Exterior view of college campus
Photos courtesy Michael Moran

Bowdoin College Unveils Maine’s First Commercial Mass Timber Project

Discover how the new pair of HGA-designed buildings further the campus’s commitment to carbon neutrality. 

The campus of Bowdoin College, in Brunswick, Maine, is a composition of architectural styles. The Walker Art Building (1894), designed by Charles Follen McKim, provides a stately anchor fronting the Main Quad, while the adjacent Visual Arts Center (1975), designed by Modernist Edward Larrabee Barnes, plays off McKim’s neoclassical gesture with clean lines and volumetric forms. Across the quad, the college’s neo-Romanesque chapel (circa 1850), designed by Richard Upjohn, is both grand and modest, befitting its old New England context, and stands as the gateway to Bowdoin’s east campus, where groves of “whispering pines” dot the landscape by the hundreds.

“There’s a beautiful dialogue between eras all around campus. It has that sense of familiarity, but also a quality of something new.”

Nat Madson, design principal, HGA

“There’s a beautiful dialogue between eras all around campus. It has that sense of familiarity, but also a quality of something new,” says Nat Madson, a design principal with HGA. True to form, tucked among the pine groves of the east campus stand a new pair of HGA-designed buildings: Barry Mills Hall and the John and Lile Gibbons Center for Arctic Studies (CAS). 

Mills Hall, clad in locally sourced red water-struck brick, houses the Digital and Computational Studies and Anthropology departments, including classrooms, faculty offices, a screening room, and a 300-person event space. The CAS building, clad in a black long-form brick, provides Bowdoin with a much-needed upgrade for the college’s storied collection of artifacts from Arctic expeditions dating back to 1860, along with research and teaching labs, classrooms, and administrative offices.

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While distinct in both function and materiality, the buildings share a soul. Their elegant massing, gabled roofs, and offset geometries complement each other yet fit beautifully within the “contextual sensitivity” of the historic campus, Madson says. Their combined 46,000 square feet of space also happen to comprise the first commercial-grade mass timber projects in the Pine Tree State. Consequently, the carbon savings from working with structural timber, which Matthew Tonello of Consigli Construction calculates to be an 80 percent reduction over a comparable steel superstructure, are in keeping with Bowdoin’s ongoing mandate to keep its campus operationally carbon neutral (which it achieved in 2018, two years ahead of schedule). 

Campus building interior space with yellow displays
The two all-electric buildings are served by a shared chilled- and hot-water system to condition the spaces and provide tight temperature and humidity control for the collection areas. The chilled water and hot water are produced from a heat recovery chiller coupled with a peak electric boiler and peak air-cooled chiller. Each building also has its own central air handling system for ventilation and conditioning.

Honoring the School’s Design Legacy

Bowdoin is made up of smaller, human-scale buildings. HGA wanted to honor that design legacy, which harmonized nicely with the all-electric buildings’ combined energy needs. Underground, Mills Hall and CAS are conjoined by a shared electric boiler that is independent of the campus’s natural gas–fired central heating plant, which is being phased out as part of the college’s plan to be fossil fuel–free by 2042. (Each building has its own air handler.) “We are legitimately offsetting our electricity use,” says Matt Orlando, Bowdoin’s CFO. Orlando also points out that the power needs of both buildings are well within the campus’s existing renewable energy capacity, all of which is drawn from on-site rooftop PV arrays, off-site solar farms, and purchased Green-e energy credits, and the college covers 100 percent of campus electricity use with renewable energy each year.

The Center for Arctic Studies, however, with its vast collection of taxidermy and other natural artifacts, presented an “energy challenge,” according to Leighton Deer, senior mechanical project engineer with HGA. Temperature, humidity, and ventilation controls are painstakingly maintained at “Smithsonian-level standards,” while stacked volumes and triple-pane windows help keep the space airtight. Incidentally, such indoor environmental conditions “would have thrown [Mills Hall] into chaos,” Deer says. According to Susan Kaplan, CAS’s director and chair of the anthropology department, “This is a museum by design. The objects now have space to breathe.”

Students working at large tables in campus building
Mills Hall houses the Digital and Computational Studies and Anthropology departments, and features classrooms, offices, a screening room, and a 300-person event space. The CAS building stores the college’s collection of artifacts from Arctic expeditions, and houses research and teaching labs, classrooms, and administrative offices.

Bringing the Forest Indoors

The operations and maintenance needs of each building are indeed different, but their architectural bond is palpable. Within Mills, the tactile warmth of the exposed timber posts and beams frames views of campus evergreens, and within CAS, the timber is staged in gradations to accent the darker exhibition spaces, where natural light must be diffused. From the outside, the side-by-side contrast of light and dark masonry work is complemented by the handmade quality of the facades. 

Lauren Piepho, structural project engineer with HGA, highlights Bowdoin’s many “gateways” and how the pine groves informed their design: “This was once a working forest, and that stuck with us. We thought, ‘Let’s bring that history inside. Let’s bring that sense of the whispering pines into the buildings in a more literal sense.’” 

Campus buildings surrounded by pine trees
The mass timber structures of the new buildings echo the nearby pine trees and evoke the legacy of Maine’s timber trade.

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