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SUNY ESF combines values, architecture in new welcoming center

The new Gateway Building at Syracuse's SUNY Environmental Science and Forestry campus is meant to be more than a welcoming center, incorporating many of the environmental values the school is known for.

SUNY ESF President Neil Murphy says the new $28 million center fulfills a decade old dream at the school.

"The dream was to have a building like no other building had ever been designed and constructed," Murphy said. "That adopted as many sustainable practices we could possibly introduce in the building, and have a building that can celebrate basically what our faculty and students spend their time and energy on."

Among those environmentally friendly features are roof gardens, solar panels, and a concourse that looks like a grove of trees. There were some challenges, says architect Ellen Watts, because of the narrow footprint of the west-facing building. So designers took that into account in designing the front of the center.

"We optimized the solar orientation by creating a serrated exterior wall, that basically makes the west orientation south," Watts said. "So the daylight comes in from the south, but you still have little views through windows through the west."

Watts also says the center, including its main hall, embodies the values and history of the campus.

"The concourse deliberately looks like a grove of trees," Watts said. "So structural columns that were needed, steel columns basically in the concourse and the lobby have splayed timber braces that are also needed to stabilize the structure.  And we made them look like trees to create the feeling of a canopy."

It could be said the highlight of the building is in the basement, where what amounts to a power plant uses wood pellets to create energy. It will provide 65 percent of the campus's heating needs and 20 percent of its electrical power. Sustainability director Michael Kelleher says the $3 million plus cost of the boilers, micro turbines, and gasifier will be paid back in little more than the time it takes a student to graduate with a four year degree.

"We expect to save about $400,000 a year," Kelleher said. "So our payback will be in about five years with energy costs being the same. And we'll pay back the entire system in seven."

The Gateway Center is the centerpiece of the college's climate action plan to achieve carbon neutrality by the year 2015.

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.