Harvard Engineering School’s Move to Allston Deferred

As the pandemic halts construction, the move-in schedule for the fall semester has slipped.

Photograph, Allston science and engineering complex with construction halted, April 9, 2020
So close: the Allston science and engineering complex, shown on April 9, where the final stages of construction have been halted during the coronavirus pandemic
Photograph courtesy of Harvard University Construction Cam/OxBlue

Francis J. Doyle III, dean of the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), informed his community this afternoon that the school’s plan to move much of its faculty, research, and teaching into its new quarters in Allston, scheduled for this spring and summer—with academic operations beginning by the opening of the fall 2020 term—has had to be deferred until January 2021. The postponement is a direct result of the coronavirus pandemic.

As one of the precautions taken during the health crisis, Boston mayor Martin J. Walsh halted construction work throughout the city in mid March. Although the science and engineering complex (SEC)—looming over Western Avenue across from the Harvard Business School campus—was in the finish-work stages of construction, it is a huge, complex facility, and the planned move was an exquisitely choreographed, logistically challenging relocation project, involving dozens of faculty members’ laboratories and research teams: the large computer science and electrical engineering cohort, plus those in bioengineering and materials science and mechanical engineering—slightly more than half of faculty members’ laboratories. (Applied mathematics, applied physics, and environmental science and engineering remain in Cambridge, and the electrical engineers and materials scientists will retain a dual presence there, as well.)

In a brief conversation this morning, Doyle said—appropriately, given his faculty—“We can all do the math.” Construction has been stilled for four weeks, and will remain so through at least the end of April. Reactivating the site, he estimated, may take a month, given delayed work orders, and resumed construction might have to be “de-densified” to protect contractor crew members—potentially affecting the completion of final tasks. So, an “optimistic” assessment of the time lost is three months: that pushes a certificate of occupancy, if there are no further glitches, into August, thus allowing a few weeks, at most, before teaching was scheduled to begin.

Given the complexity of moving labs and commissioning the facility, that schedule is simply too tight to proceed with fall 2020 operation. “People have been clamoring for answers, details, and dates,” Doyle continued, and once the constraints became clear, he felt obliged to convey the fact of the postponement. The number of people affected is large. SEAS now enrolls nearly 1,100 undergraduate concentrators, a large fraction of whom will begin taking many of their classes in the new facility. There are nearly 700 master’s and doctoral students—again, with many of their classes and their advisers’ laboratories involved in the relocation.

In anticipation of the SEC’s opening and the resulting move of much instruction, in fact, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) changed its entire class schedule to accommodate teaching on both sides of the Charles River, building in adequate passing time between classes for students enrolled in courses across the enlarged campus. And as Doyle emphasized during the February faculty meeting, SEAS will initially use about half of the building’s teaching capacity (it has been outfitted with everything from a large lecture hall to flexible seminar rooms and hands-on teaching labs and maker spaces), so he has invited professors from across the FAS disciplines to hold classes there, knitting the expanded campus together. Attempting a move under deadlines that have become too tight would therefore risk the registrar’s assignment of teaching spaces, and class scheduling, for the entire FAS.

The Dean’s Message

Writing to SEAS faculty and staff members, students, and friends to convey the news of “the unavoidable delay in the planned fall semester opening” of the Allston facility, Doyle cited the suspension of construction in Boston, meaning that the complex “will not be ready for a summertime move-in and fall opening as previously planned.” Assuming that construction in Boston can resume this summer, he continued, “we hope to begin moving in this coming fall.” That would accommodate classes “by the beginning of the spring 2021 semester.”

Referring to the logistical tasks resulting from the postponement, Doyle wrote:

During the coming weeks, our campus planning team will work closely with colleagues from across the university to develop revised plans for opening the SEAS campus in Allston. This work will include new schedules for lab and office relocations, course and classroom scheduling, and adjustments to plans for transportation and dining services to support students and other community members once the SEC opens. This change to the SEC schedule will also necessitate amending plans to vacate or consolidate our footprint within several of the buildings SEAS currently occupies in Cambridge.

Until detailed plans are developed in consultation with faculty members, research groups, and teaching staff, he continued, “I ask for your patience as we endeavor to navigate the new timetable.”

Perspective: A Long Time Coming

The delay was not a surprise. President Lawrence S. Bacow had telegraphed the inevitable in an interview on April 3, saying, “We were so close, we were doing the finish work, we were going to move people in right after Commencement.” He has championed development of the campus in Allston, and looked forward to inaugurating this landmark academic facility in the early autumn.

This project has a long history—and has now, in effect, been hit by lightning twice. Construction of the original, and more elaborate, four-building complex began during the salad days in the first decade of this millennium. But as the financial crisis and Great Recession of 2008-2009 constrained University finances severely, President Drew Gilpin Faust made the reluctant decision, announced on December 10, 2009, to “pause” construction on what was then envisioned as a $1.3-billion to $1.4-billion project. Once the enormous subsurface work was brought up to grade level, the site was mothballed: Harvard simply could not afford to complete the construction then. 

Early in this decade, University planners rethought the project, and enlisted Behnisch Architekten, the original designer, to reconceive a simpler, single-building complex, which would occupy part of the large subsurface platform. (The rest is being landscaped and, in effect, warehoused for future development, presumably for related scientific and engineering uses.) The Boston Redevelopment Authority unanimously approved plans for the current iteration of the project, now conceived as a home for much of the SEAS, in the spring of 2016. Other, related work has been completed: a cogenerating energy plant to serve that part of campus; and the refitting of 114 Western Avenue (originally part of WGBH’s campus) with teaching spaces plus the SEAS dean’s office and spaces for the dean’s staff, along with quarters for Harvard Allston Land Company. (The latter group is overseeing development of the commercial “enterprise research campus” farther east along and south of Western Avenue—the status and timing of which may also, obviously, be affected by the economic fallout from the COVID-19 crisis.)

In the longer perspective, the new delay in SEAS’s aspirations to occupy its expanded new quarters will not loom so large. The SEC itself is a tangible sign of the priority the University has put on investing in engineering and applied science since SEAS became a separate school in 2007. It was a high priority during The Harvard Campaign, resulting in a landmark naming gift, and another huge gift that enabled the school to enlarge its core computer-science faculty. And the SEAS share of FAS faculty positions has increased consistently, even as the size of the professoriate as whole has changed little.

As Doyle wrote, “While the postponement is disheartening and will add new complexities to our planning, it is only a delay. When we open the doors to the SEC, the entire Harvard community, our peers and colleagues, and our partners throughout the region will be able to realize the benefits of this state-of-the-art facility for teaching, learning, and research.” During the conversation this morning (conducted over Zoom, with a panoramic view of the SEC as his backdrop), he said emphatically, “We know we’re going to get across the finish line.”

Once the move is actually effected, SEAS leaders, in consultation with FAS, can begin thinking about how to use the spaces it is emptying in Cambridge, and in what fields, finally, it might be able to expand its formerly space-constrained faculty ranks (given the availability of funds, of course).

And University administrators can continue to focus on the looming larger questions of when, and indeed, whether residential instruction will itself resume on campus as scheduled, come this September 2.

Read the related University news announcement here.


Read more articles by John S. Rosenberg

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