Miller Hall: A Way Forward

Right now, as we shuffle about our individual homes during our first couple of weeks of virtual instruction, we miss Miller Hall. Students, faculty, and staff can’t return to campus during this period of self-isolation. So, instead, let’s visit this beloved building in our minds by exploring what makes it unique and special to us. Through a series of editorials, we’ll commence a behind-the-scenes look at this building’s hidden treasures and how they are the way of the future. First, consider Miller Hall on a typical morning:

It’s a pleasant spring day — not rainy, so it can’t be Tuesday or Thursday. Miller Hall stands proudly, a mixture of traditional Georgian style and modern sleekness. It’s bustling. A steady stream of people cross Ukrop Way from the parking lot and sidewalks. They walk up the brick steps to three double-sets of front doors. For reasons that remain a mystery, students mostly filter through the automatic door on the far right. Faculty disappear through the center door.

We have just arrived; the building welcomes us. We enter, and everyone fans out, unaware that behind-the-scenes there are teams at work maintaining a sophisticated environmentally-sustainable infrastructure.

Let’s meet a member of one of these teams. A man in black slip-resistant dress shoes is walking down the hallway. He happens to be the Director of Building Services, Andrew Gilstrap. We join him…

A man on the team

“Everything from the design of the building to construction practices was done with sustainability concepts and best practices in mind,” Andrew Gilstrap says.

His job involves a lot of walking inside the building. He oversees green practices and works with the operations team to ensure that Miller Hall doesn’t harm the environment. In particular, he asks hard questions:

“How are we cleaning up after ourselves? What waste do we have, and where is it going? How much is getting diverted out of the waste stream into recycling, and how do we improve that? How do we teach students, or guests, or visitors how to do that?”

Gilstrap’s team works hand-in-hand with the facilities group that helps with trash and recycling. They’re also working with a student group and food services in an effort to improve composting.

“Instead of throwing food waste away, how can we compost it? The college has a farm. How do we put it in that farm to be able to create compost for future growth?”

By working on solving these questions, Gilstrap and the rest of building management continue the work of the builders of Miller Hall.

Dedication to sustainability

Designed by Robert A.M. Stern Architects, L.L.P., Miller Hall was inaugurated October 2, 2009. At this time, the building was awarded LEED Gold Standard by the U.S. Green Building Council.

“It’s a big deal. There’re very few buildings that are LEED Gold, and it is a difficult task to make happen, and it takes everybody on board from the folks who plan the lighting, to the people who put on the roof, to how you install drywall and paint it, and to even the materials used to be able to get LEED Gold.”

LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. The certification is based on a point system that assesses various aspects of the building such as planning, design, construction, and building maintenance. There are four levels of certification: platinum, gold, silver, and certified. Platinum and gold are the hardest to attain.

“The state of Virginia a few years ago actually passed a law that all state buildings will be LEED-certified, so anytime we remodel or build a new building, it has to meet some type of LEED’s standard. Miller Hall was at the forefront of that happening.”

Staying green

To this day, the building maintains the same practices that earned this distinction. For example, lighting, heating, and air conditioning (as the largest consumers of energy in the building) are constantly fine-tuned; they’re now quite sophisticated.

All lightbulbs are energy efficient. Most are on timers or sensors that automatically dim when no one’s in the room. Gilstrap monitors and controls the level of brightness during the year depending on the season. In winter months when it’s darker outside, the lights are turned up; during the summer, when there’s more natural light, some automatically turn off.

Meanwhile, the building’s heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system are all on one central system, which allows the building management team to control each individual room from their computers. They use control methods and robotics.

“The system right now is to the point where it will monitor itself, and it will self-regulate everything from how much energy it’s using to the temperature of individual rooms, whether they’re being used or not used. It will check the carbon dioxide levels in the room, change airflow rates to make sure the building is healthy and well for the people that are in it. And, it’s all done mostly automatically with little intervention from us.”

Keeping track of metrics

Gilstrap is careful about what enters and leaves the building. Left-over materials such as residual paints are recaptured and reused or disposed of sustainably. Chemicals used to clean the building are green and environmentally-preferred. Aerosols are avoided. Trash liners and paper products, such as hand towels and toilet paper, are made from recycled products and can be recycled again.

Even packaging items shipped to the building is minimized. “You buy a product, and it comes in a package. And sometimes they put that in another package and put that on a crate and send that to you. So I ask them, Can we just have it loose?” This cuts down several steps of packaging and boxing, and it reduces overall waste.

Building management also pays close attention to how people use resources such as water.

Tens of thousands of gallons are potentially wasted through faucets, toilets, and drinking fountains. Gilstrap monitors water usage and constantly adjusts appliances in an effort to save as much water as possible.

For example, bathroom faucets are aerated and are on timers that automatically shut off the flow of water. By analyzing the number of times people press the button, and by monitoring which faucets are most frequently used, Gilstrap determines if he needs to adjust the amount of time in order to save water. If he notices people consistently push a particular faucet’s button twice, he might lengthen the time by a few seconds so they’ll only push it once, and use less water overall.

In a similar way, he tests the length of paper towels. His goal is to find the Goldilocks condition — if people pull a certain number of towels at a time on average, then each sheet should be a certain length so ultimately the minimum amount of material is used.

Miller Hall’s management team seeks the safest best solutions. They constantly test new ways of doing things, which are then evaluated to determine if they work better than the old ways. If not, they’re abandoned. Since technology continues to advance, the quest for improvement is never-ending. Miller Hall doesn’t stand still on making positive changes.

It takes the community... and the people inside it

Maintaining this level of green-ness requires the dedication and collaboration of many teams.

“We can’t maintain this building and its sustainable practices alone; we have to have partners of the whole campus to make this happen. We partner very heavily with our facilities group here on campus, and they’ve helped us in tremendous ways that we couldn’t have done alone. Our sustainability group here on campus — even our student groups — have helped us develop, maintain, and create sustainable practices, and then update them as time passes.”

Gilstrap aims to make his work appear effortless. On a typical day, he’s a familiar sight walking down hallways. His work behind-the-scenes is critical for the functionality and productivity of Miller Hall. Even now as we sit at home, Zoom-ing back onto campus, we can be confident that he is working diligently for our eventual return.

No one anticipated our abrupt departure from campus due to a highly contagious virus. Now we know this is a reality. As such, each of us — and even our buildings — have new responsibilities.

Miller Hall is at the forefront.