At Unity College the campus itself is a sustainability laboratory - Colleges of Distinction - Colleges of Distinction
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Unity College
Unity College is a small, private institution with 16 environmentally focused degree programs and...
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Unity College

Unity, Maine

At Unity College the campus itself is a sustainability laboratory

As an environmental college that is younger than 50 years, Unity College has some interesting challenges related to the sustainability of its buildings.  Some of these challenges result from the college’s unique beginning. The campus was a regionally important industrial poultry hatchery until 1965. The founders recycled the hatchery into a college. From those humble beginnings, Unity has recycled buildings many times over the years to meet changing needs and serve new programs.  The campus architecture runs the gamut. The campus includes buildings that were once hatchery warehouses, new high-end modern suite style residence halls, an early 19th century farmhouse, a sweep of boxy 1960s buildings that may have used off-the-shelf plans from military architects, the chalet style Quimby Library and the  Hall Welcome Center. Every building has an interesting and unique story.

Sustainability Coordinator Jesse Pyles and Associate Professor Mick Womersley, a sustainability expert, are intimately involved with the sustainability of campus buildings.  During a walking tour of the campus, Womersley and Pyles shared their insights about the history and sustainability of Unity College buildings.  “It is important for every college to consider sustainability in buildings,” said Pyles. “We’re equipping students to deal with pressing environmental issues. At an environmental college like Unity, we are uniquely focused on hands-on environmental learning. The campus itself becomes a sustainability laboratory, and buildings become educational as well as operational assets.”

The newest campus building, Unity House, home of President Mitchell Thomashow and his wife, Cindy, is by far the most sustainable, and most exemplary. It uses no fossil fuel at all beyond what is embedded in the steel, aluminum, hi-tech wood composites, and other über-modern materials of its construction. Named LEED Platinum, this space-age home has attracted national attention. Several versions of Unity House are now being marketed by Bensonwood Homes of New Hampshire, which helped design and built the house as part of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Open Prototype Initiative. “Blueprints for Unity House are free and available for download on the web,” said Womersley. “That’s what Open Prototype is all about, having an open source for construction plans which is intended to drive innovation in the construction industry.”

Pyles and Womersley are frequently seen about campus with spreadsheets in their hands. When they look at buildings, they quote numbers like the annual kilowatt hours they consume or oil consumption.  This gets confusing for the lay listener, but the numbers look good. Greenhouse gas emissions from campus energy use have decreased over 20% from 2001 levels despite adding three new buildings and record enrollments.

Unity College is in the business of sustainability education and the campus and its buildings to reflect these sustainability values, including personal well-being, comfort, and ease of use.  These are all important components to the aesthetic appeal of the place. “Building projects must consider user needs,” Pyles says. “It’s not just about the efficiency of materials and fuels, it’s also about encouraging sustainability behaviors,” he noted.

All of the college’s more recent construction projects, including residence halls  and a new health and wellness center, integrate sustainability design and function well.  They’re no Unity House, but these buildings were constructed with thermal efficiency in mind. “As we pursue new construction on campus, these buildings will be the model that we work from. The challenges that Unity College has addressed have been many and varied.  “Finances have certainly been a challenge”, Pyles stated. “The upfront cost for sustainability in construction and design can sometimes prove to be cost prohibitive, even when the payoff from operations down the road could make the investment a wise choice. ” Analysis is the lifeblood of sustainability, a fact that often shapes his priorities. Unity College is carefully considering its building options through an unfolding master planning process. Regardless of the shape the new master plan will take, campus building renovation projects will balance sustainability with functionality, aesthetic appeal and historical context.