With the launch of the new year, MIT is taking significant steps to expand on-campus residence options for its graduate and undergraduate communities. The New Vassar Residence Hall for undergraduates (Building W46 on Vassar Street on the West Campus) and the Graduate Tower at Site 4 (Building E37 on Main Street in Kendall Square), both newly constructed, have opened their doors and are now welcoming students within the Institute’s Covid-19 response framework. Renewal of the iconic Burton Conner undergraduate residence (Building W51 on the West Campus) has just begun, and the design phase is underway for the proposed West Campus Graduate Student Dormitory along Vassar Street adjacent to Simmons Hall.
“MIT has a really distinctive residential system,” notes David Friedrich, senior associate dean, housing and residential services. “The Institute emphasizes choice and options, and these new residences bring fresh opportunities for communities to develop and for students to explore alternatives. The residential experience is a vital part of living and learning at MIT, so it’s exciting to extend the range of options.”
Collaborative process shaped New Vassar experience
The two newest residences on campus, one for undergraduates and one for graduates, represent next-generation designs that respond to student needs in a variety of ways.
New Vassar, a 450-bed community that opened in January, was developed through a collaborative process that identified student priorities and sought new ways to improve the living experience. The result is a building that houses a mix of first-year and upper-level students within clusters, each encompassing single and double rooms, a study room, and a lounge space. “Overall, the architects and project team really engaged students and thought about how to incorporate their feedback, right down to choosing furniture for the rooms,” explains Naomi Carton, associate dean of graduate residential education and associate head of house at New Vassar.
As shaped by the Founders’ Group, which includes Carton and New Vassar Head of House Steven Hall, the residence has a specific thematic focus on a healthy, well-balanced lifestyle for students. “We are so grateful to the wonderful students on the Founders’ Group,” notes Hall, “who helped establish the community’s core values, including well-being, inclusiveness, adventure, and kindness.” These core values are incorporated into New Vassar’s architecture and artwork. “They are written on the pillars at the entrance, so when you walk past or come into the building, you see what we believe in,” says Carton.
Though the dining program opens with Covid-19 protocols for the spring, Carton expressed excitement about the future of dining at New Vassar, which will offer grab-and-go options as well as a dining servery and a community kitchen where students can cook for themselves. “We combined the needs and wants of students in a very different way,” she notes. “There’s a cooking pod program where students can learn with a chef, or they can just pick up something pre-made or order a quick meal from the grill.”
The dining program and stated thematic values at New Vassar “go beyond the scope of the student campus experience,” observes Friedrich. “It’s about creating a community of people who think about how to be well and how to have good practices throughout their lives.”
Although New Vassar just opened its doors to students last month, positive responses to the residence have already reached Friedrich. “We also brought the Founders’ Group through the building when it was still in construction,” he says, “and they were thrilled with it.”
Families and singles mix at Site 4 graduate housing
The Graduate Tower at Site 4, located close to the soon-to-be decommissioned Eastgate Tower graduate residence, joins New Vassar in offering a new kind of experience. Its 454 housing units, rising 28 floors above Kendall Square, provide one- and two-bedroom apartments prioritized for families with children, as well as efficiencies for single graduate students. “This mix is unique among graduate residences at MIT,” says Marie Feng, a graduate student in computer science who served as a member of the Site 4 Transition Team and who now lives in the building. “Having children running around makes it a lively and interesting community.”
To serve its population mix of families and singles, Site 4 houses a child-care facility and includes an array of common areas, ranging from quiet study spaces, a family lounge, and an indoor playroom to an outdoor playground and access to abundant green space outside.
“MIT did a good job of listening to what we wanted and are looking for,” Feng remarks. “The team was very aware of the needs of new residents coming in, and of former Eastgate residents. For example, Eastgate residents had the option of bringing their own furniture, and the two-bedroom units in Site 4 were left partially unfurnished for this reason. We are also happy to have multiple study rooms, the music room, and the in-house gym, which is great for the building’s non-student spouse and partner community. On a personal note, my partner and I love the big windows and our view of the Charles River and Boston.” Feng also notes that residents are pleased with the project team’s dedication to reducing the building’s environmental footprint.
Friedrich confirms that Site 4 graduate student residents who attended a recent town hall meeting provided “very positive feedback on life in the building. We are pleased to hear how much students enjoy living there.”
West Campus graduate residence is expected to expand the range of choices
Friedrich hopes to see a similarly enthusiastic response to the new graduate housing proposed to be built on the west side of campus on the site of the West Lot parking area and Building W89. Designed as a pair of buildings flanking a large public open space area that features access to the historic Fort Washington Park, the project would provide up to 690 new graduate student housing beds in apartment-style living with the convenience of being close to the heart of campus.
