The Greening of the Yard

At one of the most hallowed spaces at Harvard University, the old and the sustainable have never been so compatible.

Harvard Yard

Credit: Marnie Crawford Samuelson and David Kurtis

Until the 1970s, conservation was barely an afterthought in the minds of most architects and contractors. But when the OPEC oil embargo put crude oil in a stranglehold, conservationists were propelled into new positions of influence, and building industry professionals took notice. Architects began orienting their buildings to take advantage of the sun's warmth and to protect against cold and wind. They experimented with photovoltaic roof panels and wind turbines to generate electricity. And they paid greater attention to a building's envelope—the walls, roofs, doors, and windows that keep air and moisture from infiltrating a structure's interior.

Today, green is America's color of progress, and forward-thinking restoration and landscape architects are building on the work of their forebears (and on the seminal studies of Rachel Carson, Ian McHarg, and Jane Jacobs) in making energy conservation a cornerstone of their working philosophies. Architect Jean Carroon and landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh are two such leaders in the field. Carroon is the head of the preservation and renovation practice at Goody Clancy architects in Boston, which has led the restoration of several buildings at Harvard University, including the extraordinarily beautiful brickwork facades of H.H. Richardson's 1880 Sever Hall. Van Valkenburgh heads a distinguished practice with offices in New York City and Cambridge, Mass., and has taught at Harvard's Graduate School of Design since 1982. In 1994, he won a National Trust Honor Award for master-planning the restoration of Harvard Yard and since then has overseen its execution.

It is not, perhaps, a coincidence that both Carroon and Van Valkenburgh are connected so intimately to Harvard. These days, the nation's oldest university is aggressively demonstrating how an institution with a large enrollment (about 20,000), a decentralized administration, and more than 600 buildings on a sprawling campus can save natural resources while preserving its historic buildings and landscapes. To observe a bit of the greening of Harvard, I accompanied Carroon and Van Valkenburgh on a stroll through Harvard Yard—at 22 acres, little more than a postage stamp on the university's 657-acre campus. Of the 30 or so historic buildings in the yard (including Richardson's Sever Hall), Massachusetts Hall (1720) is the oldest. The newest is the 1976 Pusey Library, an underground structure located next to the 1914 Widener Library.

I meet Carroon and Van Valkenburgh on a mild, midweek afternoon in early autumn. An iron fence, designed in 1899 by McKim, Mead & White, encloses the yard, and we pass through Johnston Gate, one of the yard's nine elaborate brick entrances. Within, the space is bustling and noisy with students, as well as tourists, from around the world. In this hallowed flatland, shaded by a leafy canopy of mature trees, the patina on the old red brick is no surprise. There are, however, no ivy-covered walls. The old stands of Boston ivy—actually Japanese ivy, Van Valkenburgh says—were removed from the walls in the 1980s, before Harvard Yard's restoration. "It was a fairly broadly held consensus," he says, "that the vines accelerate deterioration of the brick, and labor costs were steep to keep them trimmed off the windows." Carroon says she's content that the ivy is gone, if only because of maintenance costs, and that the deciduous vines' value as an insulator continues to be debated.

There's no question, however, that trees mitigate the climate extremes around buildings, she says. Elms dominated Harvard Yard until the late 20th century, when the spread of Dutch elm disease killed them off, and over time, the yard was depleted of other species of trees, as well. Van Valkenburgh brings out photographs taken less than 20 years ago (they depict a comparatively treeless expanse), then identifies some of the new species—including pin oak and white pine—he has introduced here since. The primeval New England forests that once covered this terrain were filled with white pines, and that species existed on the yard in its early years. By the early 1990s, when Van Valkenburgh first discussed his ideas for restoring Harvard Yard with the Cambridge Historical Commission, the aging white pines were dying off, and the group's executive director, Charles M. Sullivan, asked that the trees be replanted.

We come to Massachusetts Hall, the second-oldest academic building in the country (after William and Mary's Wren Building), and the conversation turns to windows. Gazing at Massachusetts Hall's long north facade, Carroon says that preservationists and advocates of green architecture don't always agree about the performance of windows in old and historic buildings. A recent United Nations report on the environment estimated that nearly 20 percent of the energy that a building uses in its first 100 years is expended during its construction. By extension, then, making an old building perform better would seem to conserve more energy than replacing its parts. "That's a strong statement," Carroon says, "against tearing out windows and replacing them. The problem is that a lot of homeowners and building managers who want to use less energy believe the window manufacturers when they say that replacing windows is the first thing to do." She calls that argument "greenwashing"—using green rhetoric as a selling point.

Contractors tend to go along with manufacturers, she says, because it's easier to rip out windows and replace them with new units from Home Depot than to remove lead paint from the old units, make them plumb and weather-tight, and install storm windows. "Our culture encourages replacement as opposed to repair," she says. "Consumers should be wary. On the face of it, if you take out an old leaky window and put in a new one, it will have less air filtration and a higher insulation value. But frequently new windows are not installed properly, and many of the new windows fail very quickly."

