By Michael Blanding ’95

One small college’s role in addressing climate change

Outmoded construction and years of deferred maintenance riddled the building with drafts. No matter how Williamstown winters raged, it was the only building on campus without snow on the roof. “The Log was an energy disaster,” says Wright. “It had a cupola on top where the heat went right up into the air.”

This year, the facilities team gave the building a long-overdue makeover. In addition to fixing structural problems, they turned the Log from an environmental disaster into an exemplar.

Mapping the changes since 1990
Over the next five years Williams will continue to reduce its emissions to 35% below 1990 levels. View the full-size map.

Contractors replaced the dilapidated roof with a new, state-of-the-art, standing seam metal roof and installed an array of photovoltaic cells on top to provide a quarter of the building’s energy needs. Clapboards were removed to blow insulation into the walls, and old light bulbs were replaced with high-efficiency LEDs.

When the building reopened in November, nostalgic alumni could breathe a sigh of relief that the original fireplaces, walls full of memorabilia and initials carved into wooden tables all remained intact. Despite the nod to the past, however, the building represents a vision of Williams’ future. The renovation is only one step the college has taken in recent years to become a model of sustainability, reducing energy use and carbon emissions to do its part in slowing the devastating effects of global climate change.

In September, President Adam Falk and the Board of Trustees announced a new goal of reducing emissions on campus to 35 percent below 1990 levels in five years, reaching carbon neutrality by the close of 2020. The ambitious goal is part of an all-hands-on-deck plan to invest as much as $50 million in campus improvements, regional and onsite renewable energy, and education.

Growing Campus > Shrinking CO2 Footprint

In 1990, built square footage on campus totaled 1.9 million, and emissions stood at 21,400 metric tons of CO2. By 2006, a slew of building projects grew the campus footprint by 26% and emissions by 54%, where they peaked at 33,000. Additional building projects added another 3.8% to our square footage by 2014, while sustainability efforts brought down emissions 14% from the 2006 peak. Over the next five years Williams will continue to reduce its emissions to 35% below 1990 levels.

“We want to be good stewards of our resources and responsible citizens in the region and globally, but it’s also a critical part of our educational mission,” says Falk. “This is a really important opportunity to engage students in a conversation about our behavior. To the extent they can take those conversations out into the world, that’s an important part of their education.”

In 1967, the college was one of the first in the nation to establish an environmental studies program. As the evidence of climate change became increasingly apparent, the work moved beyond the classroom to engage the entire Williams community, beginning with the founding of the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives in 2007. Established with a $5 million gift from Selim Zilkha ’46, the center’s mission is to “incorporate principles of sustainability into the fabric of campus life.” The results of its influence can be seen in the college’s green building practices; its work to reduce waste in dining halls, dorm rooms and computer labs; and in projects like the infrared surveys to monitor and reduce carbon emissions.

As the college works toward its new goal, the Zilkha Center, with its three full-time staff and annual operating budget of $119,000, will continue to be a resource, an adviser and, most importantly, a driver of environmental stewardship on campus.

“To set a goal of 2020 for carbon neutrality is on the aggressive side, and $50 million is a lot to invest,” says Julian Dautremont-Smith, director of programs at the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE). “It’s awesome to see an institution that has the resources to get behind this in a meaningful way.”

Building Green

From 1990 to 2006, the campus saw a slew of building projects, including the Morley Science Labs, the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance, the W.L.S. Spencer Studio Art Building and the Paresky Center. The new buildings increased the college’s footprint from 1.9 million square feet to 2.4 million. Over that same period, energy use on campus increased by 50 percent, resulting in a 54 percent increase in carbon emissions, from 21,400 metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) to 33,000 annually.

Students sounded the first alarm. Spurred by the growing evidence of the effects of climate change, environmental groups circulated a petition signed by half the student body and 100 faculty to cut emissions significantly. In response, then-President Morty Schapiro created the Climate Action Committee, which recommended reducing emissions to a level 10 percent below 1990’s level—to the equivalent of some 19,300 metric tons of CO2 annually—by 2020 as well as hiring a sustainability director to oversee development and implementation of a strategic plan to address climate change.

In January of 2007, the trustees voted unanimously to adopt the goal and establish sustainability as an institutional priority. The Zilkha Center was founded that fall, bringing to campus for the first time administrative staff whose sole focus was on sustainability.

One of the first steps recommended by the center was switching the fuel used by the college’s central heating plant from No. 6 fuel oil, the cheapest and dirtiest form of heating oil, to natural gas, which produces 30 percent fewer emissions.

“That’s clearly still a fossil fuel and has its own set of environmental issues,” says Amy Johns ’98, director of the Zilkha Center. “But in the short term there are fewer emissions.”