The special permit application for this West Campus residence was filed with the City of Cambridge in December 2020, completing the October 2017 commitment MIT made (as part of the Volpe zoning petition) to add 950 beds to the graduate housing system on campus. MIT intends to engage a third-party student housing developer, American Campus Communities (ACC), to deliver the project with a target completion date of fall 2024.
“We are developing this as yet another kind of housing option for graduate students,” says Friedrich. “The proposed approach would create an on-campus student residence that feels more like off-campus living, with apartment-style units and individual leases that would not be part of the on-campus housing assignments process. This is something we haven’t done on campus before, so it increases the variety of living choices for our students.”
Student input, gathered through focus groups and a student survey, has provided feedback that informed the design and mix of units within the residence. For example, the building design was adapted to include a section of double-occupancy efficiencies, and all of the occupants will share central laundry facilities instead of dedicating space for laundry machines within the units.
Jon Alvarez, director of MIT’s Office of Campus Planning, is excited about the project architects: Kieran Timberlake, an award-winning Philadelphia-based firm respected for its commitment to sustainable design. “This firm has built housing for major universities across the country,” he notes. “Its approach is consistent with MIT’s focus on design excellence.”
Looking even further down the road, Alvarez sees the West Campus residence as a step toward building a more connected residential life experience on the West Campus, anchored by the large green-space area currently occupied by athletic fields.
“In the future,” explains Alvarez, “we may explore options to reconfigure the fields to incorporate more social and academic activities and allow greater cross-permeability into the surrounding neighborhoods. The large open space between the new West Campus residence buildings will provide an important connection to the rail crossing and future Grand Junction Multi-Use Path, as well as to Fort Washington Park and Cambridgeport. This project is a promising step forward—not just for the campus community, but for the community at large.”
Infrastructure project will revitalize Burton Conner
Many members of the MIT community, past and present, have strong ties to the Burton Conner undergraduate residence (Building W51). It has been 50 years since the residence was renovated, and MIT launched a renewal project last month to restore the building’s infrastructure and prepare it to serve students in the years ahead. The residence is targeted to reopen for the fall 2022 semester.
The infrastructure project includes new windows, renovated plumbing and heating systems, refreshed kitchens with new appliances, renovated suite bathrooms and improvements to existing public restrooms, life safety improvements, and accessibility upgrades. New corridors will connect the Burton and Conner sides of the residence on floors 2-5, and amenities such as the gym, library, common spaces, and bike-storage area will be updated and enhanced. The residence will have a new makerspace and an accessible elevator; the two existing elevators will be improved. All of the indoor living spaces and finishes will be refreshed. Outside, repairs and improvements will be made to the building’s façade, lintels, and sills.
Architects Goody Clancy are planning additional subtle changes “designed to make a positive difference,” says Jim May, senior project manager in Capital Projects. “The circular entry vestibule will be removed and rebuilt in glass, providing open views at the entrance, and the central stairway up to the Porter Room will be lightened up with open construction, a gallery, and a glass handrail.”
The Porter Room—a student gathering and event space—is also destined for a makeover, with new flooring and finishes, updated heat and air conditioning, catering facilities, added bathrooms, and reconfigured access points enabling outside access to the room. “It’s a great gathering space,” notes May, “and the improvements will make it more accessible and far more usable, in line with the rest of the building. For the students who get to return as residents, it will still be Burton Conner, but better.”
One such student is Sarah Aaronson, a sophomore who lived on Conner 2 for her first year and serves as president of the house government. “I joined Burton Conner because of the fun and authentic community,” she explains. “I’m glad the project team has collaborated with student leaders, because even if current students move on, the input provides a continuous thread that helps preserve the Burton Conner culture for future residents.”
Keeping an eye on what’s important during uncertain times
For the housing projects just completed, and those moving forward, the project teams have coped with extra challenges brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic. Construction schedules have been delayed, new health and safety equipment and protocols have been established across campus, and adjustments have been made to project designs (for example, a few areas within New Vassar were modified to enable their use for isolation).
“During the pandemic, we have had to house people differently than we have in the past, and this complicates life for all of our residential communities,” says David Friedrich. “It’s essential to help them maintain continuity and connection throughout this time of disruption, especially the Burton Conner community during its temporary displacement. We are working to help them preserve that sense of community until the building reopens.
“Our goal is to create a residential system that will be sustainable for many years to come. Not only are we bringing new housing options online for students, we are also enabling the Institute to continue renovating and renewing the established residences that have been important to existing student communities for many years.”
This article was written by Kristin Lund and originally appeared on MIT News on February 19, 2021.