Latest addition to Harvard University campus is a paragon of sustainability
The massive new laboratory research center, by Behnisch Architekten, marks a new chapter in sustainable construction and campus planning. James McCown explores in his article originally posted on Metropolis, Harvard’s latest addition to the Boston campus, the new Science and Engineering Complex (SEC) designed by a Germany-based company Behnisch Architekten and focused on sustainability and well-being.
For its largest and most important building in a generation, Harvard University has gone to great lengths to ensure that its new Science and Engineering Complex (SEC), located on its emerging campus in the Allston district of Boston, is or a model of health and sustainability of buildings.
Harvard said, ‘The goal here should be Harvard’s healthiest building, if not the entire academic world. Period, ”recalls Matt Noblett, partner in the Boston office of the German company. Behnisch Architekten, who designed the project.
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The building has just been completed and its distinctions already read like an alphabet soup of ecological distinction: LEED Platinum, and in particular the largest building certified under the Living Building Challenge (LBC) of the International Living Future Institute. The certification criteria include seven sections, called “petals”: place, water, energy, health + happiness, materials, fairness and beauty. The emphasis is on avoiding toxic chemicals known as “Red List”.
“This certification draws attention to the fact that only 10 to 15 percent of the 80,000 chemicals used in industry today have health data; only 9 percent are federally regulated, ”says Heather Henriksen, sustainability manager at Harvard. “For the SEC, we purchased 1,700 products that meet both Harvard and LBC criteria.”
Elsie Sunderland, professor of environmental chemistry at Harvard Schools of Engineering and Public Health and Harvard An advisor from the Healthier Building Materials Academy adds: “Previously there was a lack of transparency in the use of chemicals. At the SEC and elsewhere, Harvard is a living laboratory on the challenges of clean building. “
In addition to its use of “clean chemicals,” the SEC is important because it is the first major university building on the Allston campus and will house the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Architecturally, it expresses both this town-planning importance and the diversity of research taking place there.
“Along the facade of Western Avenue, there are three floating boxes,” explains Stefan Behnisch, founding partner of Behnisch Architekten. “It cuts down on bulk and does it like three siblings.” On the other side, he continues, the bulk of the building descends out of respect for the neighboring residential area. Devoid of Behnisch’s distinctive multi-angle forms, the 544,000 square foot building is clad in stainless steel scrim, which is patterned differently on almost every facade.
“From a distance it looks like fabric,” says Behnisch. “It is the signature of the building.” The curvaceous profile of the individual louvers is reminiscent of a spoiler on a Porsche 911 – appropriate given that they were shaped in Germany with metal forming techniques used by the automotive and aircraft industries. “They’re stationary,” Noblett says. “Customers hate mobile sun shading systems because they’re just one more thing to fix, so they’re angled optimized to block out summer sun while letting winter sun in.”
The building’s ventilation system is complex, but deceptively simple. All windows, except those in the laboratories, can be used. Noblett describes a system in which all outside air is routed through main atria, allowing the same amount of outside air to be conditioned and reused in the building before being exhausted.
The building is programmed so that the spaces on the lower level are “public” while the upper courtyards are reserved for laboratories. The ear cups are stunning, an indication of Behnisch’s agility with this piece of construction, also evident at the Behnisch-designed Genzyme Center near Cambridge. The spaces have an industrial and independent feel with exposed infrastructure and sealed concrete floors. The backdrop is white and light gray, which contrasts with the colorful modern furniture dotted throughout. The ivy hanging from a horizontal planter refers to the old Harvard campus across the Charles River. It is axiomatic in academic research buildings that interiors are designed to promote social sustainability, which includes occasional interaction between students, faculty and researchers at all levels. Noblett points out that “there are miniatries throughout the building” with seating areas and small kitchens to facilitate spontaneous encounters.
“Engineers are a bit old-fashioned. They sit at their screens and space out. They could be on the moon and no one would care, ”Behnisch says. “We had a lot of talk with Harvard about how we could bring them together.”
Behnisch concludes: “To build a great building, you need great customers and great engineers as the users. Here we had them both.