More than a decade in the making, Harvard University’s $1 billion playground for cutting-edge engineering and robotics is finally under construction. New renderings of the building reveal light-filled atria tucked between eight-story blocks of laboratory space—a small village of a structure whose occupants will work on such scientific feats as cracking the biological code behind human organ tissue and building a robot bee.
Behnisch Architekten is the architecture firm behind Harvard’s Science and Engineering Complex in Allston, a 535,000-square-foot collection of research and teaching space on Western Avenue that’s slated to open in fall 2020. Allston Development Group is the developer.
The Boston Planning & Development Agency approved the project in April 2016, but its origins go back to 2006. Harvard hired Germany-based Behnisch to design the building for a different school, but suspended their original plans indefinitely in 2009 when the recession hit. Four years later work resumed with a new client, to make the building the primary home of a new academic division founded in 2008, called the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. The school, also known as SEAS, is embedded in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences and is growing faster than any other school at Harvard, according to the university.
Currently spread across a few utilitarian buildings in the neighborhoods, SEAS is bumping up against the limits of its space. Some labs are even using tape to demarcate workspace along benches crowded with researchers, said Matt Noblett, a partner at Behnisch.
Noblett moved from the firm’s headquarters in Stuttgart in 2006 to head up a new Boston office handling the firm’s North American work. Today that office has 26 employees working on three or four projects at any given time. They plan to hire more this year, Noblett said.
And since its founding more than a decade ago, the Boston office of Behnisch has been working on Harvard’s Science and Engineering Complex in Allston.
“The Harvard project is sort of the aircraft carrier of the firm,” said Noblett.
Construction is progressing slowly. Crews excavating the site are digging through decades of industrial detritus, discarding asbestos tiles and occasionally rescuing architectural relics. A pair of stone lions that would be at home in the Boston Public Library turned up in the layers of slag, Noblett said—and they now live in a nearby park. Some of the granite salvaged during that work was repurposed in a fence surrounding the construction site, but most of it was thrown out.
When complete, the complex will house roughly 1,000 undergraduate students daily, about 400 graduate students, another 450 researchers and up to 80 faculty members, according to Harvard.
SEAS researchers needed a wide swath of scientific work spaces, Noblett said, from a bevy of wet labs for cutting-edge chemical engineering experiments to a double-height, subterranean “flight room” with infrared sensors embedded in the walls to capture the movements of drones and other flying robots.
Researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute, for example, are developing “autonomous flying microrobots,” or “RoboBees.” Other scientists and engineers are pursuing wearable robotics, 3D-printed living tissues and even a vaccine for cancer.
For Noblett, that variety of research interests provided an interesting design challenge: how to meet all of the labs’ needs while still allowing some flexibility for future uses. Asking the lab heads what they thought they’d be up to in five years proved fruitless.
“One researcher told me, ‘If I knew what I’d be working on in five years I’d be doing it now,” Noblett said.
The building occupies 500 feet of continuous frontage along Western Avenue, and is situated across from Harvard Business School and the Harvard Innovation Labs. Administrators hope it provides an opportunity for collaboration inside as well as outside the university.
“The growth of our campus in Allston is an extraordinarily exciting opportunity in the greater Boston region for collaboration, discovery and innovation," Harvard President Drew Faust said in a press release after the university got the final OK from the city.
To engage the street and avoid seeming standoffish, Behnisch divided the building’s mass into three manageable boxes and devoted some of the ground level to public-facing programs. The first two floors will be reserved for teaching and undergraduate classroom space, while floors three through eight are for labs and research space. There will be some retail at the ground-level, as well as large windows allowing passersby a peek at some “makerspaces” and teaching labs.
Inside, that theme of transparency continues, with a full-height atrium visually connecting all eight floors and collecting sunlight from its south-facing windows. Other multi-story spaces help orient building occupants and bring light into interior spaces. A “sunken courtyard” and event lawn behind the building will provide some outdoor teaching space and opportunities for public events. Harvard plans to build two more smaller buildings on the site, but Noblett said they will keep the courtyard open.