New Montana college building mixes tribal, eco ideas

Browning, Montana (AP) July 2011

The new math and science building at the Blackfeet Community College has been designed to reflect tradition and the future in its architecture.

Through that, it’s become the first tribal building in the nation and the first education building in Montana to be awarded the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Platinum award, the highest possible.

“Our first goal was silver, but we realized we could reach high gold and we started pushing for platinum,” said Terry Tatsey, chairman of the Blackfeet Community College facilities committee, at a ceremony for the LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) certification.

In the distant past, the Blackfeet minimized their environmental impact through seasonal moves. Building with a smaller environmental impact is the modern equivalent, he added.

Named “Ahm Ska Tos Po II Koh Kan,” or South Wind Lodge, the $5-million, 13,000-square-foot building has labs, classrooms, office and meeting spaces on one level.

The building has energy efficiency 57 percent better than minimum standards. Some of the environmentally friendly features:

– Orientation to make the most of sun and minimize wind exposure.

– High-performance insulating glass and translucent insulating panel skylights, as well as automated blinds tied to light sensors.

– Computer-controlled heating, ventilation and cooling with radiant floors and highly efficient boilers.

– Minimal pollutants in cabinetry and finishes.

– Water conservation through low-water-use features, waterless urinals and deletion of irrigation.

– Dedicated containers for easy recycling.

– Highly efficient lighting fixtures with sophisticated occupancy controls and daylight sensors.

– Contractor recycling that kept 83 percent of construction waste from the landfill.

It also makes use of Blackfeet art motifs and traditional forms.

The exterior, for example, is topped with an overhand that shades the building in the summer while also echoing tepee poles.

The top is ringed with a band of circles, meant to be constellations as would be painted on the top of a tepee. The middle layer, meant to represent life on land, is left blank to represent the differences among individual stories and unique student potentials.

The triangles on the base are a classic design. The lower level is for everything underground and underwater in the bottom of the three sphere of the world, reflecting the way Blackfeet understood the world, Tatsey said.

In front of the building, an arbor is more than meets the eye. The shape of the rock wall that leads to it is designed to echo rock cairns and pishkun driving lines.

Math and physical systems were involved in traditional hunting, making it an appropriate feature of a math/science building, Tatsey said.

Yet the building also represents the embrace of modern math and science careers to survive in today’s world. The building itself is a laboratory, with ways for students to check energy generations the solar panels that supply about 14 percent of the building’s power.

“It’s a connection between the past and current understandings of math, science and survival,” Tatsey said. “We want the students to be able to learn from the building itself.”

Students have given the building their stamp of approval since classes began meeting in the building in January, and the community appreciates the way it improves the aesthetics of the south end of town, he added.

The $5-million building was constructed by Swank Enterprises of Valier, with Gordon Whirry Architects of Great Falls and StudioFORMA Architects of Bozeman on design.