren. “While the college is in session, visitors are invited to come and see the effects of beautiful, sustainably harvested wood.”

Brynn says many VFF landowners have already visited.

“Between going to the forests, harvesting it in an environmentally sound manner, getting it milled locally, and then using it nearby, that’s what sustainable forestry is all about,” says Brynn. “There’s something special about being able to make that connection.”

To learn more about sustainable forestry and forestry practices, please visit the Forest Stewardship Council’s website at http://fscus.org and the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation’s website at http:// www.vtfpr.org.

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