When Unity College students return in late August for the 2013-14 academic year, they will experience a transformed campus.  Over the past several years, the Unity campus has undergone significant upgrades and transformations, including the construction of TerraHaus, the first residence hall in the United States built to the Passive House standard, the most energy efficient standard in the world.

Over the summer months a slate of projects, both big and small, are being undertaken.  The projects will improve energy efficiency, provide students with cutting-edge laboratory research facilities and equipment, and provide enhanced aesthetic appeal on a campus that has maintained its rural charm from its founding in 1965.

Two things have changed since Unity’s founding: the world and Unity College’s place in it.  Changes to campus have closely paralleled the needs and expectations of the plugged-in, computer savvy Millennial Generation.  Perhaps more importantly, offerings such as the state-of-the-art geographic information system (GIS) multi-media classroom and training lab completed in 2012 ensure that Unity remains true to its strong environmental mission by remaining relevant in a changing world.

Efficiency, utility, and service to students are important aspects of every project.

“It is important that students know how their tuition dollars are being spent,” said Senior Vice President for External Affairs Melik Khoury.  “At Unity College we understand that the physical space is as important as the intellectual space.  This is yet another in a series of renovations that we are doing in order to continue to support our mission by making our buildings more sustainable, and creating the kind of space that students can enjoy as their ‘home away from home’.”

Appealing to a New Generation
“The progress made to our facilities and for the aesthetic appeal of campus has been on a steady arc of improvement for a decade, and we have been increasingly investing in the future while divesting from the past,” said Director of Residence Life/Assistant Dean for Student Affairs Stephen Nason, an employee of Unity College for 18 years.  Nason’s comment offered a nod to Unity’s status as the first college in the United States to divest from investments in fossil fuels.

“With respect to facilities that support a leading-edge vision for 21st century environmental education, Unity has done a good job of ensuring that our facilities keep pace with our aspirations,” Nason said.  “Our buildings have become more effective tools for teaching, which is particularly appropriate given Unity’s hands-on approach to learning and in service to its sustainability science core.”

Sustainability science, which unites all aspects of the College, is the leading edge of transdisciplinary (collaborative) 21st century environmental problem solving.

Nason’s office is located in the Student Activities Building, the largest building on campus, and home to a restaurant style student center with performance space, offices, classrooms, a climbing wall, fitness center and gymnasium.  Built with materials popular in the 1960s that now are highly inefficient from an energy perspective, the Student Activities Building consumes the greatest amount of energy among all campus buildings.  During the summer of 2012, a five-inch layer of insulation was added to the roof.  Currently, the entire outside of the cinder block and brick building is being covered (the brick side is being power washed and preserved without being covered), with 2-3 inches of sprayed foam insulation.  All the windows in the building are being replaced.  The finishing touches involve covering all non-brick surfaces with a functional and aesthetically pleasing metal siding.

In addition, chair lifts will be added to both main staircases, making the Student Activities Building one of the most accessible on campus.

Sustainability is Key
Given Unity College’s focus on sustainability both in practice and curriculum, improving the R-value (a measure of thermal resistance used in the building and construction industry) from nearly zero to R13 has been a goal for Dan LaForge, Director of Facilities and Public Safety.  He has overseen the planning of the many projects unfolding this summer at Unity, most of which included involvement from diverse segments of the College community including senior administration, staff, faculty, and students.  The dizzying array of 25 campus improvement projects slated to take place this summer alone are a labor of love for LaForge, who is just in his second year at Unity.

“In the past two years we have improved the look of the campus dramatically,” said LaForge.

Campus Grows in Popularity
Whether by design or happy coincidence, the improvements have closely paralleled positive changes in the College’s student body.  Known for one of the most well respected Conservation Law Enforcement programs in New England, in recent years Unity College has also adopted and expanded other programs such as Sustainable Agriculture and Captive Wildlife Care and Education, improving the diversity of the student body.  The Conservation Law Enforcement program still remains very popular.

Nason estimates that when the fall 2013 semester begins, Unity’s student body will include students from 36 states, quite an improvement from just a decade ago, when Unity attracted students from 25 states.

