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MIT Better World

By Michael Blanding

So what do they do when it’s time to head back to the dorm and relax? Build more stuff. Each year, the students of the East Campus residence hall create a massive structure, such as a fort or amusement park, in their courtyard to welcome first-year students for Residential Exploration (REX) week.

The entirely student-run tradition dates back to 2004, when residents spontaneously decided to build a fully functioning roller coaster in the courtyard; after a few years of drawing increasing crowds (and official scrutiny), the coaster went on hiatus. August 2014 marked its triumphant return, featuring a 130-foot-long wooden track complete with two hills. This time, the plans were created on a 3-D printer, reviewed by a professional architect, and awarded a building permit from the City of Cambridge—along with approvals from MIT’s Facilities Department and the Environment, Health & Safety Office.

“We start informally in January or February scoping out what we are going to build,” says Henry Shackleton ’18, one of the REX co-chairs from last year. For 2016, the dorm eschewed the coaster in favor of a three-story wooden fort, complete with a large netting for students to lounge on, bean bags, and such amusements as a carousel swing ride and a giant seesaw. “We were focusing on making it more of a place that people would come and hang out,” says Shackleton, a physics and philosophy major.

The two-week project consumes about half of the dorm’s annual $20,000 REX budget, but it’s worth it, says Shackleton, who remembers his own experience as a first-year student. “It was a great bonding experience where I got to know the upperclassmen and they got to know me,” he says. “And then you have this really cool thing to show off at the end.”

That bonding takes a creepier turn at Next House every October, when residents transform the building’s basement into Next Haunt, a two-story “escape the room” horror adventure. Entering a dark space, visitors confront a series of puzzles they must work through to find the exit. The project fits the character of Next House, says Brenda Stern ’17, a civil and environmental engineering major and producer of this year’s Haunt. “We have a strong build culture, as well as a lot of interest in acting and art,” she says.

The project offers residents a creative framework for meeting their neighbors and blowing off steam around midterms. The challenge: create a traversable wooden structure, full of puzzles and props, in a tightly confined space of only 240 square feet with a budget of $3,000. Beginning over the summer, several dozen students take on all of the roles of a theater production—including makeup, costumes, and sound design—as well as tapping build directors and a six-person puzzle team.

This past year’s challenge centered around a search for a family heirloom inside a tomb, incorporating word puzzles and physical challenges such as opening an intricately designed puzzle box. Along the way, visitors met zombies played to hair-raising effect by Next House denizens. “We do a zombie training session where we teach people how to walk and stay in character,” notes Stern, “but mostly it’s a cathartic experience where you get to put on makeup and grunt a lot.”

Next Haunt has been a hit on campus; last October, it took 10 minutes to fill 300 spots for walkthroughs. Behind the scenes, some students find the experience of working with a team on a complicated construction project to be great training for the future. “It’s been one of the most creative projects I’ve worked on at MIT,” says Stern, who plans to pursue sustainable building design after graduation this year. “It’s funny now to think of building houses for real.”