Harvard's Science and Engineering Complex (SEC) has been named one of the healthiest, most sustainable, and energy-efficient laboratory buildings in the world.
Through its innovative architecture, use of advanced technology and building materials free of some of the world’s most harmful chemicals, and connection to an efficient, low temperature hot water, flexible district energy system that includes the largest thermal storage system of its kind in Massachusetts. The eight-story, 544,000-square-foot complex will help Harvard progress toward its Sustainability Plan and achieve its goals to be fossil fuel-neutral by 2026 and fossil fuel-free by 2050.
The SEC is certified Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum by the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) and is the largest building and first wet laboratory building to achieve the International Living Future Institute (ILFI) Living Building Challenge Petal certification in Materials, Beauty, and Equity.
Home to the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), the building is a living laboratory for world-class, interdisciplinary research, learning, and innovation. The SEC is set to open its doors to students in the fall of 2021, and currently houses some researchers and faculty.
Drawing on research by SEAS, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Harvard Medical School, and other Harvard faculty and students linking harmful chemicals used in building materials to cancer, immune suppression, diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity, thyroid diseases, and more, the University used the design and construction of the SEC to help transform the marketplace for building materials ingredient transparency and products optimized for health that result in healthier spaces and healthier environments upstream. Faculty helped the University prioritize product categories and chemicals of concern, which informed product sourcing decisions for the SEC.
Harvard leveraged the construction of the SEC to evaluate and test 6,033 building materials – ranging from wire coatings to furniture fabrics to lighting fixtures. Through this process, the University educated, advocated, and partnered with manufacturers and designers to create safer global supply chains. During the design and build, 1,247 companies publicly disclosed the ingredients in their products through ingredient labels to help others make decisions based on health. Many manufacturers reformulated their products to remove harmful chemicals. Harvard eventually approved and selected more than 1,700 products that both comply with the Living Building Challenge Red List and meet the rigorous requirements of Harvard’s Healthier Building Academy, a partnership between faculty from SEAS, the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, Harvard Medical School, and the Harvard Office for Sustainability.
Designed by Behnisch Architekten, the SEC also features high-performance, novel technologies to ensure energy efficiency. Integrated advanced solar shading strategies, adaptable ventilation methods, a high-performance heat recovery system, and an energy-saving air cascade system enhance the SEC’s energy performance while prioritizing well-being. Operable windows and vents allow fresh air to circulate throughout the building, and a novel lab ventilation system, designed by Harvard using state-of-the-art technology, enables adjustable airflow based on need. This flexible air management strategy enables building operators and safety experts to fine-tune ventilation rates, which saves energy while creating safer working conditions. The building also incorporates a storm water re-use system, superior insulation techniques, triple-glazed windows, and infrastructure to enable future solar panel installation.
The SEC is powered by Harvard’s nearby District Energy Facility (DEF). Designed by Leers Weinzapfel Associates, the DEF was engineered to transition to a fossil fuel-free future, withstand climate impacts - including storm surge flooding - and to provide a reliable, resilient source of heating, cooling, and electricity to the buildings on Harvard’s campus in Allston.
Toward a fossil fuel-free energy system
The DEF built in Allston uses a more efficient low temperature hot water distribution system and was built to be flexible for emerging technologies (such as different fuel sources or other technological advancements like electrification). The DEF also includes a 1.3-million-gallon thermal storage tank - the largest thermal storage tank in Massachusetts. The tank is analogous to an enormous battery because the chilled water will be produced and stored during off-peak hours, typically nights and weekends, when electricity is cheaper and is often less-polluting. The stored chilled water can then be used during the daytime when needed, lowering the burden on the power grid during peak times and potentially reducing fossil fuel emissions and saving money. Harvard is planning to pilot and study an emerging opportunity to use hourly or even five-minute marginal greenhouse gas emissions data signals to be able to optimize the thermal storage operation for both cost-savings and/or emissions reduction potential.
Resilience to future climate scenarios
The SEC is built to withstand storm surge flooding and other major climate events. Its water-management system was engineered to manage runoff during severe rainfalls and alleviate the impact of stormwater events. Bioretention basins and swales capture rainwater and direct it into a 78,000-gallon rainwater reuse tank. Berms and plantings, integrated throughout the landscape, help to mitigate storm surge risks while minimizing water waste and downstream pollution. For irrigation, the SEC uses reclaimed water and underground drip tubing that provides water directly to the soil, limiting evaporation. Rainwater is redirected from sidewalks to irrigate trees and plantings, while recessed gardens and green roofs enhance management of runoff. Devices such as low-flow fixtures and automatic faucets reduce indoor water use by 70 percent, and water bottle refilling stations throughout the building provide filtered water, alleviating the need for single-use plastic bottles.
Multi-modal EV transportation and interconnections with the campus
The outdoor space surrounding the SEC features a sustainable, multi-modal transportation hub to connect people and communities. With this climate-focused mobility network, the University aims to reduce reliance on fossil fuel vehicles and provide efficient options that support a healthy, resilient, thriving district. An expanded shuttle bus system, featuring 100 percent electric buses, provides regular direct mass-transport between Harvard Square in Cambridge and Barry’s Corner in Allston.