A Home Away From Home: Fellows Hall at Williams College

Set against a dramatic backdrop of the beautiful Berkshire and Taconic mountain ranges, Fellows Hall—a new student residence designed by PBDW Architects—shares a prominent site with historic Saint Anthony Hall (SAH) at the entrance to the Williams College campus. It houses mid-career professionals from developing countries who are enrolled in the Center for Development Economics (CDE) program, an accelerated graduate course.

Prior to the construction of the new dorm, both academic and residential functions were contained in SAH. Students attended classes, dined and lived in the highly idiosyncratic building, originally a fraternity house designed by Stanford White in 1884. As the CDE program grew, the need for separate living quarters became increasingly apparent. Bedrooms were cramped, dark and lacked adequate ventilation, and bathrooms were overcrowded. The number of rooms was insufficient to accommodate all enrolled students, and privacy was frequently compromised.

Fellows Hall at Williams College

There were additional factors beyond the limitations of the building that needed to be addressed, as well. CDE students who come from desert or tropical climates often have difficulty adjusting to the cold and dark winters in northwestern Massachusetts. With meals being served daily in SAH, there was little motivation to venture outside in the winter, exacerbating the negative health effects of shortened daylight hours. Several students come from conservative cultures where separation of genders and strict observance of religious practices are the norm. While undergraduates from other programs were interested in attending lectures and lunches with CDE graduate students to exchange ideas and make connections for internships abroad, access to SAH was restricted due to the lack of classroom space and shared residential use of the building.

Designing for Life and Light

The design of Fellows Hall centers around student well-being, with special emphases on natural light, connection to nature, and balancing privacy with a sense of community. The dorm is organized into three volumes: a central commons and two asymmetric dormitory wings, which help give the building a more residential scale. The north-south-facing wings house paired single-occupancy rooms with a shared vestibule and bathroom, and are vertically offset to follow the sloping site. This configuration capitalizes on daylight and minimizes heat gain while facilitating gender separation. Providing high-quality natural light was a critical element in the design. Daylight modeling was used to determine the optimal angle for each dorm wing and the sizes of window openings. Two operable windows in each room provide cross ventilation and offer views of the surrounding landscape, inviting students to step outdoors. Every room is equipped with LED lighting, occupancy sensors and efficient valence units. Shower stalls in bathrooms have a faucet positioned close to the floor for foot washing, a required ritual for prayers in certain religions.

Fostering a sense of community among students was also crucial to the design. In order to provide a range of opportunities for social interaction, common areas in the new dorm intersect with circulation spaces. On their way to and from class, students pass through the open-plan lobby and central stair, traversing a series of multi-level interconnected lounges and amenities. Common areas are oriented to take advantage of surrounding views. The lounges overlook the new landscaped quad that students cross to attend classes in SAH, which now houses the academic and dining functions of the CDE.

The dorm sets up a dialogue with Saint Anthony Hall. Its wings mirror the angular geometry of the historic building and create an inviting outdoor space between the buildings that unifies them into a mini-campus. Featuring eco-conscious raingardens, native plants, ornamental trees and shrubs attractive to birds and butterflies, this new “CDE-quad” is a shared asset for the entire Williams community to enjoy, encouraging interaction with CDE students and enhancing the campus experience. A curved sitting wall extends out into the landscape from the residence hall entrance, promoting social interaction and creating a deliberate, tangible connection between the interior of the dorm and the quad.

To maintain the architectural identity of the CDE, Fellows Hall takes several design cues from SAH. Its restrained materials palette of variegated brick cladding, light-colored metal panels, and dark wood acetylated wood siding helps to harmonize the two buildings. Large expanses of brick are punctuated with dark vertical control joints that demarcate the bedrooms within as a visible module. Together with an alternating rhythm of wide and narrow openings, the joints provide a more intimate residential scale to help mitigate the anonymity that often characterizes multi-unit housing. The rhythmical punctuation of the façade by narrow slot openings with deep reveals, as well as larger triple-glazed windows gridded by mullions, are other details reinterpreted from the older building. Earth-themed finishes are used throughout the interior and are visible from the outside, acting as an inviting beacon of warmth during chilly winters.

Fellows Hall at Williams College

Net-Zero Energy

Besides responding to the unique needs of the international student body and the site’s historic context, the commitment to a carbon-neutral building was a formal determinant of the design. The new residence hall is the first net-zero energy dormitory on campus.

The dorm is fully electric, with 100% of the power required by the building generated on site. Heating and cooling are provided via ground-source heat pumps supported by geothermal wells. The super-insulated envelope is designed to rigorous Passive House standards. Two layers of insulation and two vapor barriers were used, interior and exterior. A thermally broken green girt system, selected for its thermal properties, also facilitated installation of the exterior insulation. A balanced, 22% window-to-wall ratio contributes to the thermal comfort and energy efficiency of the building. The generously proportioned windows are located on north-south facades, while glazing was limited on the east and west. The selected triple-glazed units balance high visible light transmittance with low solar heat gain. The wood frame of the structure decreases the embodied carbon of the dorm.

Achieving the net-zero goal required a large, south-facing, sloping roof with wide overhangs to support 350 photovoltaic panels. More than purely functional, the roof fascia was deliberately accentuated to give the building a defining, sculptural presence, as well as a symbolic significance: The sheltering roof, a universal symbol of home, evokes a feeling of familiarity for international students who are far from their own families.

Fellows Hall at Williams College

Larger Than the Sum of its Parts

Fellows Hall demonstrates the power of design to dramatically improve students’ quality of life and, in turn, their educational experience. It provides both privacy and welcoming communal spaces for CDE students, allowing St. Anthony Hall to serve as an academic center for all students. The new residence hall addresses the specific needs of its unique graduate population while simultaneously enhancing the campus’s shared outdoor spaces, benefitting the entire Williams community. PBDW worked closely with Williams College to ensure that the design of Fellows Hall honors the school’s rich past while planning for its future.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of Spaces4Learning.