Beyond Platinum

By Kiley Jacques

Dr. Cornelius B. Murphy, Jr., outside the Gateway Center at SUNY’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

Dr. Cornelius B. Murphy, Jr., outside the Gateway Center at SUNY’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

SUNY’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry opens the doors to its Gateway Center—an unparalleled model of green building design.


remember telling them the building had to be beyond Platinum,” says Dr. Cornelius “Neil” B. Murphy, Jr., senior fellow for environmental and sustainable systems at SUNY’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) in Syracuse, New York.

In 2008, when interested parties began laying out what they envisioned for the school’s new Gateway Center, they met with Architerra, a Boston-based boutique firm specializing in high-performance sustainable building design. “We were considering architects,” recalls Murphy, who was ESF president at the time the building was planned and constructed, “and I remember the discussion of what we would require as a minimum for the building: ‘Given you are the College of Environmental Science and Forestry, it’s likely you’ll want a green building.’” Yes, the planning committee agreed, it needs to be green. Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Silver certification was subsequently proposed. “I remember us saying, ‘No, that’s not sufficient.’” LEED Gold certification was then put on the table. “Again, we said, ‘No, that’s not what we want.’” It had to be Platinum. It had to be beyond Platinum.

Chief among the projects proposed in the college’s Climate Action Plan, the Gateway Center is a giant step toward the ultimate goal: carbon neutrality. The building, which formally opened in September 2013, is both a hub for campus activity and a teaching tool that demonstrates sustainability. As the

2014 fall semester commenced, the center was fully operational and had established itself as the focal point of campus activities.

According to Murphy, the center was built, in major part, “to educate our students about how to put their education to practical use.” To that end, the design included features that would evoke questions from students and visitors about how it works. In addition to housing faculty, student, and staff activities, “The building itself had to teach,” he says. “I think that was a guiding philosophy.”

Among the factors that helped the building achieve LEED Platinum certification are its site selection—repurposed land that had been a parking lot near the college’s main entrance, development density and community connectivity, public transportation access, water-efficient landscaping, optimized energy performance, onsite renewable energy, construction waste management, recycled content in materials and resources, indoor environmental quality, stormwater design, and heat island effect. To aid in the effort, neighboring Syracuse University donated a 15-foot strip of property for SUNY’s use and also granted a 15-foot easement.

The integrated high-performance center features a green roof planted with rare native plant species from eastern Lake Ontario dunes and alvar pavement barrens from the northeastern end of the lake. The roof hosts many research and demonstration projects, and serves as a teaching tool for water resource engineering classes. “It’s the synthesis of what is being taught in that course,” notes Murphy.

Students outside the Gateway

The Center holds a portion of the Roosevelt Wildlife collection.

In addition, the Gateway Center—with its Trailhead Cafe, ESF College Bookstore, and a large promenade full of tables where students study, eat, and hold discussion groups—combine for a space that feels intended for them. Furthermore, three large conference rooms, when opened up, accommodate 400 visitors. Also, a portion of the renowned Roosevelt Wild Life Collection is now permanently on display. The Office of Undergraduate Admissions and Outreach—the two departments that have the most contact with the public and make the first impression—have also found a home in the center. In short, it is the college’s very epicenter. “I think the focus on student space but also outreach to the community really dictated the functions that would be served by that building,” says Murphy.

Of particular note is the combined heat-and-power system (CHP), which generates significantly more energy than is consumed by the Gateway Center. (It supplies the campus with 60 percent of its heating needs and 20 percent of its electrical power.) The system serves not only the center but also four other buildings on campus. Though, Murphy notes, “We need another operating year before we can say if it achieves the energy savings that we would anticipate.”

The idea for the center really began with the students—there wasn’t “a holistic space that we could call our student space,” explains Murphy, who shares the students’ mantra: If you are going to teach green, you have to be green. “They absolutely love it,” he says of student response to the building. Also needed was a place that would literally serve as the gateway to the college. “We wanted this building to meet both of those needs. We wanted it to be a special gateway and a special space for our students.” (“Special” is a word Murphy uses often in reference to the center.)

Originally a college of forestry established in 1911, ESF’s planning committee wanted to use as much wood in the building as possible—they aspired to displace structural steel and replace it with glulam beams and other wood applications. “It’s very important to us, given our history, to show how wood can be used in a large modern green building,” Murphy explains. Douglas firs from the Pacific Northwest form beams; other veneers are made of timber from New York State forests. The effect is a striking architectural composition of natural elements.


SUNY’s Gateway Center’s heat and power system generates more energy than is used.

The city of Syracuse has a number of LEED-certified buildings, but this was to be a building that would better connect the college with the greater community. Or, as Murphy puts it, “The Gateway Center was to demonstrate to the community what an extraordinarily designed building can do, and have it be a place where the community would want to visit.” It has proven to be exactly that. “Most of the goals we set were achieved,” notes Murphy. The primary construction material is wood; the school’s history and roots are reflected; and a state-of-the-art bioclimatic shell exemplifies the entire mission. “It provides a high-performance space that optimizes indoor environmental quality,” affirms Murphy.

Back when the idea for the Gateway Center was taking shape, there were no existing LEED-certified buildings on campus, though ESF did renovate a former chemistry laboratory building, which now houses engineering facilities, to achieve LEED Silver certification. Since then, a new residence hall has been LEED Gold certified, and the school conserves energy in several other buildings on campus by lighting and adding high-efficiency motors, photovoltaic systems, and operating some of the campus vehicles using a biofuel system fed by student-produced biodiesel. The energy and sustainability projects that are part of the Gateway Center and the rest of the campus form a core of resources that ESF relied on in developing a new bachelor’s program in sustainable energy management. It has become one of the fastest-growing majors on campus.

Currently, the Campus Climate Action Committee—made up of several faculty, half a dozen students, representatives from the physical plant and from Syracuse University, and several administrators—recommends and implements different activities with the ultimate goal of reducing the school’s carbon footprint. “It’s a cross-section committee,” notes Murphy, saying they are now looking at designs for a new academic research building that will include as many sustainable features as possible. Also on tap is a second CHP facility—the goal, once again, being carbon neutrality.

Many members of the ESF campus community were involved in the Gateway Center’s making, particularly Michael Kelleher, who is now a faculty member but then served as ESF executive director of energy and sustainability. Kelleher put together a proposal—funded by the New York State Energy Research Development Agency—that resulted in a million-dollar grant, which helped support the CHP system. Additionally, the chair of the environmental and forest biology faculty, together with a faculty member in the landscape architecture department and Kelleher, presented a proposal to the New York State Environmental Facilities Corporation; a resulting half-million-dollar grant helped fund resources for the green roof.

When it came to the building of ESF’s Gateway Center, there was no shortage of enthusiasm, no lack of drive or vision. And just about everyone played some kind of role. “I probably led the need for this project to be special,” says Murphy. “I tried my best to reflect the ethos of our students and what I thought our community needed from this project.” The building is the very picture of his success.