Harvard University Science and Engineering Complex

Architecture Firm: Behnisch Architekten

Owner: Harvard University

Location: Boston

Project site: Brownfield

Building program type(s): Education – College/University (campus-level), Laboratory

Among the healthiest and most energy-efficient laboratory buildings in the world, Harvard’s Science and Engineering Complex (SEC) helps shift the typology toward environmental stewardship. It sets a new standard for Harvard and highlights its mission to shape a more sustainable university community and planet. Designed to reflect the leading research taking place inside, the complex also connects users to one another in the spirit of collaboration. It was built just over the bridge from Harvard’s Cambridge campus in Lower Allston, one of 23 neighborhoods that make up the City of Boston. The goal was to create a new sustainably built home for the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) where a robust culture of collaboration and interdisciplinary work could be fostered. The SEC site is also a connector that links the neighborhood and Boston’s park system.


Harvard’s Science and Engineering Complex (SEC) is one of the healthiest and most energy-efficient laboratory buildings in the world. Certified by two international sustainable building programs, the International Living Future Institute (Living Building Challenge Materials, Beauty, and Equity petals) and the U.S. Green Building Council (LEED Platinum), the SEC is a centerpiece of Harvard University’s mission to create a healthier, more sustainable campus, community, and planet.

The SEC plays a key role in connecting the Lower Allston Neighborhood, in a safe, car-free manner, to the Greater Boston Greenbelt, Public Park system, and natural amenities. Image: Brad Feinknopf, Behnisch Architekten

The SEC, from its inception, was meant to be an agent for change by simultaneously reorienting the scientific research building typology toward ecological stewardship, setting a new standard for healthy buildings on Harvard University’s campus and fostering an environment of connection, collaboration, and community. While related, these challenges each required substantively rethinking the fundamentals of institutional research building design. Accomplishing this required an approach with both breadth and depth that balanced technical, anthropological, and ecological needs—one that involved examining researchers’ day-to-day activity patterns, defining new standards for health and safety across the campus, exhausting passive-design measures, employing ultra-high-efficiency technologies, and investigating over 5,600 individual building products and systems to minimize the use of harmful substances such as PFAs, chemical flame retardants, and PVC.

The resulting 544,000-square-foot building was designed to reflect the cutting-edge research that happens inside, all while connecting building occupants to each other and to the natural beauty and life of New England. Operable windows in all regularly occupied spaces bring fresh air into the building, floor plate dimensions are kept to the minimum to ensure quality daylighting throughout the facility, and generous vertical circulation in the form of open stairs, bridges, and ramps encourage occupants to move, to see and be seen, and to collaborate with colleagues. This is extended to the project’s ground level and outdoor spaces, where not only students and researchers but the local community and public are invited to visit, linger, interact with and observe the work within, and enjoy the generous regenerative outdoor spaces.

Like a living, breathing organism, the SEC relies on an integrated network of self-regulating systems that supplement the passive design methods. To enhance the building’s performance, its architects and engineers employed advanced solar shading strategies, adaptable ventilation methods, a high-performance heat recovery system, an energy-saving air cascade system, superior insulation, air-sealing techniques, triple glazing, and renewable energy.

The SEC marks a major step toward Harvard’s goal to be fossil fuel-free by 2050 and to reduce damage to human and ecosystem health. With the SEC, the design team and their partners have translated research into practice and transformed a typically highly energy-intensive building typology into one that meets and exceeds present-day energy targets. By joining forces with students, community members, local and global businesses, designers, and researchers, the team has motivated others to support the design of healthier and more responsible built environments at all levels. Together, we are transforming the definition of sustainable building to address climate, health, and equity for all.

Additional information

Project attributes

Year of design completion: 2021

Year of substantial project completion: 2021

Gross conditioned floor area: 544,400 sq. ft.

Number of stories the building has: seven

Project site: brownfield

Project site context/setting: urban

Annual hours of operation: 4,745

Site area: 274,528 sq. ft.

Total annual users: 2,000

Project team

Code Consultancy: Code Red Consultants

Engineering - Climate: Transsolar Inc.

Engineering - Structural: Buro Happold

Façade: Knippers Helbig GmbH

General Contractor:  Turner Construction Company

Signage, graphics: Ockert und Partner

Laboratory Planners: Jacobs Laboratory Planning Group

Landscape Architect: Stephen Stimson Associates

LBC Consultancy: Integrated Eco Strategy

LEED Consultancy: Harvard Office for Sustainability and Thorton Thomasetti

Lighting Design: Bartenbach GmbH and Lam Partners

MEP, Fire Protection: van Zelm Heywood & Shadford Inc.


Katie Ackerly, AIA, Chair, David Baker, Oakland, Calif.

Julian Owens, Assoc. AIA, Jacobs, Arlington, Va.

Seonhee Kim, AIA, Design Collective, Baltimore

Avinash Rajagopal, Metropolis, New York

Image credits

With focus on the design of the outdoor space and integration into the university cam-pus, a dynamic place for research and teaching is being created.

Brad Feinknopf

Brad Feinknopf

Brad Feinknopf

The world’s first hydroformed tensile façade system, uniquely combining solar control with the delicacy and lightness of fabric.

Brad Feinknopf

With focus on the design of the outdoor space and integration into the university cam-pus, a dynamic place for research and teaching is being created.

Brad Feinknopf

Students in the SEC laboratory.

Brad Feinknopf