If We Must Build A Science Center...

  • By Ben Walker '16
  • bwalker16@amherst.edu

Volume XXXVI, Issue 2, November 1, 2013

ben walker

On October 11, the Board of Trustees released a statement announcing the new site of the planned science center. In its new location, where the socials sit at present, the complex would herald an intensive re-development of “East Campus,” ensuring the long-term success of the College. Just a week before, Ned Kleiner ’16’s article “The Art of Not Doing,” written for The Indicator (Volume XXXVI, Issue 1), argued, for environmental reasons,  against the construction of the science center. Kleiner claimed that the College—which observes a stated commitment to sustainability—ought not build at all, pointing toward the massive carbon output involved in construction. Instead, Amherst should recognize and affirm the environmental value of inaction, given the accelerating pace of climate change. The construction of a new science center, Kleiner concluded, ran against the College’s own environmental interests: “As much as we might yearn for fancy new dorms or a state-of-the-art science center, even if we have the money to build them, it is irresponsible and selfish for us to do so.”

Kleiner’s critique proved eerily prescient. In the statement released on the eleventh, the Board of Trustees trumpeted their sensitivity to the threat of climate change, listing their “commit[ment] to cutting-edge sustainability practices in all of its new construction” among the primary interests guiding a revamped design process for the science center. President Martin extended the Board’s overture to the College’s environmental concerns, writing that the science center would come to “embody Amherst’s values...as well as its resolve to steward its resources wisely." In light of the Board’s statement, Kleiner is right to call the College’s confused environmental position to attention. To be sure, Amherst College cannot continue to willfully ignore the carbon output of new construction while claiming any mantle of environmental “responsibility.” Yet despite Kleiner’s protestations, it seems that Amherst will make good of its promises for a rebuilt science center, and everyone, save Ned, will be happy. 

So what’s an environmentalist to do? Given the scientific basis of Kleiner’s argument, how are we to reconcile the environmental consequences of construction with its inevitability? While little can be done to prevent the science center’s construction at present, we can’t exempt Amherst’s future interests and actions from our consideration. With this in mind, the science center’s new design must account for the pressures of future expansion. It must be designed in a way so that Amherst never has to build another. I’m suggesting that, instead of building a single science building, we build several

At face value, this suggestion might appear environmentally irresponsible. An “unpacked” science center would certainly occupy a larger surface area and would likely complicate the construction process. But these concerns cannot measure up to the long-term value of a decentralized science center in terms of its environmental costs and its usage. A decentralized science complex could accommodate future needs for expansion, renovation, and adaptation, while the one-size fits-all mentality embodied by Merrill cannot. The previous design for the new science center was thought of in the same mode. Each department fit inside a single building, and did not appear to anticipate any want for significant alteration or expansion.

Decentralizing the space used by the sciences allows room for expansion and prevents the need for an entirely new science center in the future. This makes sound environmental sense within Kleiner’s “do no harm” ethic. In this scenario, Amherst can adapt its buildings to incorporate changing technologies without having to abandon the buildings themselves, or, as in Merrill’s case, launch a multi-million dollar campaign to replace them. If we have to accept that Amherst will continue to construct, smart design can limit the need for future construction and serve a higher environmental purpose on the terms Kleiner has suggested. 

There are certainly strong arguments for a decentralized science center beyond Kleiner’s environmental concerns. At this moment, Amherst needs buildings that respond to and support the life of our community. We need buildings that are connective, open, and enmeshed within the campus itself—buildings that are, in other words, built to scale. Amherst’s size and character demand a humanistic architecture reflective of the College’s larger commitment to liberal-arts education. A large single-building science center has no place within this paradigm. So when embarking on a design process that will have lasting effects on our community, we should consider not only the consequences of construction but the physical campus’ role in the College’s mission as well.