Sustainable Design for Harvard Science Complex

In a world that is becoming more aware of the environment, developers for Harvard University are taking an integrated approach in creating a sustainable campus in Allston. It all begins with the Science Complex, a 500,000 square foot cluster of four buildings that will include the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and other interdepartmental initiatives such as systems biology and innovative computing.

The complex is the first academic structure being built as part of the 50-year development in Allston, across the Charles River from the main Harvard campus in Cambridge.

Behnisch, a Green-friendly Architect

When Harvard conducted a public competition in 2006 for the Science Complex, sustainability was already a major issue for the university, which had been working on fostering an eco-friendly campus for many years through projects such as the Green Campus Initiative.

It was no coincidence, therefore, that the German architectural firm Behnisch Architekten was selected to design the complex. The architects will incorporate various aspects of advanced energy-saving features into the design of the building and surrounding groups. If the results satisfy the Harvard community and planners, it will be a precedent for all subsequent Allston projects.

Sustainable Components of the Science Complex

The basis of the design that makes the Science Complex a sustainable facility begins with selection of materials. Rather than steel, Behnisch is using concrete for the superstructure of the building, because it has thermal mass.

“If we work intelligently with concrete, it collects heat and cold and helps us cut some peak heat levels during the day,” said Stefan Rappold, project partner of Behnisch, in an interview with the reporter. “We are going back to traditions in countries with deserts, where they have huge walls because it’s hot during the day and cold and night. This works totally without technical equipment.”

Cool water will be pumped through simple rubber tubes inserted in radiant slabs so that they will cool down at night. Tapping into geothermal energy, rubber tubes will be inserted in the ground to bring cool temperature out of the soil. “In a certain depth in soil, you have a constant temperature level and we can bring it out for free,” Rappold said. “That’s just one part of the system. All these systems work in a certain way together, creating a team.”

Harvard’s Green Campus Initiative

The Allston campus is a leading example of the goals set at the Harvard Green Campus Initiative, an organization launched in 2001 to improve environmental issues on Harvard’s Cambridge and Longwood campuses. Following Harvard’s commitment to reducing greenhouse gases, the Science Complex will be a LEED-certified building. Buildings earn LEED recognition by limiting energy and water use, using renewable and recycled materials, controlling erosion and storm water runoff, and maximizing indoor environmental quality with features such as natural lighting and efficient ventilation.

LEED buildings typically cost 2.5 to 5 percent more to construct than conventional facilities, but are a good investment in the long term because they have lower operating and maintenance costs. According to a study conducted for Harvard by sustainability consultant Atelier Ten, designing buildings to a high LEED standard could reduce expected heating, cooling, and electrical loads in Allston by more than 50 percent. This would lower not only operating costs, but also capital costs, by allowing the University to build smaller energy plants.

Making the Science Complex a sustainable structure is a challenge, because the building will mainly house laboratories—which consume a lot of energy. At Harvard, laboratories occupy 17 percent of the campus, but eat up almost 50 percent of entire utility costs.

Behnisch will try to cut these costs by implementing natural sources of energy as much as possible. Sunlight will be used as much as possible for lighting and smoke and air exhaust will be able to move through the atrium to the winter gardens, creating natural ventilation.

“Making a lab sustainable is hard because you have extreme air change,” Rappold said. “Providing air change requires a lot of fan power and energy, but we have designed the floorplan so that there is natural air change. We will also bring air force down into the basement and have the air run through earth ducts so that it cools down.”

Integration and Teamwork

An important aspect of the Science Complex design is that architects are not the only ones involved. “Behnisch is a known firm but this is a more integrated concept,” Nathalie Beauvais, the principal architect of the Allston Development Group, said in an interview. Before drafting pencil sketches, Behnisch had to work with scientists and engineers on every aspect of the building design. “It’s important to have a good relationship with engineers so we understand their ideas and transfer those ideas to architecture,” Rappold said. “Step by step you have to be a researcher to identify the benefits.”

From climate engineers as lighting consultants to experts on biosoil, the team is diverse. “The design team is a combination of European and American engineers. We work together to identify the benefits,” Rappold said.

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