Campus & Community

Thoughtful House renovation planned

5 min read

More than bricks and beams, it is the people of the 12 undergraduate residential Houses who make the structure of residential life at Harvard transformational, complex, and robust. So, when the Faculty of Arts and Sciences decided to invest in student life by renovating the Houses, supporting House life was the guide for reinforcing and renovating the infrastructure.

These recently announced major renovations will encompass all 12 Houses, and are expected to span as many as 15 years. Key leaders across Harvard will work to ensure that the project proceeds thoughtfully and carefully, so that the Houses and the House communities may continue to be a cornerstone of the College experience.

“The Houses have been a defining feature of Harvard College life since the House system was introduced in the days of President Lowell,” said President Drew Faust. “They are not just places to live but communities for learning, and renewing them is very much part of the larger effort to enhance the undergraduate experience both educationally and socially.”

At this early stage of the renovation process, the priorities are listening to the needs of the College community and planning accordingly. To address fundamental questions about House life, Michael D. Smith, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering, has charged the House Program Planning Committee (HPPC) with exploring the role and purpose of House life. The HPPC will contribute programmatic information to a strategic plan, which will be presented to President Faust and the Harvard Corporation in early 2009.

“House life for our students is at once both singular and complex,” said Smith. “The House system is emblematic of the Harvard undergraduate experience, and yet each House is wonderfully unique, fostering a commonality that is specific to its history and the individuals within its community. These renovations provide the opportunity to strengthen the nature of these special communities and their integration into our academic mission.”

The HPPC, chaired by incoming Harvard College Dean Evelynn Hammonds, Barbara Gutmann Rosenkrantz Professor of the History of Science and of African and African American Studies, will include three subgroups: the Sub-Committee on Residential Living Spaces, the Sub-Committee on House Life, and the Sub-Committee on Academic and Social Spaces.

The Sub-Committee on Residential Living Spaces will be chaired by James McCarthy, professor of biological oceanography, Alexander Agassiz Professor of Biological Oceanography in the Museum of Comparative Zoology, and master of Pforzheimer House. That subcommittee will grapple with questions such as determining the ideal range for the number of students in a House, and exploring how learning and study spaces should be configured.

Don Pfister, Asa Gray Professor of Systematic Botany, dean of the Harvard Summer School, and honorary associate and former master of Kirkland House, will chair the Sub-Committee on House Life. Questions that will be addressed regard the vision of House life in the future, and how the Houses should be linked to the academic mission and incorporate students’ intellectual and leadership interests.

The Sub-Committee on Academic and Social Spaces will be chaired by Lee Gehrke, professor of health sciences and technology, House master of Quincy House, and professor of microbiology and molecular genetics. Here, the subcommittee will discuss where academic and social facilities should be located in every House and what formal spaces are needed.

“As dean of Harvard College, I look forward to working with the entire House community in order to guide and frame the dialogue and the development of this process,” says Hammonds. “The House system is renowned as a model for the integration of the academic, extracurricular, and social spheres of undergraduate life, and our work will build upon these existing traditions.”

Harvard College’s House system has been a critical part of the College’s core mission since it was established by President A. Lawrence Lowell in 1930. Modeled after the colleges at Cambridge and Oxford, the undergraduate Houses formalize Harvard’s centuries-old tradition of learning and living together.

In describing the House system, Lowell said, “In short, a House with members of the three upper classes living together, gives an opportunity for contact in cultural surroundings of younger and older undergraduates and of both with the tutors, thus promoting a greater interest in things intellectual, supplementing and enhancing formal instruction.”

In fall 2007, phase one of a facility condition assessment was completed for four of the Houses; phase two of the assessment will determine the condition of the remaining eight Houses. The initial assessment found that the buildings — which are up to 80 years old — were well designed and constructed, and have been well maintained, but with decades of day-to-day use, systems have become worn and are in need of renovation.

“Many of the Houses are historical buildings and will be preserved as such,” says Linda Snyder, associate executive dean for physical resources and planning. “This is an opportunity to maximize the space that currently exists within these structures. Our plans will consider the unique qualities of the Houses, but provide a consistent living experience for undergraduates.”

Preliminary plans call for the Houses to be renovated one at a time, during which time a House will be off-line for a period of 15 months, including two summers and one academic year.

“Our goal is not just to refurbish the structures of the buildings, but also to offer an optimal environment for fellowship and learning, which is central to the academic mission of the College,” says Suzy Nelson, associate dean for residential life at Harvard.