Construction begins on a new next-generation student residence on Vassar Street at MIT

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By Kristin Lund

CAMBRIDGE, MA–Working together in a process that is now familiar at MIT, a collaborative team of architects, students, and staff from the Division of Student Life and Campus Construction has developed a next-generation design for the new student residence on Vassar Street.

The new building, recently approved by the Cambridge Planning Board, will be constructed on the site of the West Garage parking facility and is expected to be open by the fall of 2020. Site-enabling activities began in September, and the demolition of the West Garage begins this month.

New student housing and housing renewal are current top priorities for MIT. The Institute’s commitment is reflected in additional projects such as the planned construction of a new graduate residence in Kendall Square and the current renovation of New House. The new Vassar Street residence hall will add 450 undergraduate beds and 12 Graduate Resident Tutor (GRT) apartments to MIT’s housing inventory. The building will also address a range of other student needs expressed through the collective design process.

Purposeful community engagement

During the project design phase, members of the MIT community — including the New Residences Working Group, comprised of students and staff from the Division of Student Life and Campus Construction — were active participants in the exploration of different design approaches and ideas. Central to this process was the identification of specific goals for the residence.

For the MIT participants, priorities included a design that would foster small, close-knit living communities and include a mix of first-year and upper-class students, a variety of community-building spaces, and a community kitchen available for use by students. For the architects, a key goal was a design that would be as unique and bold as other MIT campus architecture yet would fit its surrounding context and fully support the student communities living within.

“MIT is working to provide an on-campus housing experience that enhances students’ learning and personal development,” says Suzy M. Nelson, vice president and dean for student life. “The new Vassar Street residence design is the culmination of a process that began in the summer of 2016 to describe the ideal MIT undergraduate residential experience. That includes smaller clusters of students within the larger residence, ample flexible shared space, and food and dining facilities suitable for a wide range of student needs.” Throughout that process, notes Nelson, students have been deeply engaged and vocal about needs and expectations for the new residence. “Their input has been critical all the way along — from the architectural principles to the building design — because they have the best understanding of what works in the existing communities and how those features enhance the student experience.”

According to Michael Maltzan of Michael Maltzan Architecture (lead architects on the project), the Vassar Street project design process involved positive, lively debate and enabled the team to collectively seek balance by suggesting and testing various concepts.

“For example, we used the length of the site to real advantage,” he explains, “inside and out. The design will help create real and perceived social activity along the entire length.” Maltzan is also a lecturer in MIT’s Department of Architecture.

A design that guides and enables

The building’s main entrance will be centered in its first floor and marked by a soaring blue wall on a grand scale. Surrounded by a mostly color-neutral environment of concrete and brick, this embellished wall is intended to draw the eye and invite social convergence.

Inside, the blue color will continue to thread its way through the building, highlighting the paths people will use as they move around. Student rooms will be arranged in clusters that mix single and double rooms with shared community spaces and a GRT apartment.  The building’s design is based in part on the “critical paths” students will take to reach their rooms within these clusters. At the same time, the design also encourages engagement among different clusters by making it easy for one to connect with others via well-placed stairways and gathering points.

On the ground floor, the residence will offer a 225-seat residential dining facility that is open to members of the community and includes a kitchen where students may also cook for themselves. The ground floor will also house an inviting avenue of common spaces such as study lounges, a private courtyard, and a makerspace area.

The ground floor design incorporates a variety of elements intended to foster social engagement. At the entrance, a courtyard with trees and a shaded seating area will welcome residents and community members. Much of the interior ground floor space will be visible or partly visible from the outside through glass walls and ribbons of glazing. Even the private courtyard will yield a sense of connection to the street through greenery-twined screened walls.

Sustainability: Aiming high

As is the norm for MIT’s design and construction initiatives, the project team considered and prioritized sustainable solutions at every level. With LEED Gold certification as its target, the building’s design incorporates a range of efficiency strategies that are now standard at MIT, including high-performance heating and cooling systems, efficient lighting and appliances, and stormwater management. The design also responds to MIT’s sustainability goals by establishing more than 275 new bicycle parking spaces for residents of the new building.

But to go one step further, the Vassar Street project team is incorporating sustainable construction techniques inspired by the Passive House standard that focuses on the energy efficiency of buildings. For example, the team expects the majority of the building’s exterior to be constructed using a panelized exterior system, where the panels are prefabricated and inspected in a factory prior to installation. The impacts of this technique include reducing the energy needed to heat or cool the building, based on exterior panels that allow very little air infiltration and reduce thermal bridging.

This construction process may help the residence hall serve as a test case for MIT as it evaluates sustainable options for other campus construction projects going forward.

“With this project, MIT continues to invest in a vibrant residential life experience for undergraduate students,” notes Richard Amster, director of campus construction. “This building will present the opportunity to enhance campus life, not only as a new, more sustainable facility but as a building that will enable us to continue renewing our existing housing stock.”

Serving its community

As envisioned by its collaborative design team, the Vassar Street residence will serve MIT in many other ways as well.

It will serve as a reflection of the neighborhood’s character and history, from its industrial-inspired north-facing walls that incorporate the scale and textures of the railway corridor to its south-facing courtyards and green spaces that provide connective pathways to its interior. It will serve the Institute at large with a new community gathering space at its western end, new benches and lighting along Vassar Street, and a welcoming new dining facility. Most important, it will serve its residents by providing vital student spaces close to the center of campus — spaces designed to foster inclusiveness and build community.

“I hope the building is an integral part [of students’ lives],” explains Michael Maltzan. “Then I think the building will be doing what architecture does at its very best, which is to be a productive, supportive, provocative armature for life in its most real way.”

Current construction activities

Construction activities at the Vassar Street site to date have included site-enabling activities such as establishing the necessary utilities for the new residence. The next step — the demolition of the West Garage — is expected to begin this month and be completed by April. At that point, construction of the residence foundation will begin, including the installation of precast concrete piles. Construction of the residence itself is expected to begin this fall.

During the construction, safety fencing will enclose the site along its perimeter, and new pedestrian crosswalks will redirect foot traffic to the south side of Vassar Street along the length of the construction site. In addition, a new shared bike lane will be created along the westbound side of Vassar Street (to be shared by bicycles and vehicles). The eastbound pedestrian and cycling lanes on the athletic field side of Vassar will remain unchanged. Two-way traffic will be maintained along Vassar Street, with a traffic detail in place as needed to ensure safety and access.

The project team is planning a series of communications to keep the community in the loop throughout the construction process. In addition to notifications that are being emailed and posted online, the team is also conducting information sessions with site abutters at major milestones along the way.

(Reprinted with permission from MIT News.)