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buildings
UNIVERSITIES
More Than an Academic Exercise
MIT spends $1 billion to transform its learning curve
By Nadine M. Post in Cambridge
BIG GRID Exterior walls of Simmons dorm, which support the building and the architecture, were tricky to assemble. (Photo courtesy of MIT/Andy Ryan)

Loners no longer wanted. Nerds take notice. Bookworms be on alert. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is on a $1-billion building campaign to soften its edges--from streetscape to study cove. And it's doing so by building audacious architecture that stands out, fits in and nurtures community, socialization and even amusement. The goal is to show that good living is good for learning.

Standards of flexibility, compatibility, economy and accessibility are still in force, but MIT's design principles now mandate comfort, communication, connectivity and a sense of place. A new dormitory has nooks and crannies to draw students out of their rooms for communal lounging, snacking and studying. A computer science building is designed with internal neighborhoods, villages and pedestrian streets to foster human interaction. A fitness center is meant to encourage letting go.

SIRIANNI

"I think we are going to change to some degree the nature of this institution," says Victoria V. Sirianni, MIT's chief facilities officer. Her department, which maintains nearly 12 million sq ft of buildings on the school's 154-acre campus in Cambridge, Mass., is charged with managing the metamorphosis. "The big picture is pretty profound, pretty scary," she says.

MIT's president, Charles M. Vest, views the physical transformation as a giant discovery tour and learning exercise for the 143-year-old research university, best known for science, engineering and architecture programs. And he has not wasted local talent to help chart the school's course. William J. Mitchell, dean of the School of Architecture and Planning, has the president's ear and sits on the building committee. He was involved in setting ambitions, shaping the "social" tone of the program and in selecting architects, among them three Pritzker prize winners. Mitchell also uses the program as a teaching tool.

THE PACK Program includes: (3) Pacific Street dorm (Photo courtesy of MIT)

After a virtual construction hiatus of nearly 15 years, the facilities department has eight projects with a combined construction cost of nearly $500 million coming on line within about four years of each other. "It's been a wild ride," says Sirianni.

MIT gives 2000 as the official kickoff year of the 10-year campaign. But work began several years earlier on the $212.5-million flagship, the Frank O. Gehry-designed Ray & Maria Stata Center for computer science.

(4) Zesiger Sports and Fitness Center (Photo courtesy of MIT)

The 703,000-sq-ft building, which includes a two-level underground parking garage that gobbles up 300,000 sq ft, ranks both as the program's and the architect's largest project to date. In true Gehry fashion, the 10-story building, 65% complete, is almost indescribable. Columns slant this way and that, edges curve and cantilever, and multiple appendages and facade treatments make the single building look like a collection.

(5) Dreyfus Chemistry Building renovation (Photo courtesy of MIT)

The $68.2-million Simmons Hall undergraduate dormitory, designed by Steven Holl Architects, New York City, is considered the next-most audacious in the line-up. The dorm opened to students in August, but workers are just finishing up the common areas. The $42.2-million Albert and Barrie Zesiger Sports and Fitness Center, designed by Kevin Roche, John Dinkeloo & Associates, Hamden, Conn., opened in September. The $76-million 70 Pacific Street Dormitory, designed by Steffian Bradley Associates Inc., Boston, opened last August. The $21.8-million 224 Albany Street Graduate Residence, designed by S/L/A/M Collaborative, Glastonbury, Conn., opened a year prior. The $47.1-million Dreyfus Chemistry Building renovation, designed by Goody, Clancy & Associates, Boston, is scheduled to end by summer. A 376,000-sq-ft brain and cognitive sciences project, designed by Goody, Clancy and Charles Correa Associates Architects, Bombay, is scheduled to begin construction this year and be completed in 2005.

(6) Albany Street dorm (Photo courtesy of MIT)

The list goes on. A 197,000-sq-ft media lab extension, designed by Fumihiki Maki/Maki Associates, Tokyo, has not been priced or scheduled. The same goes for the 450,000-sq-ft East Campus Project, designed by Moore Ruble Yudell Architects and Planners, Santa Monica, Calif., primarily for the Sloan School of Management. A $53-million project to bury utilities under Vassar Street, the school's mile-long "infinite corridor," is under way. It will be followed by a $17.5-million streetscape project. The capital program also includes renovations of the MIT Museum, Hayden Library and other buildings.

The program reportedly is running "pretty smoothly," all things considered. Projects are mostly on schedule and within the overall budget set in early 2000, says Paul R. Curley, director of capital construction.

