The day the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences formally announced its expansion into Allston, computer science professor Harry R. Lewis ’68 asked his computer programming team for their thoughts on the news over lunch.
One of his students responded, “Where’s Allston?”
Lewis explained that it was near the Harvard Business School, over on the other side of the river. He recalled that the student wasn’t sure where the Business School was located but asked if it was related to Spangler — the Business School student center. Lewis then learned that many of his team members frequented Spangler in search of study spaces and late night snacks.
The key takeaway from this exchange, according to Lewis, was this: if food is readily available at a Harvard building, students will come. He made sure to emphasize this idea as an author on a “White Paper on Teaching and Community Spaces in Allston” penned by SEAS affiliates in January 2013.
“Like Napoleon’s army, the student body marches on its stomach,” the report reads.
When the report was released, the physical foundation of what would become the Science and Engineering Complex lay untouched during a years-long lull in construction due to the 2008 financial crisis.
Today, the SEC stands nearly complete, with construction cautiously resuming after yet another hiatus, this time a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Many design suggestions have been implemented since the 2008 delay, such as the inclusion of the SEC Café — drawing in students with food, just as Lewis suggested back in 2013.
COVID-19, which struck just as the SEC was teetering on the edge of completion, marks the latest development in a tale of conception and construction spanning the last three decades. Along the way, the University, SEAS, and the building itself have all adapted and evolved.
Beginning in 1988 and throughout the 1990s, Harvard — in search of more academic space beyond its already saturated Cambridge property — quietly began to purchase acreage south of the Charles River in Allston. By 1997, University officials said Harvard had acquired 52.6 acres of land in Allston with an investment of $88 million.
“This part of Boston used to be where freight was offloaded on the trains coming from the west,” Lewis said. “There’s a restaurant called The Stockyard [...] but the reason why it’s called The Stockyard is because it’s located on the place where the cattle from the west were unloaded from their trains and were corralled in the pre-refrigeration days before they were slaughtered and sent to the butchers.”
At the time, Harvard was roundly criticized for the acquisition. An editorial in the Boston Globe described the move as “a stealthy land grab,” and then-Boston mayor Thomas M. Menino condemned the University’s “total arrogance.”
Yet, the question still remained: What would Harvard do with this vast, largely industrial land?
Lewis, who also served as Dean of the College from 1995 to 2003, said while Harvard’s acquisition of acreage in Allston began many years ago, the answer to that question and the decision to expand SEAS into Allston constitute relatively recent history.
Ten years after the Allston acquisition was officially announced, Harvard’s Institutional Master Plan — unveiled in January 2007 — detailed Harvard’s aims for expansion into Allston over the next 50 years, including the creation of a new science complex.
In October 2007, the Boston Redevelopment Authority — now known as the Boston Planning and Development Agency — unanimously approved plans for Harvard’s 589,000-square-foot science complex in Allston. The structure was originally intended to house the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology department in a four-building complex designed by the German architectural firm Behnisch Architekten.
The science complex was the first project from the 50-year Institutional Master Plan to begin construction. But while Harvard broke ground on the first building in spring 2008, University officials continued to debate the fate of the additional buildings into the summer of that year.
These debates were interrupted in February 2009 after then-University President Drew G. Faust announced that the University would slow all Allston construction for the remainder of the year. Faust would then completely halt construction in early spring 2010 upon completion of the multi-story, below-ground foundation.
Faust’s announcement came after an unprecedented 30 percent drop in the University’s endowment the previous fiscal year. The strain of the financial crisis at the time all but wiped out Harvard’s multi-million dollar Allston development fund, according to University officials.
“That was a big one,” SEAS spokesperson Paul Karoff said of the 2008 economic crisis-induced disruption. “The foundation was built, which, when people hear ‘the foundation was built,’ they think there’s a slab of concrete that was poured. It was a three-story structure below ground and several acres large.”
“With the markets collapsing and the impact on the Harvard endowment, the difficult decision was made to just halt construction,” he added.
The University spent a significant amount of money to mothball the site and ensure that the foundation would not suffer deterioration in the years following the economic crisis, according to Karoff.
Approximately two years after Faust suspended construction on the Allston Science Complex, the University announced that work on the building was set to resume in 2014. This reboot would mark a turning point in a number of formative decisions that have shaped the complex.
