Health is at the Center of Harvard’s New Engineering Complex

Austin Wiebe | September 2021 | Newsletter

Harvard%20SEC%20Press%20Kit%20Images%20%281%29%20%281%29.jpgPhoto credit: Brad Feinknopf, © Harvard University

Earlier this year, Harvard University dedicated its new Science and Engineering Complex (SEC), a model for green building and the largest project – and first research laboratory – to achieve the International Living Future Institute’s (ILFI) Living Building Challenge Petal Certification. The project achieved petals in Materials, Beauty, and Equity. The over 500,000-ft2  building is also LEED Platinum certified, demonstrating the institution’s strong focus on sustainability and materials health. 

The intent of the Living Building Challenge Materials Petal is to “create a materials economy that is non-toxic, ecologically restorative, transparent, and socially equitable.” As part of the process, the Harvard team evaluated more than 6,000 building materials against the LBC-designated Red List of worst-in-class chemicals. They assessed the products for their toxic chemical components, pushing manufacturers for transparency and in some cases effecting change in the product formulations. In many cases, Harvard found that healthier products were available for the same or similar cost as less preferable materials. 

In addition, the complex includes a variety of energy efficiency technologies, including advanced solar shading strategies, adaptable ventilation methods, a high-performance heat-recovery system, and an energy-saving air-cascade system. The institution has a goal of being 100% fossil-fuel-free by 2050. 

Photo credit: Brad Feinknopf, © Harvard University

Better Together

Harvard has had broad sustainable building standards since 2009, and HBN and Harvard have been longtime partners in advancing material health. Throughout our work together, Harvard and HBN have co-designed strategies to advance materials transparency and create market drivers for safer materials. 

“We’re standing on the shoulders of giants like HBN who have paved the way for this work to be done,” said Heather Henriksen, Harvard’s Chief Sustainability Officer. “Our formal partnership goes back to 2014, but we’ve been following HBN’s work forever! Your research, white papers, product guidance, and practical knowledge for people trying to translate this work into practice are terrific. You’ve always been great partners and trusted sources of information.”

Transforming the Market

Heather hopes the SEC project will be an inspiration for other institutions and will show that healthier buildings are possible at any scale.

“Our goal was to do something not only to change the way that Harvard buys materials and our criteria for the toxic chemicals in them, but also that could have an impact well beyond Harvard to scale this work,” she said. “We wanted to prove that if we could do this with a really large, complex building – one that represents a wide variety of space types like offices, classrooms, dining, and labs – then we could do it anywhere.” 

From floors, walls, and ceilings to pipes, sealants, and paints, the SEC building utilized a wide variety of healthier products. For example, they minimized or eliminated the use of halogenated flame retardants, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and per- and polyfluorinated substances (also known as PFAS or “forever chemicals”) – components all shown to have serious human health impacts. These high-impact areas are a great place to start incorporating healthier materials into any project.

Heather encouraged those who want to prioritize material health to think beyond a singular project and to the expanded benefit that an initial investment in choosing better materials can make over an entire portfolio. At Harvard, they’ve already taken the data from the SEC and reused 88% of the chosen products in other projects. “Do a pilot, find out how it works in your organizational data, and then spread it across your future projects. The economies of scale spread out.”

“We want others to look at this project and say ‘We’re going to do what’s Harvard’s doing, because it’s totally possible.’”

Photo credit: Brad Feinknopf, © Harvard University

Leaving a Legacy

As you enter the new SEC complex, you’ll see a series of panels telling the story of sustainability at Harvard and the process that went into making the new center a model for green building.

Behind the panels, if you look closely at the fine print and texture, you’ll see a series of documents. The texts include portions of the materials health and sustainability requirements for the building. What’s more, they include research papers from the Harvard faculty who have themselves researched toxic chemical impacts in the environment – like Professor Elsie Sunderland’s groundbreaking research on mercury and PFAS in drinking water.

“I can’t think of anything that matters more to anyone than the health and wellbeing of themselves, their families, and of future generations,” said Heather. She shares HBN’s belief that by Knowing Better and Doing Better, we can work together to create healthier communities for all. “I have faith in market transformation. If we can align, ask for transparency and optimization for health, this is a solvable problem.”