(7) brain and cognitive sciences project (Photo courtesy of MIT)

When Curley arrived at MIT in January 2000 from the General Services Administration, he had his work cut out for him. The fledgling department had no budget or schedule controls in place. That didn't last long. Curley and his colleague, Deborah Poodry, director of capital project development, now steer a staff of 28. There are typically two senior project managers assigned to each job. One leads from schematics through design development and the other through commissioning. The arrangement assures continuity and provides accountability, says Curley.

(8) Media Lab (Photo courtesy of MIT)

Project management systems reportedly are working well, though there is a lot to track. And keeping to the budget has not been easy. For example, the big projects went to market right in the middle of Boston's mammoth Central Artery/Tunnel project. Finding bidders, let alone good prices, was difficult.

The phased renovation of the chemistry building has been the most challenging because it remains occupied, says Curley. But Simmons Hall has been likened to building a concrete watch. And Stata isn't a busman's holiday either, except for Gehry. That's because it offered the opportunity to work for a client that spells technology with a capital "T."

POODRY

"The entire process has been a joy on all fronts," says Jim Glymph, Los Angeles-based Gehry Partners' principal in charge and techno-guru. "There was less finger-pointing and more problem-solving" than on most Gehry jobs, he adds.

CURLEY

Glymph and others attribute that to the collaborative tone set by MIT. For example, the construction manager, Beacon Skanska Inc. (renamed Skanska Inc. on Jan. 1), was hired in 1998 during schematic design to advise on costs and constructibility. The CM has a staged fee based on cost of the work and is reimbursed for personnel time. MIT establishes guaranteed maximum prices as the design progresses and approves all costs prior to incurring them. "It's an open book process done in real time," says Paul Hewins, project executive and a vice president in Skanska's Boston office.

There is no fee on change orders so there is no incentive to go over the budget, Hewins says, adding that Stata has the least amount of conflict of any job in his experience. He finds that amazing, considering the project's complexity.

GEHRY'S WAY Doodles become physical models, which become digital models. (Images courtesy of Gehry Partners)

Two Skanska people spent a year in Gehry's office to get up to speed on CATIA, the sophisticated three-dimensional CAD system Gehry uses on its more complicated jobs. In addition, two architects from Cannon Design, Boston, the project's associate architect, spent two years in Gehry's office learning CATIA before moving back East to be at the site full time.

The CATIA training was helpful. Still, Stata--primarily a structural concrete building with structural steel for the most unusual shapes--was not a paperless job, as Glymph had proposed. "We can't get the world out of paper," says Glymph. "But it will come."

At Stata, the structural engineer used the 3-D model to visualize and review the more complicated steel connections. But approvals and record-keeping were done the old way, says Ron Lee, project manager for structural engineer John A. Martin & Associates Inc., Los Angeles.

Stata is using technology in another way–through a Web-based project management system. All agree the technology is still "clunky." But it is a "fabulous" communication tool that is going to get better, says Nancy Joyce, an MIT senior project manager on Stata.

David T. Lewis, MIT's senior project manager for Stata's construction, says the facilities department will keep the system to handle warranty claims and the like.

SEE THROUGH Digital models help contractors visualize wild shapes. (Photo courtesy of Andy Ryan, image courtesy of Gehry Partners)

MIT is using a lower-tech tool to keep Stata on course. Redicheck North, Hampton, N.H., is reviewing Gehry drawings for variances. The review is costing MIT $96,000, but Lewis thinks it is saving millions of dollars in fixes and lots of time. "We have virtually no changes," he says. And if not for Redicheck, there would be almost double the 1,400 requests for information, he says.

A big challenge for Skanska was to find ways to reduce the fear factor that would inflate bids. Skanska held prebid meetings, even with the architect, to explain the design and increase the comfort level. Still, bids for the core and shell came in at $198 million, at least $12 million over the amount budgeted.

Concrete work took a year or about 30% longer than it would have for an equivalent-size repetitive structure. "Every floor is different and some are very different," says Hewins. The trades were unaccustomed to a job like this and "never established any momentum or any speed," he adds.

Hewins says the concrete work was critical. If it was less than perfect, it would throw off everything down the line.

COLOR CODE Rebar drawings became building colors. (Graphic courtesy of Simpson Gumpertz & Heger Inc.)

Another trick MIT used on Stata was to negotiate rather than hard-bid the two most challenging subcontracts--the structural steel and the metal skin. The subcontractors were selected using a request for proposal process, which allowed both subs to offer suggestions during design regarding details that would increase efficiency and economy in fabrication.

In the RFP phase, the skin fabricator, A. Zahner Co., Kansas City, Mo., offered a price. During the design-assist phase, the firm produced early shop drawings, which were integrated into Gehry's contract documents. Zahner then, in essence, bid against its own documents. The price came down 10 to 15%, says the architect.

