The University of Massachusetts Amherst


In a convergence of opportunities between UMass leadership seeking to develop solutions for achieving carbon neutrality by 2032, and the City of Newton’s interest in engaging the University’s expertise in developing their Green Leadership Collaborative, a new innovation scheme emerged: the Wells Avenue Tech District Living Lab. This year-long collaboration engaged a broad consortium of UMass faculty, staff, students and businesses within the city of Newton, area NGOs and external partners with the goal of meeting ambitious climate mitigation goals and amplifying UMass Amherst’s impact within  the Commonwealth.

At the heart of this unique town-gown collaboration are UMass students, a hands-on interdisciplinary course, and an entrepreneurial business partner (Jumbo Capital Management; real estate development and asset management firm).  Integrating data and feedback from two dozen stakeholders, CNS Faculty in the Environmental Conservation Department designed a new interdisciplinary course (BCT584/Living Labs: Solving for Carbon Neutrality) that brings together academic, operational and community components to accelerate innovation in the realm of low carbon approaches to buildings, materials, technologies, policies and ways of living.

Working in teams, students imagined themselves as professional consulting firms and each developed an organizational structure (who they are, their approach, philosophy), project goals, work flows and recommendations for the client (Jumbo Capital); emulating real-world project management scenarios. Students explored the global phenomena of the "living laboratory," collected and analyzed data provided by partners, conducted site assessments and prepared sustainability gap analyses that referenced industry standards such as the WELL Health/Safety rating, a third-party verified rating for existing buildings focused on operational polices, maintenance protocols, stakeholder engagement and emergency plans.  

As part of the learning activities during the semester, students interacted in weekly learning activities with a total of 17 different energy, sustainability and administrative professionals. Hands-on activities allowed students to practice using infrared cameras, drones and air quality instruments at JCM’s Wells Avenue property and on the grounds of the Mount Ida Campus. According to Jay Hirsh, managing partner and Founder of Jumbo Capital, “The student recommendations are compelling, and we plan to implement many of their ideas. And anything is possible with the right mindset, and with the right blend of cost versus return.  The ideas  align directly with our goals, with the City of Newton’s forward-thinking mindset, and with the Governor’s new comprehensive climate change legislation (S.2995).”

The Wells Avenue Tech District Living Lab engaged students majoring in chemistry, environmental conservation, sustainable buildings and communities and building construction technology, and also integrated interns working at the Mount Ida campus and graduate students. “I never expected this course to be so hands-on. Many students can’t participate in unpaid internships for financial reasons, and we sometimes lose out on those opportunities as a result," said BDIC Major Sophie Kramer. "But this class felt like I was actually in real internship while at the same time taking an upper level course that counts toward my UMass degree. I have a new-found knowledge of how to engage with the real world, and how I can make meaningful change as a student in the pursuit of carbon neutrality for communities.”

The initial advisory group for the Wells Avenue Tech District Living Lab was convened by Ezra Small, UMass Campus Sustainability Manager, and included input from Building Construction Technology Program Faculty, the UMass Clean Energy Extension, the UMass Sustainability Curriculum Fellowship Program, UMass Campus Planning, and external partners such as the Northeast Center for Sustainable Development and Recover Green Roofs. According to Mount Ida Campus Managing Director Jeff Cournoyer, “This course is part of a well-articulated applied learning pathway within a thriving UMass academic program that connects students with Greater Boston career opportunities and supports our goal to become a center for student and community development.”

As part of this "living laboratory," students learned about the real- world from a vast array of City of Newton officials such as the Directors of Sustainability (Ann Berwick, Bill Ferguson),  the Director of Sustainable Materials (Waneta Trabert), the Economic Development Director (Devra Bailin), the Chief Environmental Planner (Jennifer Steel), Energy Coach (Liora Silkes)  and the Building Commissioner ( Joshua Morse). “Collaboration is the essential secret sauce to addressing climate change," said City of Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller. "In Newton, students learned how to solve real-world challenges with input from local businesses, mentoring from City of Newton staff, and expertise from academics.  Most importantly, we (the City of Newton, Jumbo Capital, UMass) are setting a crucial example for the next generation of sustainability professionals of the important role that all sectors in our community can and must play in the pursuit of carbon neutrality.”

Student teams formed their own consulting groups and presented their findings as part of the final presentations for the course. Data collection and analysis helped the teams to determine a preliminary score for the LEED for Existing Buildings certification program, a stated goal of Jumbo Capital for the near future. Student teams also developed a checklist for the WELL Health-Safety Rating for Facilities Operational and Management; an evidence-based third-party verified rating for existing buildings that focuses on operational policies, maintenance protocols, occupant engagement and emergency plans. And a third team proposed an advanced  Artificial Intelligence Building Management system, Brainbox, that utilizes data science to fight climate change and to maximize the operational aspects of buildings.

For more information about the Wells Avenue Tech District Living Lab, please check out this video or contact pwolff [at] umass [dot] edu (Dr. Paul Wolff), UMass faculty based at the Mount Ida Campus in Newton.

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