The next step was finding ways to use less energy.To reduce the carbon footprint of new construction, the trustees adopted building standards for projects costing $5 million or more, committing to seek at least Gold certification in the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system put forth by the U.S. Green Building Council, which awards points based on energy conservation.

“Years ago, sustainability was an afterthought,” says facilities’ Wright. “Now it’s the first thing we think about.”

The college also now considers the projected energy use per square foot of proposed buildings, expressed in terms of Energy Use Intensity (EUI). The Log had an EUI of 120 when renovations started; now it’s 69.

Water Conservation

Water use across campus has decreased by nearly 15% since fiscal year 2006. In part that’s because the college replaced all of its toilets with low-flow models. In new buildings such as Hollander and Schapiro halls, installation of low-flow fixtures resulted in 40% water savings over conventional ones. Students, faculty and staff are encouraged to be conscious of water use.

When planning started last year on a new 60-bed residence hall on Stetson Court—the first student housing built on campus in four decades—EUI was at the forefront of the discussion. “It was magical how much it changed the architects’ design process,” says Johns. “They changed the orientation of the building, the types of materials, the amount of glass.”The process resulted in an EUI of 32, compared to an average score of 78 for residence halls at Williams.

So many strides have been made in construction that it can be more environ- mentally efficient to build an entirely new building than to rehab an old one. That’s
the direction the college is taking with Bronfman Science Center, which opened in 1968. Bronfman, Sawyer Library and other buildings constructed on campuses across the country between the late 1960s and late 1980s are “not great buildings,” Wright says. Because they have shorter lifespans, offer less programmatic flexibility and are more expensive to maintain than most constructed before or after that period, he says, “Every campus is facing either renovating them or tearing them down.”

Over the next few years, the 90,698-square-foot Bronfman will make way for a new, similarly sized building, and a 75,000-square-foot facility will be added to the back of Morley Science Center. The two new science buildings will increase the entire science complex’s footprint by 30 percent, yet together they are estimated to use a third less energy than Bronfman currently does by itself.

Facilities earmarks $1 million of its $13 million annual operating budget for sustainability projects, working with the Zilkha Center and others to prioritize them. The projects might include blowing new insulation into older buildings through holes drilled in the walls, replacing oil boilers with more efficient gas ones, installing low-flow toilets and waterless urinals, and replacing windows and light bulbs. Last year, facilities replaced all 6,000 light bulbs in Morley Science Center, reducing energy usage from 186 kilowatts to 163 kilowatts per year per bulb and saving $16,800 a year in the process.


Bulb replacement and other conservation measures were completed in 80% of college dorms. In Morley Science Labs, all 6,000 light bulbs were changed from 32-watt incandescents to 28-watt fluorescents, reducing energy used by 12.5%, to 163 kilowatts.

The infrared surveys done by helicopter revealed other buildings in addition to the Log in need of roof replacements, including the college’s largest residence hall, Mission Park. More critically, they showed which underground steam lines were losing massive amounts of heat and needed insulation.

Of course, the biggest example of, and greatest ambition for, green building on campus is the new $5 million Class of 1966 Environmental Center, home to both the Zilkha Center and the college’s Center for Environmental Studies. On Nov. 10 the environmental center began extensive monitoring to prove it can live within its means for a full year, using only the power created and water collected onsite to meet the Living Building Challenge (see “Greener Than Green,” Williams Magazine, summer 2015). It’s no easy task, with heavy use expected for its classroom, kitchen, library and meeting spaces—and it’s possible that Williams won’t meet the standards initially.

“The purpose of this is more educational than operational,” says Ralph Bradburd, chair of environmental studies and the David A. Wells Professor of Political Economy. “Students will experience the extremes of living with a zero footprint. It’s a real demonstration that the college is walking the walk.”

The college’s concerted efforts toward sustainability are already bearing fruit. In the fall of 2012, CO2 emissions were recorded at 20,800 metric tons, hovering around 1990 levels and within striking distance of the Climate Action Committee’s original goal a full eight years ahead of schedule.

There was a brief uptick, when emissions rose to 24,400 as a result of construction of the 140,000-square-foot Sawyer Library. But it was clear that the college’s goal—however aspirational it may have seemed in 2007—was now far too low. The impetus to change it, once again, began with students.


The parade stretched across campus last April, with more than 100 students, professors and alumni wearing bright orange shirts that read, “Will you stand on the right side of climate justice?”They carried signs with slogans like, “It’s Our Turn” and “Invest in Our Future.” The goal of the procession, which ended at the dedication of the environmental center, was contained in a single word: Divest.

