Life Among the Scaffolds

Students and Renovations

"Ivy" That key word in the Harvard vocabulary last year sparked a maelstrom of mock controversy and media attention. When officials announced that the green growth would have to go to make way for wholesale refurbishing of the aging Houses, students protested and reporters from around the world zoned in.

One student at the time Jokingly dubbed ivy removal "one of the graver issues of our time." And a self-appointed leader of the Save the Ivy movement urged officials not to dash memories of Harvard like his own. "The first night I was wandering around the Yard quite lost, but I knew that I was at Harvard by the ivy on the walls," he wailed, to a jubilant crowd.

The reality proved less than apocalyptic: Last May, the ivy in first-to-be-renovated Lowell and Winthrop Houses was replaced by scaffolds. But by this spring the vines had resumed their ascent. And while the final result of the Great Ivy Debate may only have been television coverage and a few laughs, the issue actually hinted at the more immediate changes in student life the construction would bring.

Quite simply, the renovation projects of last fall and this spring made life this year in the Houses different from that of any other time in their 52-year history. The unprecedented $50 million, four-year overhaul of the decrepit buildings begun last summer has made it difficult for most students to remember living, sleeping and studying without certain disruptions. For nearly half of this year scaffolds wrapped the exteriors of several river buildings and annoying construction noise became a morning trademark. Cranes and workmen were as common in House life as tutors and House committees.

Witness a few of construction's direct effects on students.


* In September, more than a dozen students in Lowell and Winthrop learned that Harvard's plan to store their belongings with a private company over last summer while the normal storage areas were repaired had backfired: the massive bins storing these students' belongings had flooded, causing nearly $13,000 worth of damages.

* In the early fall, residents in those two Houses experienced inconveniences ranging from cold showers to property damage linked to the work, which continued at a furious pace. Some of these problems reappeared this spring, when renovation began in five other buildings.

* Throughout the year, students were forced to evacuate their rooms repeatedly when fire alarms--ten times more frequent than ever before--were set off by a new city-mandated smoke detector system. In a number of cases lingering repair work triggered the alarms.

* This spring, three rooming groups in Claverly Hall, along with others in Adams, learned that the University would have to install supports in their rooms to prevent the ceilings from collapsing. One worker estimated that the portion concerned in Claverly could have crumbled "anytime, or it could have lasted until winter."

Although incidents like these represented disruptions more severe than the aesthetic damage done by the ivy removal, the renovations have in general met with approval and success. No student has been displaced or forced to move into a hotel. No one has beens seriously injured during construction. And, most importantly, an extremely worrisome state of disrepair is being arrested, insuring the longevity of the unique House system. Says one Harvard official: "These places were falling down. If there had been three times as much noise, it still would have been worth it."

The resulting patched leaks, painted walls and refinished floors have made inconveniences facts of life rather than bones of contention among students. But the most ambitious facelift of student facilities in Harvard's history has nevertheless necessitated a fluid planning process, foreign officials to strike a balance between maximum efficiency and minimal inconvenience.

The most significant change in plans came in October when Harvard accelerated the House renovations, deciding to repair all the buildings in four years instead of the previously planned 10. Spurred by the decline in interest rates and the growing feeling that the structures were in a dangerously dire condition, officials elected to tackle five buildings this spring and summer: Adams House, Claverly Hall, Old Leverett. Old Quincy and the Gore half of Winthrop House. Next summer, officials expect to tackle Dunster. Kirkland and Eliot Houses. In 1985 the projected $50 million endeavor will wind down with repairs in North and South Houses, the two other aging, brick upperclass dormitories.

This more ambitious pace, coupled with a desire to alleviate the extremely tight work schedule of last year, compelled officials to launch the current work in late March, two full months ahead of last year's schedule. Roger Cayer, who is supervising the construction again this year, cities the increased work load as the prime reason for the early start, despite the accompanying disturbances for students in the spring. But he also acknowledges that last year "we had to sacrifice some quality for time" at the end of the summer, as the College's opening date approached. "We took care of the glaring deficiencies, but if there was a slight blemish on the wall, we let it go," he adds. However, even with the jump in beginning and the determination not to skimp on quality, days will continue to begin with early morning construction clatter--at least at Adams and Claverly--until at least December, officials anticipate.

This kind of schedule creates a "level of intensity" essentially unparalleled in the construction business, Cayer says. "You end up with a lot of nervous people," he adds. Harvard has made several attempts to accomodate students, including an unusually late 9 a.m. starting time during exams period and the delay of "the really noisy stuff" until after Commencement. But Cayer adds: "You can just go on and on, if you want to measure the inconveniences."

The one recurring inconvenience which harassed students across campus was an unprecedented rash of false fire alarms, the result of a new city ordinance which was timed badly for Harvard. The mandatory installation of more than 2200 smoke detectors in dormitory hallways at an estimated cost of $1 million started just as the dust from construction was beginning to settle--literally. Officials could only identify a small fraction of the roughly 55 dormitory alarms per month as construction-related, attributable to dust or vibrations.