Nason reports that on-campus housing is at 114 percent capacity.  “For the first time ever, 70 percent of students are asking to live on campus,” said Nason.  “The number of juniors and seniors who want to live on campus went up by 20 percent for this fall compared to last fall.  We have a strong residential community with services and aesthetics that are very appealing to students.  Our consistent campus upgrades are a factor in the lure of living on campus.”

Director of Marketing Bob Fitzpatrick sees a link between campus appearance and viability.

“Facilities upgrades that assist teaching and research bolster the appeal of a college or university,” said Fitzpatrick.  “Also, the appearance of a campus has even broader importance.  First impressions matter, and students prefer colleges that are newer, more cared for, and that offer the kind of improvements we have been making at Unity.”

On the academic side of the coin, three major improvements will provide a spark for the sciences.

The geology, chemistry and molecular laboratories are being upgraded.  In the case of the chemistry lab upgrade, the entire room has been gutted and is being reconstructed and fitted with equipment that meets the highest standards.

After a year of careful planning involving Associate Professor of Geoscience Kevin Spigel and LaForge, the geology laboratory will move across campus to a larger space that is renovated to do double duty, serving as both classroom and laboratory space.

Elements of the renovations within the laboratories will enhance teaching and learning, such as an enclosed space within the molecular laboratory that is devoted solely to microscopes, offering lighting conditions to make use of the microscopes in the space more comfortable and quite possibly more efficient.

Additional faculty contributed to planning the laboratories, says LaForge, including Assistant Professor Sarah Cunningham, Associate Professor of Marine Biology Emma Creaser, Instructor of Chemistry Wilma Lombardi, Professor of Geochemistry Lois Ongley, and Associate Professor of Biology Aimee Phillippi.

Nearby Quimby Library which had a large solar array and wood pellet boiler installed during the extensive campus improvements last summer, will have all of its panels connected to the grid by Central Maine Power.  From the installation of the panels, 2/3 of the maximum energy the grid was capable of producing was available online.  Now, a full 100 percent of the energy produced by the array will be online.

As with many things at Unity College, installing the panels was a family affair.  ReVision Energy, the company that installed the solar array, employs several Unity alumni, including John Luft ’93, Brett Irving, ’02, and Matt Wagner ’02.  The trio also worked on the TerraHaus project.

An Important Symbol Gets a Face Lift
One of the more talked about changes taking place this summer is one of the least costly.  Two Unity College signs welcome visitors to campus, one near the main entrance adjacent to the Welcome Center and the other at the top of Quaker Hill across from Constable Hall, a historic building that once housed the Constables, the family that donated the land the College was built on in 1965.  The sign across from Constable Hall will be perpendicular to the road and double sided, while the sign adjacent to the Welcome Center will be single sided.

Like with most projects at Unity College, the sign design was a team effort involving LaForge, Fitzpatrick, and Marketing Coordinator Kate Gilbert. Fitzpatrick pointed out that the time was right for an upgrade.

“The signs are decades old,” noted Fitzpatrick.  “The idea to replace them was in order to reflect who we are now and to showcase our new brand logo while still taking a terrestrial approach that honors Unity’s past.  I think the signs will perfectly balance the College’s past with its present and future.”

A number of designs were considered and presented to senior leadership as well as Professor of Art Ben Potter, with the final design – a metal disc and lettering with a stone base – earning unanimous approval.  Installation of the signs will begin in July and be completed before the beginning of the fall semester says LaForge.

In recent years Unity College has gained national attention for a variety of achievements including its focus on sustainability science; its ground-breaking “green” innovations such as the award-winning TerraHaus, the first student residence on a college or university campus built to the Passive House standard, the most energy efficient building standard in the world; and for being the first college in the United States to divest from investments in fossil fuels, igniting a growing national movement in higher education.

Unity College is a private college in rural Maine that provides dedicated, engaged students with a liberal arts education that emphasizes the environment and natural resources. Unity College graduates are prepared to be environmental stewards, effective leaders, and responsible citizens through active learning experiences within a supportive community.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013