This Old Hall

The renovation of half of Severance Hall last summer marked the beginning of a $250 million plan to preserve Wellesley’s beloved residence halls and make them greener and more accessible.

Windows in Severance Hall’s formal living room were sealed as repairs were done on that part of the building’s exterior.

Windows in Severance Hall’s formal living room were sealed as repairs were done on that part of the building’s exterior.

Windows in Severance Hall’s formal living room were sealed as repairs were done on that part of the building’s exterior.

Severance is a hall divided. Literally.

“There is legitimately a line!” says Sarah Griffin ’25, a resident advisor on the second floor of Severance, laughing. In fact, a perceptible line runs through the dorm, denoted by different colored carpets and ceiling tiles, marking which half of the building was renovated this past summer, and which half will get the same treatment in summer 2023.

But renovating Severance Hall is just the beginning of a massive 10-year plan to overhaul and upgrade every large residence hall on campus, and it involves far more than carpet and ceiling tiles.

Building a Plan of Action

The College is nearing its 150th anniversary, and many of its buildings are well past their centennial. While these structures reflect the storied and revered history of Wellesley, they also reflect the ravages of time—and the changing standards it brings. The residence halls have aged, often badly, and maintenance and upgrades were too long deferred. For the past six years, the College has focused on critical repairs, addressing failing building systems, leaking roofs and windows, and other urgent problems. These repairs touched every dorm on campus, large and small, ensuring that the students had safe places to live.

At the same time, the College was developing a long-term strategy to address the larger issues facing these residences. “We have a plan that’s mapped to address all of these buildings over the next 10 years,” says Dave Chakraborty, assistant vice president of facilities management and planning. “These are historical buildings, and these are very charming structures, and therefore, we are not going to tear down the buildings and build from new. We are going to renovate the existing buildings so that the look, the feel, the nuances of each and every building—we will protect that.”

That’s no easy feat, considering that the College is a largely residential one, and the dorms are filled to capacity each year. Several options were considered, including off-campus housing and modular temporary dorms, but in the end, the best choice was working on each residence hall in phases during the summer months. The projects’ timelines are so intense that the College has adjusted its academic calendar to allow more time for these “summer slammers.” Notably for alumnae, reunion will take place earlier in the spring than before—in 2023, May 26–28.

“Severance is the kickoff, the first building of the next 10 years,” says Michelle Maheu, director of planning, design, and construction. “As we move along in future summers, we will have multiple buildings going at the same time. Every building has to be renovated over two summers, and that’s because we don’t have space to put the students elsewhere, so we’re limited to the summer construction window. And because there’s so much work to do, we can’t do it in one summer.”

This roughly $250 million plan focuses on all the large residence halls and includes largely universal upgrades as well as needs that are particular to each building. In addition to addressing aging structures and systems, the plan also tackles several long-term goals of the College. “Our goal is to make each building aesthetically pleasing, accessible, energy efficient, and functional,” says Chakraborty. But these goals go beyond the physical aspects of the building. “It’s so much more than heating and cooling. It’s preserving what’s there, growing what’s good, and making sure there’s opportunity for all people to be able to experience it, as well,” says Helen Wang, associate dean of residential life and community development.

Building a More Energy-Efficient Dorm

In April 2021, the College announced its plan to address climate change and how energy is consumed by the campus, with an ultimate goal of zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040. As a residential college, much of the energy consumed during the school year comes from the heating and electricity used in the residence halls. Making these buildings more energy efficient and integrating them into the larger energy plan was a significant part of the renovation’s planning and design process.

One of the biggest parts of the College’s energy plan hinges on shifting from the current heating system, which relies on high-temperature steam produced by burning natural gas, to a low-temperature system that can utilize renewable energy sources. That system requires a different infrastructure, meaning significant changes will be taking place inside the walls in each dorm.

In addition to the heating system, other systems were tested and analyzed for their longevity, including roofs, windows, masonry, wiring, plumbing, and sprinkler systems. “For Severance, we’re replacing the wiring, but in other buildings, we may not have to replace the wiring. So, for each building when we design it, we will do a full analysis and then determine what the scope is going to be,” Chakraborty says. All of the buildings will be getting the new heating infrastructure, new energy-efficient radiators, and energy-efficient lighting upgrades.

Fixtures are not the only consideration when it comes to energy efficiency, however. “We did a lot of energy modeling and energy studies to learn what different tools we could consider in order to increase the efficiency of the building, but yet retain its historical character,” Maheu says. The critical roof work already done was a big first step, but in Severance, new interior storm windows will minimize drafts while preserving the historic windows. “We’re also adding a layer of insulation at the walls of the buildings, so that means every room is going to be about an inch smaller, but we take [energy efficiency] seriously,” Maheu says. “We were very careful about making changes that would have a high impact, but low effect on the architecture and experience of the students.”

Building Accessibility

While increasing energy efficiency presented its own set of obstacles, increasing accessibility was a particular challenge for buildings of this age. “When these buildings were built, accessibility wasn’t even considered,” Chakraborty says. Severance Hall opened in January 1927, and building codes (for accessibility and other issues) have changed a lot since then. “It’s almost impossible to bring these buildings up to accessibility code requirements unless you absolutely gut everything down and rebuild them, which we didn’t want to do,” Chakraborty says. But the College is committed to improving accessibility for students across the campus.