The building has been on schedule, for the most part, for about two years. There was a hiccup when the garage was added during the design process, says Hewins.

Concrete and steel work are 95% done; mechanical, electrical and fire protection work are 70% done and the service level is 75% complete. Completion of the building is scheduled for the end of this year, but Skanska expects to turn over the garage in March.

Hewins is most concerned about the 50%-complete building envelope, given the geometry and many interfaces of brick and metal and glass. "It's going to be a trick to get it done on time," he says.

CAVES Crews scratched their heads over atria shapes. (Photo courtesy of MIT/Andy Ryan)

Stata's CATIA model will likely have a long life beyond the building's completion. Gehry agreed to joint ownership of the model with MIT for purposes of visualization and mapping research. In what would likely be a first, MIT plans to create a CATIA-based as-built record for facility management. Toward this end, MIT is photographing building systems that get covered up. For example, photos of a pipe chase can be placed in the model with information tags to identify each pipe and duct. MIT also hopes to create 3-D panoramas of the more interesting spaces to assist students who will be studying the building's construction. These would show not only the finished condition but a backward time record of construction. Finally, the school is creating a full photographic record that will appear as a tagged 3-D model through digital processing. The model is for use by the building operators, but visitors will be able to go on "virtual tours" of private research areas.

For Simmons Hall down the street, occupied by 355 students since August, the hard stuff is in the past. Still, memories are fresh of the job's headaches. "Maintaining structural integrity during construction of the exterior-bearing walls was the most challenging aspect," says Dennis A. Fitzpatrick, president of construction manager Daniel O'Connell's Sons, Holyoke, Mass.

The precast units that form the exterior walls had extremely tight tolerances, Fitzpatrick says. In addition, each unit had two dozen or more points of connection. Although similar in looks, the units were not interchangeable.

LOOK-ALIKES Simmons' precast units looked the same but were not interchangeable. (Photo courtesy of MIT/©Daniel O'Connel's Sons)

The 105-ft-tall rectangular solid with recessed windows resembles a shoebox with exterior cutouts, carve-outs and cantilevers. It is 385 ft long and 53 ft deep. Exterior walls are gridded and perforated, resembling 3-D graph paper or the cells of a sponge. Each dorm room perimeter wall has a tic-tack-toe pattern of nine operable windows. On the faces of the building, it is difficult to tell where the floors are.

A standard, exterior beam and column system would have resulted in beams that were too deep to maintain the architectural grid. Instead, structural consultant Guy Nordenson and Associates, New York City, made the exterior wall into a giant concrete Vierendeel truss. The wall carries gravity loads over the large openings and cantilevers, and provides lateral resistance. In the building's short direction, cast-in-place shear walls and elevator cores work in conjunction with end walls to provide lateral resistance.

A decision was made to use precast units because it would have been a daunting task to field-consolidate the concrete in the 10-in.-square columns and beams, considering the jungle of reinforcing steel.

The 291 units were prefabricated as a single story, five columns wide. Each averaged 5 tons, including a half ton of rebar. The ends of cast-in-place floor slabs connect the panels vertically. Horizontal connections also are cast in place, using mechanical connectors for the reinforcing. The precaster provided the concrete to match the color and texture of the precast panels.

The units differ because of different rebar sizes to deal with various stresses on the wall. Amy T. Stern, project engineer with structural engineer of record Simpson Gumpertz & Heger Inc., Waltham, Mass., decided to color-code the structural drawings to indicate the different-sized rebar locations. Red represents No. 9 bars; orange, 8; yellow, 7; green, 6; and blue, 5.

Originally, the aluminum skin of the building was not supposed to have color accents, says Stern. But the architect was so impressed with Stern's drawings that a decision was made to replicate the color scheme on the perforated wall by coloring the aluminum cladding.

Inside, Simmons' amorphous nooks and crannies, all with cavelike walls and some four stories high and skylit, also were eye-openers. "None of the contractors had seen anything shaped or formed like this in their lives," says Fitzpatrick.

Establishing templates for the amoeba-shaped cutouts in the concrete floor slabs was trying. Laying out light fixtures, switches and electrical plates on the slopes and curves was not easy, either.

At first, the trades, accustomed to orthogonal construction, could not get their arms around the work, says Fitzpatrick. Finish plaster work took two crews six months.

Through the job, "we certainly worked together as a team," Fitzpatrick says, though at times nerves were somewhat frayed.

Fitzpatrick calls Simmons one of the most challenging pieces of architecture in his more than a quarter century of experience. That's fine with MIT, which was not looking for easy street on Simmons or any of its other projects, especially at the expense of audacious architecture.

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