Campus & Community

Greener building a ‘model of restoration’

5 min read

Leith Sharp strummed her guitar and sang some new words to the tune of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”:

Hold the solvents and the chlorine.
The Blackstone building’s gonna be green!
We saved paradise and tore up the parking lot!

The occasion was the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new headquarters of University Operations Services (UOS) on Blackstone Street, Cambridge. In addition to the rousing performance by Sharp, director of the Harvard Green Campus Initiative (ably assisted by a group of Harvard employees calling themselves the Green Campus Singers), the Aug. 16 event featured a barbecue and a dedicatory speech by Tom Vautin, associate vice president for facilities and environmental services.

The bright sunshine and clear skies added to the festive mood, but regardless of weather, there was a lot to celebrate. For the first time, all of the UOS management offices are now housed in one building — and what a building!

From the outside, it is still essentially the same brick structure that once housed the Cambridgeport Diary Company back in the early 20th century. But inside, it is a state-of-the-art facility that combines operational efficiency, supportive working conditions, and minimal environmental impact.

As Vautin proudly stated in his remarks, “We have created for the University, and for others outside, a model in the restoration of historic structures that preserves their integrity while making them function as high-performance buildings.”

Vautin went on to enumerate some of the renovation’s most notable features. Despite the building’s age (actually three buildings melded into one, from 80 to 110 years old), it will use 30 percent less energy than required by current building codes.

This efficiency is the result of many features: insulation, a heat-reflecting roof, an abundance of natural lighting that minimizes the need for artificial light during the day, energy recovery in the ventilation system, and a cooling system that uses groundwater from deep beneath the earth.

The renovation, designed by Bruner/Cott & Associates and carried out by Consigli Construction Co., has also radically reduced the building’s impact on the environment. Formerly, the entire Blackstone site was covered with asphalt, concrete, and other impervious materials, causing 100 percent of the stormwater to drain into the sewer system.

But as a result of landscaping the site with native, drought-tolerant plants and grasses, replacing the concrete sidewalks with pavers that allow rainwater to penetrate, and creating an artificial wetland called a bioswale, most of the stormwater now drains into the Charles River after undergoing a natural filtration process.

Not only is the final product environmentally friendly, so was the process that brought it into being. More than 99 percent of the construction waste, or about 3 million pounds of material, was recycled, a University record. Much of the material was reused. For example, all the old windows were shipped to Jamaica to assist in the reconstruction of homes destroyed by hurricanes.

Recycling was the rule even in the building’s interior. The massive wooden support beams were sandblasted and kept in place, brick walls were exposed, and even the office furniture was refinished and reupholstered, resulting in a savings of a quarter of a million dollars.

Robert Gogan, supervisor of waste management for UOS, shared Vautin’s enthusiasm about the renovation.

“This is one of those projects where you do more by doing less. For example, those Douglas fir beams — you can’t buy beams like that today. Reusing them saved us a lot of money.”

The same was true for the recycling of building materials, which proved to be cheaper than carting the tons of debris to a landfill and paying disposal fees.

“The markets for scrap metal have never been higher,” Gogan said. “From a salvage point of view, the timing couldn’t have been better.”

George Oommen, who has managed 50 construction projects at Harvard, including the Blackstone renovation, was also elated about the success of the undertaking.

“This is very exciting for me,” he said. “I think this is the best building Harvard has built from the point of view of sustainability.”

On a tour of the building, Oommen pointed out some of the project’s most innovative aspects. These included flooring made from renewable bamboo, offices designed to provide 95 percent of the workers with a view of the outside, waterless urinals that save an annual 44,000 gallons of water apiece, and a bicycle storage area with lockers and a shower for those who want to bike to work. Even the exterior lighting has been designed so as not to add light polution to the nocturnal sky.

Low-VOC construction materials (volatile organic compounds) were used throughout the project, and even afterward the building will be maintained using only environmentally friendly cleaning products. These choices make a noticeable difference, Oommen said.

“At the end of most construction projects you can smell the outgassing of the paints and adhesives. But with this project, there’s no smell.”