The movement of colleges and universities to divest endowments from fossil fuel companies has surged across the country over the past few years, akin to the 1980s movement to divest from companies doing business in apartheid South Africa. A student-led group called Divest Williams urged the college to divest its $2.8 billion endowment from the 200 companies with the largest fossil fuel holdings, circulating a petition signed by 600 members of the Williams community.

Meanwhile, a quieter but equally forceful student campaign was under way to reduce college emissions even more. A petition calling for setting a new target of 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 was signed by 1,500 people.

The Campus Environmental Advisory Committee and Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility weighed in on both proposals, and the trustees spent several months considering them and determining how the college would address climate change. In September, President Falk and the trustees announced the goal of carbon neutrality by the end of 2020 and a host of related initiatives. While crediting the divestment movement in part with spurring more urgent action, the board decided not to divest in the ways requested by petitioners.

“We have determined that the college will respond to this imperative not by divesting from a particular set of companies, but rather by making significant investments on our campus and beyond,” the announcement stated. In fact, Williams had already with- drawn its direct investments in fossil fuels as part of a wider strategy to move away from investment in all directly held stocks. As with most colleges, however, the vast majority of Williams’ endowment is managed by independent fund managers in commingled funds. Withdrawing from that arrangement to return to managing its own investments would come at a significant price.

“It would be hard to imagine absorbing an impact of that magnitude without it affecting the experience of students in really significant ways,” Falk says.

The decision went beyond financial concerns. “In my view, divestment is a very weak form of leadership—it’s passive and doesn’t ask anything of the people in our community,” Falk says. “If the top 50 colleges sold their stocks in some companies, that would be a statement. But if the top 50 colleges all committed to going carbon neutral, that would be much more powerful.”

Clean Fuels

The college’s central heating plant switched the fuel oil it burns from No. 6, the cheapest and dirtiest form of heating oil, to natural gas, which produces 30% fewer emissions.

Meeting the new goal requires much more than improving energy efficiency. It will also mean significant investments in alternative energy on campus and in the region. The campus currently uses 24 million kilowatt hours of electricity per year, according to Matt Sheehy, associate vice president for finance and administration, whose office collaborates with facilities on fuel purchasing. A few years ago, Williams installed a co-generator that runs off the steam from a high-pressure boiler, producing 4 million kilowatt hours of electricity. Another 10 million is expected to be produced starting as early as December 2016, when another, larger co-generator goes online.

“Then we are left with 10 million. What do we do with that?” asks Sheehy. Solar panels on new and existing buildings, including the environmental center and the Log, will offset about 5 percent of that amount, he says. The rest will need to come directly from investing in energy-reduction efforts and new alternative energy projects.

The college has hired an energy consultant who’s been in discussions with several solar and wind energy developers. Committing to purchase from them at an increased price, say 10 cents to 12 cents per kilowatt hour versus the 9 cents the college currently pays, may help make projects feasible that weren’t before. To increase Williams’ buying power, the Zilkha Center is partnering with the Five Colleges, including Amherst, in a consortium that would make investments together. Ideally, Johns and Sheehy say, such investments would be in Berkshire County, but the college is searching for viable projects throughout New England.

Insulation and Weatherization

Infrared surveys of the campus done by helicopter revealed many smaller, older buildings like the Log in need of insulation, new roofs and other improvements. After Goodrich House was insulated in the summer of 2014, the amount of steam used to heat the building dropped by 42%.

Even with electricity from 100 percent renewable sources, the college still needs to address emissions resulting from operations such as heating buildings, food production and travel to, from and around the campus in order to reach carbon neutrality. These num- bers are more difficult to track, with many factors—such as extreme weather—beyond the college’s control. But the Zilkha Center is working with students and departments across campus to raise awareness and share ideas. This semester, students expressed interest in winterizing dorm rooms, taking a page from the popular Winter Blitz program that helps local residents winterize their homes.

Getting to carbon neutrality will likely involve carbon offsets—a practice in which companies or nonprofits pay into an alternative energy or forestry project as a way of compensating for their own emissions. The act can be controversial; carbon offsets are hard to measure and can seem like buying the right to pollute.

“I don’t think anyone can totally get to zero without some form of offsets,” says AASHE’s Dautremont-Smith. “The question is how much those will be a part of the mix.”

The plan announced by trustees in September calls for purchasing offsets only after all other means have been pursued vigorously. In the meantime, the college is exploring its own means of creating offsets locally. One way is by partnering with a nonprofit in Williamstown or North Adams and giving it a no-interest loan for an insulation or roofing project that the college can count toward its own emissions reduction.