The College worked closely with the Massachusetts Architectural Access Board (MAAB) to create a plan to address accessibility needs through these renovations. “We went through a two-year negotiation and planning process with MAAB to create what’s called a memorandum of understanding,” Maheu says. “We’re creating accessibility at the neighborhood level, rather than the building-by-building level, so they’re giving us a little bit of flexibility in how we reach our accessibility.”

The College has three large dorm neighborhoods—Tower Hill, the Quint, and the East Side—and each will have at least two fully accessible buildings. “What that means is accessible entrances, accessible bathrooms, accessible common spaces—everywhere from the living room to kitchenettes to laundry rooms and dining spaces,” Maheu says. “And then there are the accessible rooms, and that’s by law a percentage of rooms. So overall, 5% of our rooms are what they call mobility accessible, and an even greater number are hearing accessible, and some are both mobility and hearing accessible.” Hearing accessible rooms have features that are tied to lights and vibrations, like a doorbell that triggers a light to notify the resident someone is at the door.

Severance Hall is getting a new permanent ramp at its entrance, as well as other accessibility upgrades throughout the building that range from the height of an oven in a kitchenette to lever-style door handles to strobe lights and bed-shakers tied to the fire-alarm systems. “But especially in these old buildings, there are little spaces that we have variances for,” Maheu says. Keeping the odd elements and quirky nooks and crannies of each dorm is being carefully balanced with meeting the needs of today’s students. “We’re really aware of the fact that our students’ requests for accommodations require us to be really thoughtful about what we need to fix,” says Wang. “There’s not one formula for this.”

Building a New Sev

Severance Hall (or Sev, as it’s known), like so many other buildings on campus, is unique. “It’s a really iconic and important building, and as far as student culture, it’s beloved,” Wang says. So, approaching how to renovate it required a mixture of preservation and practicality. While most changes were welcome, a few were met with a bit more controversy.

One big transformation in Severance is the creation of several new student rooms. “We ended up having an extra stairwell, which is very odd, because normally older buildings might have fewer ways of getting out of the building than modern code,” Maheu says. “So we decided to close off the stairs, and we were able to gain extra student rooms. And since it was at the end of a hall, we were able to create these rooms in a suite-like setting.” That change gives Residential Life a programmatic opportunity to make use of the space in new ways.

Updated and remodeled kitchens and bathrooms have been met with enthusiasm. “I’m so very excited about the bathrooms,” Sarah Griffin ’25 says. “They are really nice and very clean, and they definitely put a lot of thought into making them more accessible.”

The renovated common room on the ground floor, AKA the “Dungeon of Fun”

The changes made to the common room on the ground floor (dubbed the “Dungeon of Fun,” or “DOF”) have been met with mixed reactions. In the early 2000s, students began painting and writing on the walls of the DOF, leaving behind artwork, doodles, messages of encouragement, quotes, and more. “I do think that’s one of the most important common rooms at Wellesley,” says Kat Liu ’25, a resident advisor in Severance. “It has its own culture.”

But to make necessary structural repairs, the walls bearing all those messages had to be replaced. “We made sure that we took images of the paintings on the wall, the things that the students wanted to keep as an expression of themselves, and those are going to stay in the building,” Wang says. In addition to prints of the walls, a wallpaper was made featuring some of the images and used throughout the DOF. “The space really needed an upgrade,” Griffin says. “I think [the renovation] will allow a lot of people to congregate, and it will allow us to host some events there.” But there’s no denying that the renovations changed the space. “It’s ideas and memories and the feelings and thoughts of all the students in the past, and that’s sort of all gone now,” Liu says. “They did their best to preserve the vibe, but I miss the wild part of the walls.”

Building a Home

Throughout all of the design and renovation, the College has been careful to keep in mind the students who will call these halls their home, creating a team that includes the perspective of students and the Residential Life department. “It was really exciting to see the collaborative work between the architects and the contractors and the College to imagine what we could do to make this space really a powerful experience for all students,” Wang says.

As with any renovation, there will be the obvious physical improvements, like freshly painted walls, new carpeting, refinished floors, completely remodeled bathrooms, updated kitchens and kitchenettes, new furniture in the common areas, and more. But there are also other, smaller touches that might not be noticeable at first glance, but that significantly improve the quality of life for students, like better Wi-Fi throughout the buildings and additional electrical outlets in each room.

In addition, Residential Life is taking this opportunity to evaluate rooms across campus and standardize room sizes in terms of what is considered a single, a double, etc., while also looking to enhance the residential experience for students. “I’m always looking for a programmatic advantage,” Wang says. “What’s been a focus for me is to create these little one-on-one spaces … so students can actually gather and be in community together.” And a lot of that can be accomplished with simple furniture solutions and better lighting.

“The halls are not just the place that people sleep in while they’re studying, it’s the place that people live,” says Sheilah Shaw Horton, vice president of student life and dean of students. “They are making community in those spaces. … They’re making friends, they’re making memories, they’re building their capacity to address different things, whether it’s conflict or fears or excitement—all of those things are happening in those spaces. So, creating safe, comfortable spaces that are reliable is really important, and that’s what this project is really about.”

Work on Severance will continue next summer, and the first phase of the Tower Court renovations will begin at the same time.


Garrett is a writer and editor living in the Boston area. She worked for several years at a hardware store and loves renovation TV. She was also a Shafer-for-lifer at Wellesley and preemptively refuses to write an article about changes to her beloved dorm.

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