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October 10, 2018

Bowdoin's new Roux Center isn't just another academic building

Photo / Maureen Milliken Bowdoin College's new Roux Center for the Environment is framed by the school's iconic white pines, part of the inspiration for the building design.

The story of Bowdoin College’s new Roux Center for the Environment begins with the iconic white pines that surround it on the Brunswick campus.

“The Bowdoin pines are the DNA of the college,” said Timothy Mansfield, partner with CambridgeSeven Associates Inc. of Boston and lead architect on the project, which will be dedicated today.

The college wanted a building that would reflect its focus on an interdisciplinary approach to the environment and also provide engagement between technology, environmental awareness and learning.

CambridgeSeven wanted to make it special.

“We poured our heart and soul into it for a lot of reasons,” Mansfield said Tuesday. “We love Bowdoin.”

The result is a 29,167-square-foot building at the corner of Harpswell and College streets like nothing on the campus — or on any campus in Maine.

The building is LEED platinum certified, as well as being the campus’s “most technologically advanced building,” Mansfield said.The contractor on the project was Warren Construction, of Freeport.

The dedication comes 19 months after ground was broken. But the process began several years ago.

The Roux Center is the eighth building or renovation the firm has designed on the campus. “Cambridge Seven has a long and wonderful relationship with Bowdoin,” Mansfield said.

When a tree is more than a tree

Courtesy / CambridgeSeven
The rear of the Roux Center during construction. The wood siding is Cambia thermally modified lumber.

One of the most innovative aspects of the building is its Cambia thermally modified poplar siding, which came from Northland Forest Products in Kingston, N.H.

The building represents “a reversal on the concept of wood” as the facade of a building.

“You don’t usually see wood [construction] at a college,” Mansfield said. It requires maintenance, isn’t as durable as other facades and can be expensive.

The thermally modified process, used in Europe for years, but only for about the past five in the U.S., takes fast-growing young wood — in this case poplar — and heats it to destroy the organic compounds in it that are prone to rot and insect infestation. The result is a durable, hardwood that requires no maintenance or coating.

Like the cedar shingles so common on Maine homes and coastal buildings, the coffee-brown wood weathers to a soft gray over several years.

Mansfield said the wood cladding is also symbolic of what the building stands for.

It “grounds the building not only in the state of Maine, but also in the Bowdoin campus,” he said.

The building’s designers used the concept of a pine tree as the philosophy behind the design.

Beautiful on its outside, a pine also offers lessons once it’s felled and split open, with its life layers visible through its rings.

Mansfield said that envisioning the form and concept of the building through that process helped work out how that form will relate to the building’s use and the school’s philosophical goals.

Philosophy aside, the college facilities committee was “curious, but they didn’t necessarily buy in” when the wood siding was proposed.

A group that included a CambridgeSeven team and members of the facilities committee visited a building in Wisconsin that used the wood.

“It was a very convincing trip for us, and in the in end, Bowdoin,” he said.

Mansfield said the siding is attached to the building with face screws, so if a piece is damaged, that piece can be replaced.

The wood is also a boost to sustainability — made from common U.S. forest trees.

Making a science building energy-efficient

Courtesy / CambridgeSeven
A rendering shows the Roux Center roof terrace, designed for education and energy efficiency.

In the end, it's still in many ways a science building, and they are hard buildings to make LEED platinum, Mansfield said. The amount of fume hoods needed — vents in labs that minimize harmful chemicals in the air — use a lot of energy.

A lot of elements were put in to play to offset that.

The building is framed with GreenGirt, a composite that conducts less heat and cold than steel.

The siding is a rain screen, which allows water to get behind it and vaporize.

“A good deal of what we do with designing buildings has to do with water,” Mansfield said.

The goal of the Roux Center design was to keep all rain runoff onsite.

On the roof is a 2,820-square-foot garden, 2,470 square feet of which is for observation. The other 350 square feet provides hands-on space, including raised planters and a low-growing section of planting.

The plants include a mix of grasses, flowers and small shrubs such as lowbush blueberry, bunchberry dogwood and sweetfern.

There is also 900 square feet of concrete pavers for gathering and teaching areas next to the garden.

Both the paved area and the planted areas contribute to solar gain reduction, which minimizes heating and cooling loads. The plants also filter rainwater, which is captured in the basement tanks.

Light-colored materials contribute to reducing the heating load.

As a teaching area, the roofscape is “an extreme planting environment and uniquely positioned to study current issues in sustainability,” the design plan says. The experimentation space that is strategically positioned along a public corridor and public roof terrace to allow visitors and occupants a picture of ongoing research and learning.

More than a building, too

Photo / Maureen Milliken
The final touches were being put on the Roux Center Tuesday in anticipation of Thursday's dedication.

The aim of the building is to expand environmental studies as well as focus more on student-engaged learning, rather than the traditional professor at the front of the room lecturing. It will allow disciplines to share space and work together, the college says.

The new building “will bring together scholars and students from across the sciences, social sciences and humanities,” college President Clayton Rose says on the school’s website.

Rose said it will create innovative opportunities for research on the environment and policy, as well as broader opportunities for engagement, not only by the college population.

The building is divided into two sections, with faculty offices and research labs on one side, teaching space on the other. They’re divided by informal common space, and most of the walls, as well as the building's rear exterior, are glass partitions.

The eye-catching three-story glass auditorium at the front of the building has been dubbed The Lantern, “reflecting the fact that the Roux Center is designed to welcome all, to be a space not only for teaching and research but also for performances, community forums, social gatherings, and talks,” says a school publication.

The school is at the forefront of environmental sustainability.

In 2009 the college set 2020 as the year it would achieve carbon neutrality. This April, the school announced it had met that goal, reducing the school's carbon emissions by 29%.

The school announced in May four new dorms on Park Row will be build with Passive House construction. The architect is Lavallee Brensinger of Portland, and the consultant is the engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti, also of Portland.

The school is putting together a new climate action plan with specific goals for 2030.

Keisha Payson, assistant director of sustainability for the college, said in May that, "Obviously we're going to keep going," as far as finding ways to be environmentally sustainable and carbon neutral.

A $10 million gift from David and Barbara Roux in 2016 supported construction of the building.

Lessons for the future

Courtesy / CambridgeSeven
A rendering of the rear of the Roux Center. Transparency throughout the building is one of its features.

Mansfield said the construction had “fun and challenges all mixed in,” made possible by what a great partner Bowdoin is.

He said the collaborative effort also involved the school’s faculty, administration and staff, with a constant eye toward the school’s focus on innovation and the environment.

“It’s the first time we’ve done a collaboration on an academic interdisciplinary building,” he said.

The lessons go beyond the Roux Center, which he sees an an “ambassador” for technical innovation.

He said environmental needs and advances in technology are pushing more thinking outside the box on building construction.

“I see a lot of what we’re exploring [with the Roux project] translating into all kinds of building sites,” he said.

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