New dorm on Vassar to open summer 2020 with dining hall and 450-bed capacity

Will house students relocated due to future renovations, more kitchens desired but deemed energy-inefficient

Priorities for the design of the new dormitory to be built on Vassar St. include a summer 2020 opening date, a dining hall, a 450-bed capacity, and infrastructural sustainability.

In a meeting Monday with student representatives from the New Residences Working Group, which had advised the pre-design phase of the project, senior MIT Facilities and Division of Student Life administrators revealed that MIT has formally engaged two architectural firms for the design phase, during which the schematic for the residence hall will be finalized.

The origin of some of the decisions and priorities listed at the Monday meeting is unclear, Allan Sadun ’17, a member of the working group, said in an interview with The Tech.

In a joint statement to The Tech, Suzy Nelson, the vice president of student life, and Dick Amster, the director of campus construction, wrote that the priorities were “arrived at with input from students, faculty, staff, and senior administration.”

A key point of contention for student representatives to the working group was the number of kitchens the new dorm should have. The students had pushed heavily for the construction of at least one kitchen per 60 residents at meetings during the pre-design phase, Sadun said, but the administration was now pushing to lower that ratio, citing the monetary and energy costs of constructing and operating kitchens.

“The more you think about it, the more you understand where they’re coming from,” Sadun, who lives in a non-dining hall dorm, said. “But I still think they’re making tactical mistakes that makes the dorm not as good as it could be.”

In the statement, Nelson and Amster said they understood that “students value access to kitchens and want to see them in the new residence hall,” and that “DSL will work with students and other stakeholders in the coming weeks to develop a solution.”

The new residence hall is intended in part to serve as a temporary home for students who have to be relocated as older dorms, such as Burton Conner and East Campus, are renovated.

Responding to concerns about how cook-for-yourself communities would be accommodated in a dining hall dorm with limited kitchen facilities, Nelson wrote that she is confident in DSL’s ability to support relocated students. DSL will leverage lessons learned from the New House situation.

Sadun said that Nelson has noted the dilemma of balancing the need for both a dining hall and kitchens in order to accommodate the diverse preferences of the residents that will use the dorm, ranging from cook-for-yourself communities to summer program participants. He added that Nelson has not, however, asked for student help in “squaring the circle.”

In an interview with The Tech last month, Matthew Bauer, director of communications for DSL, and Jim May, senior project manager in the office of campus planning, said that the design phase would build on the work done for the pre-design phase.

This statement is “true to some extent,” Sadun said. A key role of the working group was to give feedback on room adjacencies: where dorm rooms, lounges, kitchens, restrooms, and other spaces should be in relation to each other.

All the test-fittings conducted during pre-design were for 350 beds. This number was later increased to 450 after the construction site was finalized and after DSL and Facilities committed to maximizing capacity in order to accommodate new students in addition to those relocated due to renovations in their dorms.

Prior to the Monday meeting, The Tech spoke with another member of the working group, Kate Farris ’17. She praised the administrative representatives, Nelson and Jag Patel ’97, director of special projects in the chancellor’s office, for communicating clearly to them the charge of the working group and for doing their best to arrange meetings to accommodate the students’ schedules.

Asked to compare the experience of the New Residences Working Group with that of the Founders’ Group, which was convened in 1999 to advise the design of Simmons Hall, Farris said that the two were absolutely nothing alike. While the Founders’ Group often found its concerns and feedback ignored by the architectural firm for Simmons, everyone the current working group engaged with “acknowledged that the students on the committee knew the most about dorm life,” Farris said.

A third student representative, Kate Weishaar ’18, echoed Farris’ sentiments when she spoke with The Tech earlier this month. However, in light of the information conveyed during the Monday meeting, Weishaar indicated that “there was some misunderstanding between the two groups regarding just how much influence the pre-design would have over the final design.”

The working group did not have a say on the budget for the new dorm, Weishaar said in an interview with The Tech prior to the Monday meeting.

In an email to the student interest mailing list for the design of the new dorm, Sadun wrote that it seemed unlikely that student representatives would be formally engaged during the development of the schematic design, to take place between now and May.

The architectural firms were selected from a roster of 23 local and national firms and evaluated based on factors such as design approach and philosophy and experience with sustainability. Five firms, including Perkins & Will, the firm contracted for the pre-design phase, were invited to interview with senior leadership.

“This stage of the design phase just started,” Nelson and Amster wrote, “and we will look to a number of stakeholders, including students, to give input.”

Sadun voiced concerns that none of the priorities conveyed to the working group at the Monday meeting explicitly expressed the objective of making the new dorm “a good place for students to live in.” The dorm design process was “going reasonably well,” he concluded, “but heading in troublesome directions.”

Update 3/23/17: The statement attributed to Weishaar was updated to better reflect specific concerns. A previous version of the article incorrectly stated Jim May’s position in the office of campus planning. The article has been updated to reflect that the statement from Suzy Nelson was jointly written with Dick Amster, director of campus construction.