Planning for the Phoenix to be reborn

Naomi Darling, faculty in sustainable architecture at Mount Holyoke College, is working with student assistants to plan a carbon-neutral future for the home of the building nicknamed “the Phoenix,” home to the nation’s first all-female fire brigade.

In alignment with Mount Holyoke’s goal to become a carbon-neutral campus by 2037, Five College Associate Professor of Sustainable Architecture Naomi Darling is spearheading a campus renovation project of the College’s historic fire station in collaboration with a local architecture firm, C + H Architects. The project can serve as a demonstration project for the smaller wood-framed buildings on campus to achieve net-zero status and help accelerate Mount Holyoke’s progress toward carbon neutrality.

Nicknamed “the Phoenix,” the building was home to the nation’s first all-women’s fire brigade, as well as the first fire department in South Hadley. With the help of four student research assistants, Darling, who is also a working architect, is redesigning and revamping the Phoenix to preserve its interesting history while also updating the structure to become a vibrant hub for architectural creativity.

“The project is a historic preservation of the exterior and an adaptive reuse of the interior to make it net-zero operational energy, low embodied carbon and an exciting case study for how Mount Holyoke can renovate some of the smaller buildings on the campus periphery,” Darling said.

What does that mean in practice? Darling and her four third-year student research assistants — Isabel Colina ’25, Micah Cagampang Heller ’25, Meghan MacBeath ’25 and Lauren Madsen ’25 — are spending the semester meeting, researching and putting their skills into practice. They’re developing the spatial design to transform the old fire station into a laboratory studio.

“We are converting the Phoenix into my creative workspace as an architect, and we're designing it specifically so students can work with me on various projects, almost like a science professor has a lab where students are invited in,” said Darling.

This will be a multiphased, collaborative project: The archival research, programming and spatial design of the old fire station, along with material selections and assemblies for low embodied carbon, are scheduled to happen during the academic year, and C + H architects will continue the work during the summer developing the construction documents, said Darling.

The student research assistants are all architectural studies majors who have been studying together for the last few years, after taking an Introduction to Architecture course their first year at Mount Holyoke. Their current work includes working with 2D and 3D drafting and modeling software to model the topography of the site, the existing building and proposed changes, and to draw detailed wall sections that will be informed by several carbon calculator apps. Among the apps the research assistants are currently using are the CARE Tool (Carbon Avoided Retrofit Estimator) and BEAM (Building Emissions Accounting for Materials). CARE quantifies the total carbon impacts of renovating an existing building versus replacing it with a new one. And BEAM calculates embodied carbon emissions for building materials.

“Right now, as architects have gotten better at designing for net-zero operational energy [the amount of energy used in the day-to-day operations of the building like heating, cooling, lighting, etc.], the focus has shifted more toward embodied carbon,” Darling explained. “Particularly the carbon that is emitted from the material procurement, manufacturing, transport and construction phases before a building is even occupied. This is all the carbon that we're putting into the atmosphere right now, and our actions this decade are critical if we are to have any hope of keeping warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.”

“The Phoenix is an old building with a dynamic history that is worth preserving, but from an energy standpoint, there’s a lot that we can do to make it a more comfortable building while using much less energy,” she added. “The carbon calculators will help us ensure that the materials we select don’t put a lot of carbon into the atmosphere before we are even able to use the space.”

“That has been a really eye-opening thing to play with,” said Madsen, who is also an environmental studies minor. “On these apps, you can shift even the tiniest thing — or what I previously assumed was the tiniest thing — and change, for example, the insulation system. And it will drastically adjust the amount of embodied carbon in the project.”

The research assistantship is an opportunity for students to actively work on a specific building on campus to help Mount Holyoke address making the campus more sustainable.

For MacBeath, who is double majoring in architectural studies and dance, the research assistantship has also been an occasion to fuse what some might assume to be disparate interests.

“Recently, I’ve been thinking of dance choreography as a way of directing movement through space. And then how does an architect, through their designs, direct the movement that people take through space?” said MacBeath, who will be studying abroad in Copenhagen next semester to further her studies in sustainable design and also plans to go to graduate school for architecture after she graduates from Mount Holyoke.

“I am [also] really interested in this idea of an adaptive reuse project,” she said, referring to the process of working with an existing structure and adapting it to a new use. “We started by doing some archival research on the building and its former uses, keeping in mind the history embedded in the project itself.”

Indeed, the Mount Holyoke fire house has a storied history as home to the nation’s first all-women’s fire brigade. Mount Holyoke students decided to form a fire brigade in 1895, as fire danger on campus was high, with small rooms and even entire buildings sometimes going up in flames. An article in the New York Journal documented both the historicity and the necessity of the group: “The fire which the girls extinguished might easily have destroyed the seminary had it been neglected,” a reporter wrote of a then-recent mission. “Young women who are capable of organizing a fire brigade, and in addition are capable of actually fighting fire after they have organized it, would scarcely stop at anything.”

The history and memory associated with the building are in part what motivated Madsen to want to participate in the project, and she hopes others can take away from the idea of reusing and redesigning historical spaces.

“Generally speaking, a lot of people instantly jump to doing a full tear-down and rebuild and without trying to preserve the previous bones of a building,” she said. “There’s something pretty remarkable about occupying a space and knowing that it was occupied by my fellow Mount Holyoke students from decades and decades ago, trying to be a part of a fire brigade. That seems pretty sensational.”

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