After the construction halt in 2009, University officials began to consider the possibility of housing the stem cell department in existing University facilities. Two years later, the Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology department moved into the newly-renovated Sherman Fairchild Biochemistry Building.
The physical foundation of the Allston Science Complex remained, however, and in 2012, Faust announced that the complex would be a major focus in the University’s capital campaign to raise $6 billion following the 2008 financial crisis.
As the University began raising money for the Allston complex, discussions also emerged about the departments this new space should house. In May 2012, University officials announced that one of the departments on the table was Bioengineering.
In February 2013, Faust announced that SEAS would relocate “in almost its entirety” across the river in “as little as five years.” The news — dubbed the “Allston bomb” by engineering professor Robert D. Howe — shocked SEAS affiliates and received sharp criticism from faculty members.
“By the time we emerged from that financial meltdown, needs and priorities had changed,” SEAS Dean Francis J. Doyle III wrote in an emailed statement. “We inherited a fully constructed foundation upon which to build and worked with the original architectural team (Behnisch) to design a building to support the teaching and research requirements of engineering and the applied sciences.”
In the coming years, however, the announcement faced several changes. While Faust originally projected that almost all of SEAS would move to the new complex, by 2014 it was decided that only two-thirds of the school would relocate.
The same year, SEAS administrators announced that the complex was slated to open in 2019. A year later, however, they announced that the opening would be delayed to 2020.
Though the construction faced a number of setbacks, the aim of fostering interdisciplinarity through the space has remained unchanged since the proposal of the first iteration of the Allston Science Complex, according to SEAS Executive Dean for Education and Research Fawwaz Habbal.
“The emphasis was mostly around how to create interdisciplinarity across the whole University,” Habbal said. “That emphasis is still there, and we want to have a connection with the College and have a significant interaction with the College.”
A month before the official announcement that SEAS would be expanding to Allston, 13 SEAS affiliates published a “White Paper on Teaching and Community Spaces in Allston” dedicated to creating spaces that foster effective learning and collaboration.
The report detailed suggestions for the complex, including having reconfigurable active learning spaces, investing in consumer-grade communication and media technology, creating adjacent project and laboratory spaces, and maintaining spaces for social interactions.
Habbal, a member of the SEAS task force that authored the white paper, said the group focused on how to create spaces that allow students to bring their ideas to life.
“Students are very clever. They’re able to come up with all kinds of ideas. We need to figure out how we can enable these ideas and make it happen,” Habbal said.
The structure of the complex as it is known today — a six-story building containing a central atrium, labs, classrooms, lounge spaces, and a cafeteria, among other features — was revealed in 2015 at a Harvard-Allston Task Force meeting. The 2015 plans established that the first two floors and front lawn of the complex would be open to the public, addressing concerns about public accessibility to Allston residents.
Harvard filed an Institutional Master Plan Notification Form with the Boston Planning and Development Agency and began the formal review process for the Science and Engineering Complex in November 2015. In addition to changing its structure from a four-building complex to a single-building complex, its area was also reduced by about 100,000 square feet.
The BPDA unanimously approved Harvard’s $1 billion proposal during a meeting in April 2016 — nearly ten years after the approval of the original four-building Allston Science Complex.
In 2016, Harvard also began to finalize a land acquisition deal that began in 2000 with railroad company CSX Transportation, paying the company $147.4 million. CSX yielded its easement rights for the entire property to the University following environmental remediation, according to Harvard spokesperson Kevin Casey, which allowed for the development of the SEAS complex and a new park.
In December 2017, Faust, Provost Alan M. Garber ’76, and Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh oversaw the placement of the final steel beam onto the Science and Engineering Complex.
Since then, construction steadily progressed as SEAS affiliates anticipated the opening of the complex to students in fall 2020. The complex expected to receive its certificate of occupancy in May 2020, with the initial transition of office spaces beginning the first week of June. The remainder of faculty was slated to move into the complex in a second wave in January 2021.
The entirety of Harvard’s campus felt the sharp and swift ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic, and SEAS was no exception.
On April 11, Doyle announced that Harvard would postpone the Allston SEC opening from fall 2020 to spring 2021 in an email to SEAS affiliates. This delay marked the latest disruption in the complex’s nearly five years of construction.
