Fairfield Now - Winter 2009
By Alistair Highet
An architect's drawing of the new Jesuit
Community Center, viewed from the
approaching road. Architectural illustrations courtesy of Gray Organschi Architecture.
When the Fairfield Jesuit Community began meetings in 2006 to design their new home, they quickly understood that such a building would have to meet very specific requirements. "This is a house for religious men," explained the Rev. Walter J. Conlan, S.J., the current rector of the community. "So the house has to provide some privacy. But at the same time, we are men with a mission in the world. Our houses aren't monastic. We are out there doing things and we want to provide hospitality as well. We wanted a house that would be welcoming and open to the world."
The result is the new Jesuit Community Center, scheduled to be occupied by the beginning of December.
The roughly 23,000-square-foot building sits at the foot of the lawn at the base of Bellarmine Hall. Designed by the award-winning New Haven firm of Gray Organschi Architecture, it has sculptural strength and ambition, and is modernist in inspiration.
Yet it also blends into its surroundings. Largely shaded by the beech trees at the base of the hill, the cypress exterior of the structure gives the building a wooded "tree house" character, and the grass roof of the house blends into the hillside.
Prominent windows on the eastern side of the building look out onto Long Island Sound, the city of Bridgeport, and onto the University campus.
Fr. Conlan, who guided the creation of the new residence.
That the building manages to be private and public, sculptural and yet restrained, reflects the aspirations of the Jesuit community and came out of conversations between the Jesuits and the designers, said lead architect Alan Organschi.
"The trick was to keep the architectural language more in keeping with the Jesuit mission. The temptation with most architects is to try and make a big bang. But out of our discussions came the feeling that we didn't want something that was too exuberant. We tried not to be invasive to Bellarmine Hall," Organschi said. "Let's let it be quiet." The new residence is likely to be quite a busy place. The main entrance opens up on a great room, which will be a place for the community to mingle with faculty, students, visiting Jesuits and scholars, and other guests. "That's the heart of the residence," noted Fr. Conlan.
Hallways will be lined with art and photographs by both students and Jesuits, and with work that reflects a variety of Jesuit missions around the world.
"This building should be simple, balanced, and beautiful," Fr. Conlan explained. The design will also facilitate more collaboration with the greater campus community, and "should help in the dialogue with our lay partners."
The Rev. Gilbert Singhera, S.J., an assistant professor at the School of Architecture at the University of Detroit Mercy, was a project advisor. He noted that the final design for the house is structured along two axes. The public area through the front door on the eastern side includes the great room, dining areas, library, and main chapel. (The altar of the chapel will be fashioned out of one of the beech trees that had to be felled during construction.)
The architect's sketch of a view of the building from the west.
Then there is "transition area" that blends at a 90-degree angle to the west, where there is a row of 12 bedrooms for the community (with three guest bedrooms downstairs) and a private chapel. There are also private and public exterior spaces for gardens and meetings.
The chapel in the new residence as sketched by the architects. The altar will be fabricated from a beech
tree that had to be cut down during construction.
The $11 million Center is considerably smaller than St. Ignatius Hall, the current community residence, which will be given to the University and adapted into a student residence. The smaller size reflects the understanding that the Jesuit community is not likely to get larger, and that many of the Jesuits (there are currently 28 assigned to Fairfield) live in student residences or in other places.
Another critical dimension of the project is the commitment to earth-friendly practices - one of the emphases of the Society's last General Congregation in 2006.
During a tour while the building was still under construction, David Frassinelli M.S.'92, assistant vice president and director of Facilities Management at Fairfield, pointed out the many energy-saving features of the building.
The house has a sod roof, with grass over the main portion of the house. This will filter storm water, reduce heat loss, and keep the building cool in the summer.
The large windows in the house will direct sunlight onto the dark concrete floors, using solar energy to radiate warmth through the interior.
Many recycled materials were used for the building's surfaces. Interior and exterior walls are also well insulated, saving energy, but also preserving a quiet atmosphere appropriate for contemplation. "This is going to be a very, very quiet building," said Frassinelli.
A view of the building from the north, featuring the row of rooms that will house the community, as well as the
guest rooms on the bottom floor.
The most dramatic energy-saving dimension to the new Center is the "closed loop" geothermal heating system, which uses the warmth of the earth to generate energy for the building without fossil fuels (see sidebar).
As the lead architect Alan Organschi concluded in his description of the building's earth-friendly features, "Ultimately, both traditional site and building design 'best practices' and innovative environmental technologies serve to reduce both short and long term impact on the local and global environment, helping the Jesuits to achieve their goal of acting as 'good stewards of the Earth'.
The floor plan of the new Jesuit Community Center.
While the new Jesuit residence boasts a number of eco-friendly innovations - including a garden roof, and the use of recycled materials and thoughtful conservation methods throughout - the design element that will save the most energy and creates the greatest efficiency is the "closed loop" geothermal system, engineered by Boston-based engineers, Haley & Aldrich.
The system will provide heat to the building in winter and cool it in the summer based on the naturally stable temperature of the earth 400 feet below the surface.
Fifteen "wells" have been drilled around the building, and in each well are pipes - interconnected through a closed loop network - filled with a combination of water and an anti-freeze solution. Pumps in the house push the liquid out of the building and down into the pipes in the wells before the liquid is circulated back into the house.
In the New England winter, the earth at a depth of 400 feet or so remains between 50 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit, warmer than the temperature at the surface. So, the liquid inside the loop is warmed by the earth, and pumped back into the house, reentering warmer than when it left. Inside, the heat (measured in BTUs, or British Thermal Units) is extracted by a machine and turned into energy that heats the building. During the summer, the process is reversed; warm liquid in the pipes is pumped into the earth where the heat is exhausted. The returning liquid has been cooled by the relatively lower temperatures of the earth, and circulated back into the house.
Paul Ormond, senior engineer for Haley & Aldrich, said that the "close loop" geothermal system could save as much as half of the energy that the building would otherwise consume.
"A geothermal system is a very powerful way to make large strides in saving energy," Ormond said. "There are very few things you can do to a building that gives you this magnitude of energy savings."