A weathered 1940s house on a sleepy street in Cambridge seems an unlikely setting for a cutting-edge think tank aiming to change the conversation on sustainable building and planning. But according to Ali Malkawi, the director of Harvard’s new Center for Green Buildings and Cities, this is precisely the point. The house was chosen not just for its proximity to the university’s Graduate School of Design (GSD), but also because it’s a typical residential structure in the U.S., one of several million similar homes.
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Located at 20 Sumner Road, just behind the GSD, the three-story house will be the Center’s “Living Lab,” where a cross-disciplinary team of research fellows and collaborators will experiment with design-driven solutions for retrofitting the structure so that it ultimately produces rather than consumes energy. The hypothesis is that the Lab’s data findings may have implications for design and construction methods not only in the U.S., but also across the globe. “If we want to take the topic of sustainability seriously, we have to have much more performance-based regulations that enable us to reach solutions that move the subject further along,” said Malkawi. “As we move toward exporting systems like LEED and others to different parts of the world, we’re going to have to be more careful about how these systems will be applied so that they’re meaningful in those contexts.”
The center was founded on the premise that designers need to take the lead on critically addressing sustainability at all scales. “We’ve been doing a lot of optimization of current solutions, but these solutions have been completely driven by engineering issues,” said Malkawi. “In order to have substantial change, we’re going to have to rethink how we approach the problem. One of the issues that has not been taken into consideration as much is how design can drive the discussion.”
Formally established at the GSD, the Center quietly launched almost a year ago thanks to a substantial gift to Harvard from the Evergrande Group, a China-based developer. (The university would not disclose the exact amount of the donation, but the Center indicated it was one of the largest such gifts in the university’s history.) Malkawi, a professor of Architectural Technology at the GSD with a background in architectural engineering and research, states that the current funding gives the Center the freedom to set its own agenda, rather than depend on shorter-term industry partnerships. “We want to have partnerships, but we also want to be able to ask the right questions,” stated Malkawi.
To this end, on November 7 the Center will hold the “Challenge Conference” at the GSD, what it hopes will become an annual event that convenes thinkers, practitioners, and visionaries in the fields of sustainability, design, and planning.