November 20, 2019
Meeting about Swartz Hall
Donor and Dean's Council member Susan Swartz speaks at the groundbreaking of Swartz Hall as (L-R) Jim Swartz, President Lawrence Bacow, and Dean David Hempton. Photo Credit: Justin Knight.

The fences are up, the hard hats are on, and ground has been broken on the most sweeping campus renewal effort in Harvard Divinity School’s 200-year history.

When complete, the modernization and expansion of Swartz (originally Andover) Hall, the School’s main teaching and learning space, will provide a true campus center and improve virtually every aspect of the student experience at HDS.

“You’re creating a community around the instructional space, the worship space, and new social spaces,” says Philip Chen, president of Ann Beha Architects, the firm in charge of the project’s design. “It will focus the whole HDS community in one place where people can come in the morning and stay all day.”

Work on the project began immediately after Commencement last May and is slated to continue for 19 months. Phase one, already complete, prepared the site and moved faculty and staff into swing space nearby, at 60 Oxford Street. Demolition and abatement were the focus over the summer.

Next, the construction crew will upgrade the building’s mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems and begin structural work on perhaps the most noticeable change to Swartz Hall: the new expanded wing that will replace the cloister link. The balance of the project will involve landscaping and the beautification and modernization of interior spaces.

Listen to HDS director of operations Ralph DeFlorio, and you might come away thinking that the project is something of a disappearing act. Creaky roof? Gone. Drafty windows? Gone. Hundred- year-old plumbing and wiring? Gone and gone.

“Had this not gone forward,” DeFlorio says, “HDS would have had to undertake a series of about 20 capital projects. It would have taken several years and been very disruptive. All those projects will be addressed with the renewal of Swartz Hall, so it kind of makes the list disappear.”

What will be apparent when the project is done are some dramatic improvements: upgraded and expanded instructional space; a new commons and other collaborative spaces where students can connect with faculty and with each other; room for large conferences and meetings; new technology, including a state-of-the-art digital projection system; and, perhaps most significant, more inclusive spaces that welcome people of all religious traditions, particularly the new multifaith chapel.

“We have students who have never been able to find a true worship space during their time at HDS,” DeFlorio says. “The new chapel will allow a student from any of the School’s 30-plus religions to enter and practice their tradition.”

First and foremost throughout the project is environmental sustainability. Chen says that Swartz Hall renewal will improve the efficiency of the building, from its envelope down to its most basic systems, to earn Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Gold certification from the United States Green Building Council. But DeFlorio says that there’s another aspect of sustainability that’s just as important, if less discussed: the impact that the building has on the health of its occupants.

The HDS community celebrated the beginning of work on Swartz Hall with a groundbreaking ceremony on September 27, 2019. In attendance (L-R) were project architect Philip Chen, Rev. Gloria White-Hammond, Jim Swartz, Susan Swartz, Harvard University President Lawrence Bacow, and HDS Dean David Hempton. Photo Credit: Justin Knight.

“We’re using the International Living Future Institute’s Living Building Challenge as a guideline,” he explains. “We have a team that looks at the health of any material specified for the project. It could be paint. It could be carpet, furniture, mechanical equipment, anything. The building’s going to be healthier.”

The Living Building Challenge also looks beyond the construction project to the way materials are made. Philip Chen says the idea is to prohibit items that are not only harmful to building occupants but that also contribute to pollution or harm construction and factory workers.

“It’s not only the end user we’re thinking of,” he says. “It’s the whole manufacturing and supply chain.”

Even as the team works to renew Swartz Hall, however, it will keep an eye on the past and strive to preserve the building’s historic character.

“Swartz Hall was originally constructed in 1911,” DeFlorio says. “A lot has happened since then. There’s a connection between the people who’ve come through here and the building. It’s important to acknowledge that history.”

Historic preservation. A dramatic improvement in sustainability. The transformation of the School’s most important teaching and learning spaces. It’s a daunting set of challenges for any construction project, but one relished by Oneil Phatak of Shawmut Design and Construction, the firm making Ann Beha Architect’s designs a reality.

“The best part of the project is all the different things we are doing,” he says. “We are changing windows. We are changing the roof. We are doing site utilities. We are doing structural work. There’s a historical aspect of it. It’s got everything a construction team could want in a project.”

When the project is done, DeFlorio hopes that Swartz Hall will have everything students, faculty, and staff could want, too.

“Our goal at HDS is to make a world of difference,” he says. “That means not only bringing the world to HDS but also bringing HDS to the world. We haven’t had the facilities to do that. Now we will.”