Doyle wrote that until this most recent postponement, Harvard had managed to keep the project “on schedule (and on budget).”
Although Boston’s mandatory halt on citywide construction in March caused inevitable delays for the opening of the SEC, there is a silver lining in how far the project has come, according to Doyle.
“The good news is that we made it to the 26 mile marker in a five-year, construction marathon,” Doyle wrote. “We have less than a mile to go to cross the finish line.”
Doyle also noted that the circumstances surrounding the delay due to the coronavirus pandemic are vastly different than those surrounding the 2008 economic crisis, which had left the building’s foundation idle and its finances uncertain.
“In that context, the recent pause in construction caused by the COVID-19 pandemic was a relatively small blip, albeit an inconvenient one,” Doyle wrote.
In accordance with Walsh’s “Temporary Guidance for Construction in the City of Boston,” the SEC can resume construction on May 25, on the condition that crew members follow state safety guidelines. Harvard Capital Projects, which manages the construction of the SEC, said work on the building would indeed resume the week of the 25th, according to SEAS Assistant Dean for Campus Planning and Design Pamela Choi Redfern.
“There’s a lot of new protocols in place to help with the new working environment that we’re in,” Redfern said.
The protocols include measures to ensure social distancing by, for example, limiting the number of individuals who may be in an elevator at a given time, according to Karoff.
Like Doyle, Redfern, who has been involved in the SEC project since 2012, said the project was close to completion before the coronavirus pandemic struck.
“It’s been a long road to get here and we were right at the finish line,” Redfern said. “Before construction got halted, we had about three months of work to complete before we started moving in.”
“Given that there are social distancing guidelines and some expected extension of work, it’s probably right now in the range of 12 to 14 weeks.” she added.
At the time of the latest construction delay, SEAS faculty members had been preparing to start moving over to the Allston campus. These preparations, for now, are all on hiatus.
“I was in the very slow process of winnowing down my office, getting rid of old papers and books and things that didn't need to move. So, of course, that’s on hold,” computer science professor Stephen N. Chong said.
Chong was also a member of the working group in charge of coordinating the Allston class schedules, which were going to be offset from Cambridge-based classes by 45 minutes. This, too, has now been put on hold.
Redfern said she is now working on re-planning the expansion into Allston.
“[Redfern] had a very elaborate, incredibly well-orchestrated plan to get everyone into the building by September,” Karoff said. “That’s thrown out the window.”
Karoff, meanwhile, has been working on several issues SEAS faces as it adjusts to the new reality of the pandemic.
“There’s just a lot of planning going on across SEAS around planning for all the potential scenarios for teaching in the fall, planning in the near-term for reoccupying and rebooting the research labs,” he said.
Karoff added that administrators are also thinking about how to respond to the financial impact of the pandemic, both in terms of how to address the reduction in Harvard’s revenue and how to generate revenue through new programs.
In the face of uncertainty about what campus life will look like after the pandemic, it is difficult to gauge how the pre-pandemic vision for the SEC might need to change, according to Doyle. He wrote that social and workplace behavioral norms will inevitably evolve.
“One of the central design principles of the SEC was to encourage random interactions, serendipitous ‘collisions’ that lead to intellectual collaboration among students, faculty, researchers and others,” Doyle wrote. “That concept of physical interplay is a bit at odds with the social distancing requirements of the post-pandemic world.”
James H. Waldo, a computer science professor and the Chief Technology Officer for SEAS, said that although the delay may have disrupted plans to open in fall 2020, it did provide extra time to finalize the building.
“I’m thankful this time around that the delay was only a couple of months. It really means a postponement of about a semester of us moving into the building, and in some ways, that’s nice because the schedule was pretty tight,” Waldo said. “The upside is it gives us more time to be sure that the building is ready for occupancy and for teaching.”
Habbal echoed Waldo’s optimism, adding that every project delay — including this most recent one — has given SEAS affiliates the opportunity to make improvements.
“Sometimes delays give you time to reflect and try to perfect your plans, and that’s been all of the case with this building,” Habbal said. “Every delay we had, we ended up going back, reflecting, trying to figure out improving the plan, and changing the plan sometimes because things change.”
—Staff writer Brie K. Buchanan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Elizabeth X. Guo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @elizabethxguo.