Under the House Renewal project, Dunster House may be the first full House to be renewed. Constructed in 1930, Dunster House is one of the earliest of the seven Houses built under President A. Lawrence Lowell. On July 12, Harvard announced a system-wide effort to renew the University’s 12 undergraduate Houses.

File photo by Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

House renewal, ready for launch

8 min read

FAS, College lay out goals and logistics, starting with Dunster

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) and Harvard College today announced plans to launch the systemwide effort to renew the University’s 12 undergraduate Houses. The announcement provides the first details about this ambitious initiative, unveiling the first full House to be renewed, the location of “swing” housing, and the pacing for the rest of the project.

FAS Dean Michael D. Smith and Harvard College Dean Evelynn M. Hammonds indicated that Dunster House would be the first full House to be renewed. Under the plan, which requires final approval by the Harvard Corporation, Dunster would be taken offline for 15 months (one academic year and two summers), beginning in June 2014, and Dunster students would reside in nearby swing, or temporary, housing during the 2014-15 academic year.

Constructed in 1930, Dunster is one of the earliest of the seven Houses built under President A. Lawrence Lowell and through the generosity of Edward Stephen Harkness. The House was named in honor of Henry Dunster, who became the first president of Harvard College at age 31, immediately after his arrival in the colony of Massachusetts Bay in 1640. It houses about 315 students.

To date, the renewal planning has focused on two test projects, in the Old Quincy building of Quincy House, where construction began in June, and in the McKinlock building of Leverett House, where design is under way. These test projects allow assessment of design and construction options on portions of two neo-Georgian river Houses and help to inform plans for renewal of a full House.

When construction on Old Quincy is completed next summer, undergraduates will return to a House that is more comfortable, more modern, and better configured to support academic and social activities. Quincy House Masters Lee and Deb Gehrke and Leverett House Masters Howard and Ann Georgi have been instrumental in planning and implementing the test projects. Likewise, Roger and Ann Porter, the Dunster House masters, will play a crucial role in planning the renewal of that House.

Changes to Old Quincy include the elimination of walk-through bedrooms; the creation of single rooms; the addition of elevators for accessibility, vertical entryways connected horizontally by internal corridors, and new seminar rooms and music practice spaces; and the addition of a large community room that will lead to an open-air terrace. In addition to being fully accessible, the building will be LEED Gold certified as environmentally friendly.

The Leverett McKinlock project also affords the opportunity to renovate additional House facilities. For example, the basement level, currently unfinished, will be transformed into student social and academic spaces and some duplex residential suites. McKinlock’s enclosed courtyard provides an opportunity to create an attractive, large, open, green space for passive recreation and to provide the type of informal seating and gathering spaces, including dining, that are currently lacking in the Houses. The dining hall, a performance space, the junior and senior common rooms, and the masters’ residence will also be renovated as part of the Leverett test project.

“With the start of construction last month on the first test project at Old Quincy and with construction on the second, Old Lev, slated to begin next June, it is time to move ahead with plans to renew a full House,” Smith said. “Dunster House is one of the smallest and oldest neo-Georgian river Houses, which makes it the perfect candidate to be first for renewal. House renewal begins in earnest with the work on Dunster House.”

“Planning for Old Quincy and Leverett McKinlock has gone remarkably well, and we’ve made a lot of progress in a few short years,” Smith continued. “I’m particularly pleased that we’ve successfully balanced the need to preserve the historic character of these buildings and to sustain President Lowell’s original vision, while simultaneously transforming these spaces to support a 21st-century intergenerational learning community that addresses the needs of today’s students. We can never lose sight of that fundamental goal. Our commitment to providing an unparalleled liberal arts education and student experience in a residential setting is unwavering. We will apply the lessons we learned from those two projects as we begin planning for Dunster’s renewal.”

The House renewal planning group has been working with the Dunster House masters to facilitate this decision.

“We’re very pleased that Dunster will be the first full House to be renewed,” said Roger Porter. “This is an exciting development for all of us who love Dunster and want it to remain a vibrant place for students to live and learn for decades to come. As this project moves forward, and the Dunster community moves into swing space for a year, we are committed to maintaining our sense of community as a House and ensuring that students living in Dunster at that time receive all the support they need to be successful during this period.”

Swing housing for Dunster and beyond

Smith and Hammonds also announced that the building housing the Inn at Harvard — which is owned by the University and currently operated as a hotel by an independent contractor — will become the hub of the swing housing that will accommodate Dunster students as the House is renewed, as well as for students from other Houses being renewed in future years. Several Harvard-owned apartment buildings will supplement the inn facility to provide beds for displaced Dunster students and staff. Three Harvard-owned apartment buildings (Hampden Hall at 8 Plympton St., Fairfax Hall at 1306 Massachusetts Ave., and Ridgely Hall at 65 Mt. Auburn St.) are already being used as test project swing space.

When constructed in 1991, the Inn at Harvard facility was intended to be used temporarily as a hotel until it was converted to University use. Consistent with that plan, the hotel will close by next July, and alterations will be made during the following year to enable it to support students, including student beds, a dining hall, and other social and program spaces that are integral to every House.

“One of our top House renewal priorities is to ensure that every student living in swing housing continues to be fully integrated into their House community, with access to similar types of facilities, programs, and opportunities,” Hammonds said. “Working with the Office of Student Life and House masters, we will make sure that the swing housing feels both like a House and like a home to the students living there for a year of their College experience.”

A learning process

Following the renewal of Dunster House, FAS and the College will assess the test projects at Old Quincy and Leverett McKinlock, as well as the first full House renovation at Dunster, before proceeding to renewal of the next House in 2016-17. The pace and sequence of House renewal is subject to periodic review by the Harvard Corporation.

“House renewal is one of the most complex projects we have ever undertaken,” Smith said. “At the start of our planning, we carefully reviewed similar projects at peer institutions. At Harvard, we deliberately designed the program so that we would test design, financing, and construction concepts on portions of Houses before undertaking the renewal of the first full House. Similarly, we understand that we should build in some time to learn lessons from those tests and from Dunster before moving to the next phase of the project.

“While we have some terrific plans on the drawing board, and construction of Old Quincy is well under way, we haven’t had the opportunity to see how these plans work in practice, and how they are experienced by the people living in the Houses,” Smith added. “It is important that we plan time to gather that information from partial House test projects as well as a full House before taking the next step.”

One of the questions to be assessed is the success of the efforts to apply the guidelines in the House Program Planning Committee (HPPC) report to the first three renewal projects.

“The HPPC — which included student, faculty, and staff representatives — developed the principles by which House renewal was guided,” said Hammonds, who chaired the committee in 2009. “Engagement with the House masters and our students has further informed our vision for the House system as a whole. At the same time, each House has a different layout, history, and character. The challenge is to apply this vision similarly to 12 very different situations. By 2015, we’ll be able to assess what we’ve accomplished.”

“In today’s plugged-in, always-on world, the kind of connection between people that is afforded by the House system is a truly precious resource,” said Smith. “The Houses have been and must continue to be carefully curated communities, evolving as our students and the world around them change. As we change the buildings to meet the current and future needs of our students and programs, we recommit ourselves to Harvard’s House system, a truly life-changing institution rooted in people and what they can learn from each other. The Houses are the heart of the student experience at Harvard.”