“It makes it easier for us to make sure the reductions are actually happening,” says Johns. “But it also allows multiple benefits at once. If there is a struggling nonprofit having difficulty paying its heating bills, we can help them with that, and they can have more money to put toward their mission.”

Waste Not

Raising awareness and creating partnerships are hallmarks of the Zilkha Center’s work around campus. In 2008 the center partnered with library and technology staff to track the amount of printed pages left at copy machines and printers, counting 500,000 sheets in the fall. With student and faculty input, they developed a printing quota, implemented in 2009 using software called PaperCut. That, coupled with efforts encouraging faculty to accept homework and papers electronically and to think carefully about printed materials, has reduced paper consumption by 30 percent.


The Zilkha Center and dining services have implemented sustainable practices that include purchasing food from local farms and sending 21 tons of compost to nearby Holiday Brook Farm. Reusable utensils, plates, cups and containers have cut down on trash. A new system measures and helps reduce food waste during meal prep; a similar system is being piloted to measure leftover food. Two dining halls eliminated trays, cutting wasted food by 1/3 or more.

In 2011, the center worked with dining services to implement a sustainable food and agriculture program to reduce the college’s carbon footprint and support farms in the area. Now fresh produce comes from Peace Valley Farm in Williamstown, milk from High Lawn Farm in Lee and yogurt from Sidehill Farm in Vermont, and dining services regularly seeks out new partnerships. The dining halls increasingly offer seasonal menus and make use of new equipment such as a pesto processor and blast chiller that preserves produce for later use. They also experiment with “no-impact” meals using only those foods grown within 150 miles. “For breakfast, we’ll serve apple cider instead of orange juice,” says Bob Volpi, director of dining services.

Last year, dining services instituted LeanPath to measure food discarded during meal preparation. The system consists of a scale attached to a tablet computer connected to the Internet, and staff can monitor waste in real time. “It changes our awareness,” says Volpi. “Let’s say I’m making stuffed peppers. I may now just take the stem off, where in the past I may have cut off the whole top of the pepper and thrown it away.”

Mission Park’s dining hall is piloting a similar system to track the food students throw away after meals. Before clearing their plates, students can weigh how much is left over, raising their awareness about waste and helping dining services staff tweak menus. Two of the college’s three dining halls have done away with trays, which research has shown can reduce the amount of wasted food by a third or more.

The Zilkha Center began working with dining services five years ago to provide reusable drawstring bags for takeout at the Paresky Grab ’n Go and the Science Center’s Eco Cafe?. They also purchased plastic “eco shells” for takeout from Whitmans’ Dining Hall. Students borrow the shells, which are cleaned and sanitized between uses. Dining services purchases 2,000 shells annually, replacing the 100,000 paper takeout containers that, until recently, were thrown away each year.

Using reusable utensils and plastic plates and tumblers for major campus events such as Mountain Day, Commencement and Reunion also cuts waste dramatically. “After doing an event like Convocation for 2,500 people, the waste we have is equal to only a barrel-and-a-half of napkins,” says Volpi. In the past, for an event that size, custodians hauled away two dumpsters full of trash.

“Somebody needs to pilot the best practices to combat climate change and figure out what needs to be done and how to do it,” says Johns. “Williams has the intellectual capital and prominence to make it happen.”

Investing in Knowledge

To meet its ambitious goals by the close of 2020, it’s clear that Williams will need unprecedented creativity and problem-solving across all corners of campus and beyond.

“We need to engage in an important conversation with the community about our behavior,” says President Falk. “Where do we want to set the thermostat? Do we want to let students have cars on campus?” Compared to other colleges, Williams has a high percentage of single rooms in its dorms. “In the long run, is that a sustainable way of running residential life? In the end, we need to look at the way we live as a part of the solution to the problem,” he says.

In addition to these conversations, the college is planning a campus-wide academic program for 2016-17 called “Confronting Climate Change,” a series of events, talks and curricular initiatives throughout the year aimed at educating the Williams community about the science and policy of climate change. And the college is creating two new positions for faculty whose scholarship and teaching are focused on climate change and related public policy.

“Climate change is the challenge of our time,” says Bradburd. “We still have to change hearts and minds. There are people who are very excited about what is going on and very committed, and there are some who are oblivious to it all. Our hope is we will make more of the students aware and knowledgeable.”

And that’s perhaps where Williams can make its biggest investment: in the contributions its students will make as alumni.

“We educate and send 500 students out into the world every year,” says Johns. “It’s important that they be exposed to these ideas in deep and meaningful ways. You can’t teach sustainability without having the practice of it.”

Michael Blanding ’95 is a Boston-based writer. His latest book, The Map Thief: The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps, was released in paperback in June.