Boston University’s Center for Computing and Data Sciences, located at 631-635 Commonwealth Ave. and colloquially known as the “Jenga building,” recently earned a place on the shortlist for the World Architecture Festival’s best building of the year and for best interior design.
“As an architect, you don’t determine what’s an icon,” KPMB’s Paulo Rocha, one of the lead architects of CCDS, said. “The public, the world, the people using the space through history will determine if it’s iconic. We just wanted to make a building that really impacted Boston.”
BU’s campus, mainly stretching the 1.5 mile Commonwealth Avenue strip, leaves little room for expansion.
“The only way to go is up,” Azer Bestavros, associate provost at the Center of Computing and Data Sciences, said. “The question is: How do you go up without making it look like an office?”
In 2013, Boston University put out a call to the “best architects in the world,” said Walt Meissner, BU’s Associate VP for Operations, and the project executive on CCDS. After a four-month period, 50 firms competing for their design to be chosen were narrowed down to just one: KPMB.
“It ended up being that their presentation and their team was the most fascinating for us. It was the most intriguing and most importantly, they didn’t design it from the outside in, like you think they designed it,” Meissner said. “They really designed it from the inside out.”
The unique stacked structure, which actually had nothing to do with Jenga, was inspired by the idea of a vertical neighborhood, cleverly evading the sordid office building trap less creative architects may have succumbed to.
“I think the catalyst was really thinking about the different departments and designing the building as sort of a stack of neighborhoods and breaking down the scale of a tower,” Rocha said. “There’s this idea of synergies between departments, creating opportunities for, if your department is spread over three or four floors, then you can take the stairs, promoting wellness in terms of walkability.”
CCDS’ non-aesthetic claim to fame has been its innovations in sustainability, emphasizing the incredible teamwork between BU Sustainability, the architects, and everybody involved in realizing the project.
Carbon neutral and 100% fossil fuel-free, the building’s sustainability goals have earned them a LEED Platinum certification, “a globally recognized symbol of sustainability achievement,” according to the U.S. Green Building Council website. Platinum is the highest level LEED certification a building can earn, with only 8 percent of buildings in Boston attaining the status.
Geothermal wells about 1,500 feet deep into the ground, heat and cool the building. “Which is about the height of two John Hancock buildings in depth,” Rocha said.
To eventually accomplish the university’s zero-emission goal, the school buys 205,000 MWh of wind energy and resells the power to consumers in the Midwest, earning Renewable Energy Certificates against its own carbon emissions in Boston.
The building hopes to be a reference point for other large organizations looking to get green.
“BU’s goal for carbon neutrality is 2040.” Lisa Tornatore, the director of sustainability at BU said. “The intent there is: If organizations that are large landowners, like BU, are not getting to meet the city’s goals early, then, is the city really going to meet its target of carbon neutrality by 2050?”
World Building of The Year has been awarded annually by the WAF since its launch in 2008, and is judged by 140 industry professionals.
“The shortlisting jury was impressed by [CCDS’] combination of dramatic and distinctive design, which incorporates very high levels of environmental design thinking and will be a landmark for many decades,” WAF Program Director Paul Finch wrote in an email.
The CCDS stacked its way to a finalist position, joining 249 other buildings on the list to compete in the “Higher Education and Research” category.
“I think it deserves every award we can get. But more so, I love what the design is doing,” Bestavros said, urging those who praise the building for its aesthetic merits not to look past its central purpose: functionality.
“This is a campus upgrade of huge proportions,” Bestavros said. “You go. You see poetry, biology, chemistry. Clearly students are using the building as a place to study, to work. Not just data science students, but everybody.”
Roacho and another representative for the building will attend a conference in Singapore from November 29-December 1 where they’ll have a chance to present the project. If they win their category, they’ll move on to compete in the “completed buildings” section of the competition, and potentially be named “World Building of the Year,” according to WAF’s website.
This marks the second time the CCDS is on the shortlist for the WAF, as it was previously nominated in the “Future Projects” category while it was still in production.
“It’s great that WAF recognizes innovative possibilities for creating beautiful, healthy, and sustainable design,” Rocha said. “Designing for us is not just about ticking boxes. It’s about ticking boxes but also making sure that the impact of what we design is really felt by the people using it.”
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