We cross the part of Harvard Yard called the Old Yard, a level rectangle of grass, trees, and walkways, and approach Boylston Hall, a late-1800s building with granite walls and a Second Empire roofline. Boylston's original multipane windows obviously have been removed and replaced with large single sheets of glass. "This is an example of how we saved buildings in the 1960s," Van Valkenburgh observes. "When I first arrived on campus in the 1970s, I thought it was very cool." Boylston underwent another renovation in the 1990s, Carroon says, and at that time the university, the Cambridge Historic Commission, and the architect in charge decided not to change the appearance of the windows. "I think they made a good decision," she says. "These windows show how the building was treated at a certain point in its history."

But if it is okay to allow Boylston to show its recent history, Widener, Harvard's flagship library, is a different case. When Widener was renovated in 1990, Van Valkenburgh says, its 70-year-old bronze window frames and mullions were discarded and replaced with a dull, black metal. These additions degrade the character of one of the most prominent buildings in Harvard Yard, Van Valkenburgh says, and because bronze lasts indefinitely, discarding the old windows turned out to be wasteful.

We walk in front of the Beaux-Arts Widener, with its wide staircase and columned portico, and across the part of the yard once known as the New Yard but called the Tercentenary Theatre since the 1930s. This is where outdoor graduation ceremonies are held in the spring, and here Van Valkenburgh planted yellowwood trees, a native species that happens to grow under the big oaks and elms. "They develop beautiful white, wisteria-like flowers the same week as graduation," he says. "Altogether in the yard, we've planted more than 250 trees—you can see practically every one of them from here."

Just outside the fence on the yard's northern side, Harvard's Science Center, completed in 1972, rises to a height of nine floors in stepped-back terraces faced in large panes of glass. The architect was Josep Lluis Sert, the dean of the Graduate School of Design from 1953 to 1969. Three years ago, the Science Center was renovated and enlarged. Leaky, single-pane glass was replaced, and the enclosed courtyard was revamped. In premodernist buildings, Carroon notes, "restoration architects play a game of weaving in new systems for heating and cooling in ways that are mostly invisible. But in a modernist building, like the Science Center or Boston City Hall, if you want a more inviting courtyard or a more efficient lighting system than the fluorescent grid designed for a coffered concrete ceiling, you affect the design integrity of the building."

Van Valkenburgh and Carroon are seasoned professionals who have integrated conservation measures into their traditional practices. He made the decision to become a landscape architect in 1970, after reading Ian McHarg's Design With Nature (1969), and she has internalized Jane Jacobs' once-revolutionary points of view in pursuing her preservation work.

But it is another person associated with the university who knows best how sustainability can be integrated into a large institution like Harvard. To learn more, I pay a visit to Leith Sharp, the director of a group called the Harvard Green Campus Initiative. I want to know how far you can advance a building toward sustainability when it is historic and therefore subject to preservation ordinances and restrictions.

Harvard Green describes its approach as entrepreneurial, and it intends to make the university "a living laboratory and learning organization for the pursuit of campus sustainability." An Australian, Sharp was invited to launch the initiative in 2000 after creating a similar program at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.

Sharp's organization grew out of an early-1990s student-faculty grassroots movement rather than as a mandate from university administrators. Its accomplishments at Harvard were gradual at first, but in recent years its influence has grown. Today, Harvard Green employs 20 full-time professionals, plus 40 students who each work four hours a week to help the 9,000 campus residents "understand the environmental impact of living there," as she puts it. "All of us are focused on the enormous task of supporting this very large, much-decentralized institution to become a global model of sustainability."

A short definition of a green, or sustainable, building practice comes from the Office of the Federal Environmental Executive, which advises government agencies on environmental stewardship: "designing, constructing, operating, maintaining, and removing buildings in ways that conserve natural resources and reduce pollution." These days, sustainability's yardstick is the LEED system, administered by the U.S. Green Building Council. Harvard has 20 LEED-registered building projects, including new construction and renovations. The Harvard Green staff occupies a portion of 46 Blackstone, the university's first project to receive a LEED platinum rating. Located near the Charles River about a dozen blocks south of Harvard Yard, it is a cluster of robust brick buildings that includes a former power station built in 1888 by the Cambridge Electric Light Company and its outbuildings. The university purchased them in 2003 and completed their renovation in 2006. A list of the project's green features—including water-use reduction; energy-efficient heating, cooling, and ventilation systems; and the use of recycled building materials—demonstrates that the platinum rating resulted from both large and small measures. But preservation ordinances placed restrictions on what could be done to the buildings' windows and facades. "We didn't have a free hand," Sharp says. "But here and in our other projects, as long as the requirements were made clear early in the process, we've been able to meet them while also designing cost-effective green buildings." Indeed, although the old exterior walls and windows of 46 Blackstone look essentially unchanged, the interior has been recast from a combination of salvaged and new materials, and the landscaping, designed for sustainability, is changed from its original industrial purpose.

Harvard Yard, seen through the eyes of Van Valkenburgh and Carroon, is testimony that harmonious landscape and building restorations together can amount to sound green policy. Meanwhile, 46 Blackstone demonstrates that aggressive conservation measures can fit into a preservation agenda. As a trained environmentalist and an educator, Leith Sharp insists that Harvard—and by implication other institutions—"can go a long way with greening our historic buildings. The momentum at Harvard is now unstoppable."

Allen Freeman, a former senior editor of Preservation and Landscape Architecture magazine, is advisory editor of The American Scholar.


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