Construction of Kohler Environmental Center Progressing at Choate Boarding School

Imagine attending a school that not only teaches you about the environment in the classroom or a laboratory but also requires you apply the knowledge you gain to life and make everyday choices with sustainability in mind. Recently, the boarding school, Choate Rosemary Hall in Connecticut has begun construction of an academic center that focuses on improving the relationship between humans and the environment.

Choate received a donation of $20 million from class of ’57 alumni Herbert V. Kohler, who is currently the Chairman and CEO of Kohler Company and chairman of Choate’s Board of Trustees. Kohler envisions this Environmental Center will be all about sustainability and appreciating and taking better care of the environment. Kohler donated money for the construction of this center because he wanted to preserve and protect the land from further development.

Robert A.M. Stern Architects (RAMSA) was chosen to design the Environmental Center. Kohler believes they have “a long history of leading-edge design; recently, of balancing aesthetics with sustainable design.” RAMSA wants this building to achieve the highest sustainability ratings and certifications. In the design of the building, they aimed not only for it to be the first LEED-platinum building at Choate, but also to satisfy the more stringent requirements of the Living Building Challenge. RAMSA wants the building to have a net zero energy usage and possibly be entirely off the grid and able to generate enough electricity to avoid relying on outside sources. Also, a wetland is to be constructed which will treat the center’s waste water.

Choate Rosemary Hall owns the 268 acres that will be set aside for the Environmental Center. This land was previously proposed to be a site for an on-campus golf course. However, those plans were dropped because the school believed the land could be used in a more environmentally conscious way. As stated in a memo in 2008, the school felt the land “had an extraordinarily diverse ecological asset that could be further used to enrich the education of students and contribute to a range of educational opportunities not only for Choate Rosemary Hall students but for others as well.”

The green building design and energy saving features are not the only reasons the Kohler Environmental Center will have a positive impact. The experience from learning and living at the Environmental Center will enable students, faculty, professors, and researchers to understand the environment at a whole different level than traditional classroom and laboratory settings. The curriculum will mostly stress environmental science. However, non science classes will be offered as well, but relationships to the environment and natural sciences will be presented. For example, English may be taught, but students will be reading and writing about environmental topics.

Living at the Environmental Center will also enrich a student’s green experience. The dormitories will allow them to see firsthand what living in a green building is like. Students will practice responsible energy use. Also, they will have opportunities to observe the work of visiting researchers.

Despite the potential benefits of the Environmental Center, there have been some reservations and opposing opinions about its construction. Due to the rough economy, Kohler admits he had some trouble convincing Choate’s board of trustees to approve of his project. Choate was losing money and thought selling the land would help the school’s finances. Also, an unnamed faculty member felt that “it’s a mistake to spend $20 million on it.” He thought it was a good idea if it were a smaller scale project and that some of the saved money would be used for financial aid. Also, it may be difficult to attract students to enroll at the Environmental Center. Since only 20 students at a time can live at the center, students participating in a focus group expressed they might get tired of seeing the same faces each day and may feel disconnected from the rest of the campus.

If successful, the Kohler Environmental Center and its educational programs will showcase Choate’s commitment to sustainability and may encourage other schools to follow suit. This new type of learning institution that allows students to both learn and live green may prove to be more effective than the traditional classroom setting in teaching students to be more environmentally responsible.

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