Beyond recycling: Institution starts season with new and ongoing efforts toward sustainability

JOSHUA BOUCHER | Staff Photographer
Bob Perron, Zach Haas and Betsy Burgeson plan rock placement at a garden under construction uphill from University Beach. This new tiered rain garden will help filter out nutrients and pesticides before they reach Chautauqua Lake. The garden will also help prevent erosion of a road that leads to the lakefront

While most Chautauquans were home for the winter, the gardens, landscapes, buildings and grounds staff and crews were busy continuing to make Chautauqua Institution a more sustainable community.

“Everything we do is geared toward improving the health of the lake and making sure our actions don’t impact it in any negative way,” said Betsy Burgeson, the Institution’s supervisor of gardens and landscapes.

Burgeson and her staff have been working to address the main problem facing the lake — excess nutrients and sediments — through multiple projects. One of their big, new projects is the installation of 2,100 square feet of additional rain gardens at University Beach and Miller Park.

Rain gardens look like typical gardens, except they are planted into depressions in the ground and consist of multiple zones of plants that can each withstand different amounts of water. Burgeson said the deepest zone contains plants such as blue flag iris and joe-pye weed, which can absorb 6 to 12 inches of water within a 24-hour span, and drier plants are placed at higher elevations along the depression.

According to the Low Impact Development Center, a sustainable development nonprofit based in Maryland, the design of rain gardens prevents runoff from gaining momentum and gives the water more time to infiltrate the ground, thus barring nutrients from entering the lake.

Burgeson encourages people to stop by University Beach throughout the season, as the construction of the rain garden there is ongoing.

“It’ll be fun for people to come see all the different stages of the rain gardens, from when they’re first dug out, to when they’re planted, to when the soil mix goes in and everything else,” she said.

In addition to the rain gardens, this spring the operations staff installed a semi-permeable walkway near Miller Park, according to John Shedd, director of operations and administrator of Architectural and Land Use Regulations at Chautauqua.

The semi-permeable surface is designed to allow runoff and stormwater to infiltrate before entering the lake, serving as a more sustainable alternative to typical pavement surfaces that do not allow infiltration.

In the vein of energy conservation, the staff at buildings and grounds completed a boiler replacement project at Turner Community Center this year thanks to financial incentives from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.

“NYSERDA will give you the money to help offset the costs of improving energy efficiency, so we received money for replacing our boiling systems,” Shedd said.

The buildings and grounds staff also completed a lighting project this year that increased the efficiency of the lighting systems at Turner Community Center and the Colonnade, and they installed new LEED-certified lights at Norton Hall.

LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a rating system developed by the U.S. Green Building Council that recognizes environmentally friendly buildings. Shedd said that Chautauqua is pursuing LEED Gold certification, the second-highest environmental rating in designing the Amphitheater project.

Shedd is also looking into installing a recharging station for electric and hybrid cars, for which a few Chautauqua residents have expressed interest. He said he plans to meet with consultants this summer before he invests in a particular product, as the technology for hybrid and electric cars is changing rapidly.

In addition to the projects from this year, Shedd said there are many ongoing projects from past years. Doug Conroe, Shedd’s retired predecessor, is still completing a stormwater management project sponsored by New York State’s Green Initiative Grant Program.

Another ongoing project addresses forest management. Shedd said during the off-season, the Institution hires contractors to carry out major tree maintenence on the grounds, focusing on the older or unstable trees that pose safety risks, and the gardens staff plants 30 to 50 new trees.

This year they are determining what types of trees should be put in which locations in order to encourage biodiversity throughout the grounds. They hired Forecon Inc., a forestry and natural resources company based in Jamestown, to study which trees should be planted where.

“We’ll still get back to planting a substantial number of trees, but this year we want to do it responsibly based on the results of this study,” Shedd said.

All of these projects, Shedd said, stem primarily from a genuine interest in protecting the environment, expressed by many Chautauquans and the Institution leadership.

“We’re a community of engaged people, and we’re a philanthropic community,” he said. “The community supports the Institution overall, and many members of the community have an interest in sustainability.”

He said the board of trustees’ strategic plan includes clauses that address environmental concerns.

“We’ve even done solar and geothermal projects in the past,” he said. “We’ll continue to do those projects when the time is right.”

Though Shedd is proud of Chautauqua’s commitment to sustainability, he said with any project, financial restraints must also be weighed against environmental concerns; certain products, for example, such as LED light bulbs that use less energy than standard fluorescent light bulbs, might not be worth the extra initial cost unless they are going to be used very frequently.

Nonetheless, he believes that he has a responsibility as an architect to consider environmental impacts with every project he pursues.

“I want to do everything I can to protect the environment,” he said.