MIT Transforms Historic Icons Into Modern Research Facilities

Renovation of the Main Group Prepares for a New Era of Scientific Discovery
Published 9-23-2008
  • Service Distribution

    The PDSI project afforded MIT the opportunity to create a mechanical penthouse on the roof of the new structure that could power services for future renovations. Vertical shafts bring services down into the building while bridge walkways that connect to older adjacent buildings create a horizontal distribution path. This design allows for an entirely new infrastructure with larger duct work than could be installed alongside the old utilities without disrupting existing services.

    Photo courtesy of Payette; copyright Robert Benson Photography.

  • PDSI Atrium

    The atrium is one of the most important elements in the new PDSI project because it serves as an architectural bridge between old and new construction, and creates a natural sound buffer while drawing light down to the lowest levels of adjacent buildings. The emphasis on transparency prevents the feeling that the courtyard is filled with a solid mass. The floor is a vibrant art installation created by renowned artist Sol LeWitt made of brightly colored epoxy terrazzo that is meant to be viewed from the floor above.

    Photo courtesy of Payette; copyright Peter Vanderwarker, photographer.

  • PDSI Building

    The new four-story, 50,000-sf infill structure built in the Atomic Courtyard of MIT’s iconic Main Group provides a state-of-the-art home for MIT’s physics department and will serve as the engine for future upgrades to the campus core. These bridges and walkways extend deeply into existing structures to increase the sense of integration between the old and new construction and also to provide a distribution path so that new infrastructure could be installed without disrupting existing services.

    Photo courtesy of Payette; copyright Peter Vanderwarker, photographer.

The drive to create cutting-edge, environmentally sustainable research facilities can also contribute to a suburbanization effect at universities around the country where new high-tech facilities are built at the outer edges of campus while older buildings at the center are downgraded to classrooms and administrative office space. In many cases, restoring historic campus space is often the most valuable and environmentally sustainable option. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) recently confronted this challenge on a master plan to revitalize the Institute's iconic "Main Group," a network of historic buildings in the center of its campus that constitutes more than one-million sf of space, including the Institute's signature domed structure.

“If you want the heart of your campus to continue being an academic center and not an administrative one, you need to find ways to bring back the energy. If you’re MIT and you have one million square feet of historically significant space at the heart of your campus, you don’t have a choice,” says Jim Collins, president of Boston-based Payette, architect of the project.

Payette’s solution incorporated the construction of a new 50,000-sf, five-story infill structure built in a narrow courtyard, and another 75,000 sf of renovated existing space. The new facility now houses the physics department, the Department of Materials Sciences and Engineering (DMSE), and the Spectroscopy Laboratory. It simultaneously provides infrastructure utilities for almost one quarter of the Main Group complex. Taken together, these programs led to the acronym PDSI (Physics Department of Spectroscopy and Infrastructure).

Cornerstone for Change

While MIT considered various plans over the past decade for renovating the Main Group, a significant number of complications had stalled any progress until Payette struck on the innovative infill approach for consolidating the physics and DMSE programs.

Most of the buildings in the Main Group, originally designed in the Beaux Arts style by William Welles Bosworth, were completed between 1913 and 1937. The buildings are seamlessly connected to form a u-shaped complex that creates MIT’s iconic quadrangle, Killian Court. Because of its iconic stature, the Main Group is eligible for listing on the Historic Register so the local Historic Commission is consulted for all renovation work. Additionally, most, if not all of the 90-year-old single-pane windows were in disrepair, further hampering efforts at increasing energy efficiency.

“If we are going to protect these iconic structures, we have to figure out a way of doing so that dignifies the architecture, but also makes them economically viable for another 100 years,” says Collins.

Upgrading research capabilities to 21st-century standards meant a considerable increase in HVAC and electrical support capacity, but historic building restrictions meant the required mechanical equipment could not be placed on the roof tops of existing structures. So, designers advanced the idea of harvesting the foundation of a building already slated for demolition and creating a new structure in an underutilized central courtyard. The new building provides the space for a rooftop-mounted mechanical penthouse, which serves as the engine for this and future renovations while preserving views to the historic structures.

“It’s not the most exciting thing to say to your client: ‘Our plan is to fill up one of your courtyards.’ When we looked at the potential impact of providing a new HVAC, electrical, and data distribution system for the entire area, it made a lot of sense,” says Collins.

Placing the mechanical penthouse on the roof of the new structure provided access to fresh air and concealed it from the street-level. While the footprint of the penthouse was determined by the existing foundations, the building height was dictated by the geometry of the Main Group. Strategic vertical slots were cut away to allow for the penetration of daylight to the lowest levels and provide shaft space for the vertical distribution of services. The building’s floor plates were conceived as thin plates to avoid creating the sense of filling the courtyard with a solid mass. Extensive use of glass curtainwalls and skylights creates a dramatic open feeling and promotes collaboration while adjustable screens on offices can be closed for privacy.

Bridges to the Future

The new PDSI facility serves as both an architectural and cultural bridge that integrates the old with the new by connecting adjacent buildings via a series of walkways on the third and fourth floors and a four-story atrium on the ground floor. These bridges also serve as a distribution path so that new infrastructure could be installed in the older buildings without disrupting existing services.

“One of the advantages of this distribution design is the ability to unplug from old mechanical and electrical systems and plug into new ones as ongoing renovations are completed,” says Collins.

When all renovated spaces have been connected to the new infrastructure, old mechanical and electrical rooms will be converted to program area, creating a net increase in program space.

The bridges, public areas, and walkways are programmed to increase casual interaction among researchers. The new PDSI building houses vibration-sensitive spectroscopy labs and high-bay spaces, as well as classrooms and junior instructional research labs. New structural elements and walkways extend deeply into existing structures to increase the sense of integration between the old and new construction. The atrium, which features a vibrant art installation on the floor, created by renowned artist Sol LeWitt, brings light into the lowest levels of adjoining structures and functions as a natural sound barrier that fosters the quiet environment required by theoretical physicists.

Keep It Quiet

The highly sensitive nature of theoretical physics made noise and vibration issues a persistent concern during and after the construction phases of the PDSI project.

“One of the unique things about the types of people who work in this facility is that they go into their room and they think, quietly. There were constant issues regarding noise and vibration and we had to spend a lot of time with the builders educating them about when it was okay to do certain tasks and when it was not,” says Collins.

This emphasis on quietude during and after construction ultimately changed the design of the facility’s HVAC system to incorporate ultra-quiet and energy-efficient passive chilled-beam cooling.

“We might not have gone with the chilled beam design if the researchers hadn’t been so hyper-sensitive about sound and vibration. When we learned how important this was, we tailored the cooling system to address their needs.” says Collins.

New Paradigms

MIT will likely make considerable investments in the coming decades rebuilding infrastructure in the campus core.

“PDSI was a pilot project to test ideas about how those sorts of investments might achieve far more than simply replacing and upgrading systems. We believe that the President and trustees of MIT have received this project with great enthusiasm and now see a different group of opportunities for the Main Group,” says Collins.

As a continuation to their commitment to the complex, MIT has also begun investigations into replacing windows of existing buildings with historically correct, energy-efficient upgrades that will help create a high-performance envelope. The reduced solar load in the older structures means that it may be possible to install an energy-efficient chilled beam cooling system throughout the Main Group.

“I think there is a tendency to think old buildings are going to be energy hogs, and new ones are going to be green. The fact is, you can take a very important historic structure and turn it into a remarkably green building,” says Collins.

By Johnathon Allen