Project Benton Hall
Architect Robert A.M. Stern Architects
Colgate University in Hamilton, New York, recently celebrated its bicentennial. Perhaps there is no better time to introduce a new, sustainably designed building to its campus—one set to stand for another 200 years. Plans for Benton Hall, which houses Colgate’s Center for Career Services, had gone through a few iterations before principals Preston Gumberich and Graham Wyatt of Robert A.M. Stern Architects took charge of the project.
The earliest of the campus’s buildings dates from 1827. It and buildings that followed are traditional in the vernacular of upstate New York during its Erie Canal heyday, clad in locally quarried bluestone with limestone trim and slate roofs, embodying what Gumberich calls an “elegantly stoic character” with an almost singular ornamental focus on entryways. Among the campus’s late 19th-century buildings, a few have rich Romanesque detailing. Gumberich shares this: “The campus administration was instrumental in the design—the president, Brian Casey, wrote his dissertation on ‘The Romantic Campus and the American College from 1880 to 1940,’ exploring what historic campuses meant to students and alumni of that period. He thought the design needed to reflect Colgate’s heritage,” says the architect. “President Casey, who is impressively thoughtful and well informed, directed our attention to Colgate’s Romanesque,” adds Graham Wyatt. “When we are asked to add a building to an existing campus, we approach it much as we would a commission to add to an existing building. For Benton Hall, our design is rational and efficient, on the model of the campus’s historic buildings.”
The new 16,600-square-foot hall sits on the northeast corner of Academic Quad, occupying what had been, according to Gumberich, a “vacant corner in a most prominent location.” The building is positioned to allow “breathing space” around it, establishing a commanding presence and providing views of the bucolic landscape from within. Split- and-seam-faced Llenroc bluestone quarried in nearby Ithaca clads the majority of the facade, while cast stone, simulating limestone, was used for the Romanesque pilasters, colonettes, buttresses, horizontal banding, and entry arch. “We viewed the use of cast stone over limestone as an advantage because it allowed us to implement ornamental detailing that we might not otherwise have been able to afford with real stone carved by hand,” Gumberich explains; the emphasis was on achieving the best value for every dollar spent. Of special note are the jointing patterns, which create the illusion of individual blocks of limestone, when in truth, they are cast-stone panels scored with faux joints. This was one of a few strategies developed to keep the project budget on track.
Adapting to the steep site, the design puts the arched campus entry close to the grade of the upper quad, while the visitors’ entry is a full story below, conveniently close to Oak Drive, a main campus-access road. In terms of the building’s functionality, two office suites occupy the ground floor—the operations suite and the employer relations suite, designed for on-campus interviews; those rooms are clustered around a multifunctional space that opens to the main corridor. One set of stairs accesses the second level, which includes the Career Commons, a large flexibly-furnished media presentation room, and a seminar room.
Many of the interiors are distinguished with quarter-sawn white oak paneling; but the ceiling moldings represent another cost-savings innovation. The original design called for glass-fiber reinforced gypsum, but the team worked with a plaster fabricator, using stock moldings to build a layered effect on the coffered ceiling. “It was a great success,” says Gumberich. “It’s beautiful and economical, and the contractor praised its ease of installation.” He notes, too, that plaster’s ability to resist temperature variations (unlike wood) makes it an exceptionally durable material for this application. Similarly, real granite was used for the flooring because of its capacity to hold up against decades, perhaps centuries, of near-constant pedestrian wear.
Sustainable design is a core principle at Colgate. It is the first university in New York State to achieve carbon neutrality. In fact, all new construction projects are required to be, at minimum, LEED Silver−certified. The design team wanted to push it further; they made Passive House certification the goal. Measures taken to this end include: an airtight building envelope, confirmed by blower-door testing, comprising six-inch exterior EPS rigid foam, as well as mineral wool batts inserted within the stud cavities for an R-36 wall assembly that includes CompacFoam (with an R-value of nearly 4 per inch) for blocking to prevent thermal bridging; a roof of 12-inch-thick structural insulated panels (SIPs); an energy recovery ventilation (ERV) unit; low-flow plumbing fixtures; LED lighting with occupancy and light-level sensors; and on-site stormwater management, among others.
The building’s transparency is on full display in the light-flooded upper-level gallery, with its views of the campus and distant landscape. The idea was to include biophilic design elements, with windows as large as possible—typically at odds with Passive House standards. To meet the criteria, the team specified aluminum-clad European white oak windows by Makrowin, sourced from European Architectural Supply. The triple-glazed, thermally broken units have an R-value of nearly 8, as compared to R-3 or R-4, at best, for standard aluminum insulated windows.
Despite all efforts, the project did not earn Passive House certification due to the building’s orientation and its relationship to adjacent buildings and the nearby quad, which was paramount. Nonetheless, the building performs at Passive House levels. “We achieved a Passive House building envelope without a budget premium, and the building has already demonstrated a significant reduction in energy use that will pay dividends for decades to come,” says Wyatt. (According to building envelope consultant Terry Brennan of Camroden Associates, Benton Hall has a 59 percent cost savings in energy consumption compared to a baseline design.) Notably, the building did achieve LEED Platinum certification.
Asked for final thoughts, Gumberich expresses gratitude for Colgate’s commitment to sustainable development and “its simultaneous dedication to design that reinforces the remarkable history and beauty of its campus, proving that sustainability and style are not at odds with one another.”
For his part, Wyatt adds: “Every campus has a prevailing architectural character—often several strains, with one or another dearest to the hearts of the campus community—as well as underlying organizational principles, that we, as architects, study in ways that go beyond what those who occupy the campus may be conscious of. I feel we owe it to each campus to carry forward, rather than disrupt, the character that their institution values most.” Benton Hall stands as a testament to their success.
Lead Design Firm Robert A.M. Stern Architects
General Contractor Hayner Hoyt Corp.
Civil Engineer Delta Engineers
Structural Engineer Thornton Tomasetti
Masonry Contractor Remlap Construction