How sustainable is the $24 million renovation at Connecticut College?

New London — A group of students in Connecticut College's new Climate Action Club have gathered more than 850 signatures on their petition to make Palmer Auditorium, which is about to undergo a $24 million renovation, carbon neutral and include sustainability considerations.

But administrators defend the process, feeling confident in their sustainability principles regardless of certification but conceding they could do more to keep students informed.

The petition, launched on Change.org on Tuesday, reads in part, "We, the students and alumni of Connecticut College, urge President (Katherine) Bergeron and the Palmer Renovation project team to prioritize sustainability and make Palmer Auditorium carbon neutral (the balance of carbon emissions with carbon removal, or the complete elimination of carbon emissions)."

It continues, "It is vital that Palmer is carbon neutral, or at the very least LEED silver, so that its carbon footprint will not negatively impact our environment for the foreseeable future." Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, is a widely recognized environmental rating system and certification process for "highly efficient and cost-saving buildings."

Students criticized Conn for not incorporating sustainability practices in the Palmer renovation when sustainability principles are laid out in the college's master plan.

Rich Madonna, vice president of finance and administration at the college, told The Day he thought students "operated under the assumption in creating this petition that sustainability had not been part of the thinking of the project."

Trina Learned, associate vice president for facilities management and campus planning, explained the college's process for sustainability considerations. She started by noting the college is "really, really committed to reusing what we've already invested in," hence the renovation of a historic building instead of new construction.

Learned added that the college then looks at water use; energy systems, which will be more efficient than what was put into Palmer Auditorium in its original construction in 1939; indoor air quality; use of daylight; and selection of materials.

She is "delighted that the marketplace is starting to catch up on LEED certification rules," allowing Conn to use materials that are locally sourced or not depleting major sources.

Learned expects to meet the goal of a sustainable building regardless of whether the school pays the "fairly substantial fees" for LEED certification.

"We would actually prefer to take those funds, rather than chasing a point tally, and actually put them into the building," she said.

The U.S. Green Building Council awarded LEED Gold certification to New London Hall on campus, after a $25.3 million renovation that finished in 2012.

Learned said seeing students involved gives the college a "terrific opportunity to continue to reinforce sustainability," though Madonna said one thing they haven't done is give students updates online. Madonna met with Climate Action Club students on Friday, after the students met with Bergeron during her monthly office hours.

"I think people's reaction when they're not freely given information is maybe there's a reason," Grace Neale, one of the students, told The Day.

Avatar Simpson said it was "hard to know what is and isn't in place," and Katie Warren said she first heard about sustainability concerns from a faculty member.

Madonna referenced the hope of expanding geothermal heating and adding solar panels — two ideals cited in the petition — as part of Conn's sustainability plan for the future, though Neale said she would still like to see more immediacy on those fronts.

As for LEED certification, Neale feels that having that name recognition could help Conn with admissions, for students who specifically want to attend a school that values sustainability.

But she said this was a good opportunity to meet with Bergeron and Madonna, and she hopes to hear more about the plans for Palmer Auditorium.

Learned teaches a first-year seminar about the campus, and at the beginning of the design process last year, she brought three seminars to meet with the design team. She told The Day that construction on Palmer is expected to start in February and be ready for occupation in the summer of 2021.

e.moser@theday.com

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