Mountain Campus Boasts Sustainability
By George Harvey
Burr and Burton Academy is an independent coeducational secondary in the Manchester, Vermont area. Most of the school’s 700 students are from towns in the Manchester area. Founded in 1829, Burr and Burton has a long history. Today, it has a very diverse range of academic courses. The facility is on three campuses, of which the Upper Campus has the original school buildings. The Lower Campus has many more modern buildings devoted primarily to athletics and arts.
The Mountain Campus came last, and is by far the smallest, but in some ways it is extremely interesting. The school has been using it for the past two years as part of a special program in sustainability. It is not so much a place where students learn from teachers as a place that is itself a teacher.
A goal of the instruction is to have the students focus on a question, “What does it mean to live well in this place?” The building is intentionally a model for how to live sustainably, a model of our environment. The building provides two classrooms along with multiuse spaces, dining, and cooking areas for about 30 students in the tenth through twelfth grades. The program taught at the campus is a single semester long and is considered to be challenging.
While maintaining basic courses, the curriculum at the Mountain Campus curriculum is integrated in such a way that the building, its features, and the environment around it are all part of what is to be learned. The students are instilled with a sense of the possible. The result is hoped to be that the whole experience makes those who attend classes in the building effective agents of positive change.
This is not merely a theoretical education. The students do much of the work needed to maintain the building. This includes such physical work as cutting and splitting firewood. It also includes tracking use of electric, water, and cordwood resources. The building is heated with a masonry heater and a single heat pump, but between the efficiencies of those and the building itself, the students probably get more understanding of how little needs to be done, rather than how much, for heating. Although it is 4000 square feet and has high ceilings, it has taken only two cords of wood to take it through the winter.
One of the important aspects of the education at the Mountain Campus is the food. The very few students who work and study there also eat there. The food they eat is prepared there. The waste is also composted there, and the students take part in that operation as a learning experience.
The Mountain Campus was built by Bensonwood, of Walpole, New Hampshire. Like all Bensonwood buildings, it was built in pieces inside a factory, where the temperature and humidity are closely controlled. In this way, wood can crafted with precision equipment and fitted into modules that are dimensionally stable. The modules are then moved to the construction site and joined together with the least possible impact on the local environment.
The Mountain Campus, like most other Bensonwood buildings, was individually designed by architects. The insulation, windows, orientation, roof overhangs, and all other design elements were specified with the intention of creating a beautiful building that was very energy-efficient and would be long-lasting. The materials in the building are locally sourced. The Mountain Campus was specifically designed to take advantage of the unique features of its location. The windows are not only large resources for passive solar heating, they are windows to an environment that is worth watching and studying.
Clearly, this is a different kind of educational experience, for which we can congratulate Burr and Burton Academy. Likewise, Bensonwood has provided a different kind of classroom building, for which they, too, deserve much praise.