From Princeton and Northwestern to the University of Toronto, KPMB Architects has made its mark on institutions across North America. With the Boston University Centre for Computing & Data Sciences, which opened last December, the
KPMB was shortlisted for the project in 2012 and eventually beat out Kohn Pedersen Fox, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, Safdie Architects and Elkus Manfredi Architects to win the competition the following year. The design they submitted is very close to what exists on campus today: a tower whose levels shift like Jenga blocks to create bold cantilevers and outdoor terraces.
The project was put on hold due to funding issues until 2018, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. During the four-year waiting period, the faculty had grown immensely and would have quickly outgrown the original design. As a result, the architects added three more floors. “I think the building is better for it, it’s much more elegant,” says lead architect Paulo Rocha. The benefits of the hold were two-fold. In 2017, Boston University released its Climate Action Plan, which heavily influenced the building’s design. While in 2012, buildings were considered sustainable if they met LEED standards, Boston University was pursuing the ambitious goal to be carbon neutral by 2040. “The DNA of the building was never lost. What was gained were all the sustainability aspects,” Rocha says.
The university also wanted an “iconic building” — a hub for students and faculty that positioned the institution within the city at large. Unlike other Boston universities such as Harvard and MIT, BU is very much integrated into the urban fabric, meaning changes on campus can be felt throughout the rest of the city. It is only apt then that the tower was imagined as a series of neighbourhoods stacked one on top of the other. “We wanted to break down the scale of a typical tower into these blocks of neighbourhoods that are stacking and shifting,” Rocha explains. These shifts created seven rooftop terraces that enable access to the outdoors, allowing students and faculty to connect back with the city and nature (they also help to reduce the urban heat island effect and provide rainwater retention).
The building achieves its carbon neutrality through renewable energy — there are no gas lines running to the building. Working with engineering firms Transsolar and BR+A, KPMB devised a geothermal system of 31 wells that run 457 metres into the ground. These wells mitigate the heating and cooling loads and are augmented by a campus PV initiative as well as a partnership with a wind farm in North Dakota through Energy North America. The architects also focused on creating an extremely energy-efficient building envelope. They settled on triple glazing with angled diagonal louvres designed to account for the site’s unique sun patterns. These elements not only block solar heat gain but also contribute to the building’s linear aesthetic.
In addition to its fossil fuel-free design, the architects also took care to reduce the project’s embodied carbon by reducing structural materials, sourcing steel from the least impactful production sites and minimizing Portland cement content. But though the building is designed to mitigate the impacts of climate change, the architects inevitably had to plan for rising sea levels given its riverfront site. As a result, the Center sits higher than city guidelines in anticipation of flooding.
While the building is the home to the Faculty of Computing & Data Sciences, surprisingly, there were not any excessive energy loads to consider (after all, like many businesses, everything is located on the cloud). The program, however, needed to account for quiet workspaces in addition to collaboration zones. Because the building contains general-purpose classrooms that serve programs from fine arts to accounting, the architects sought to foster spontaneous interactions that could lead to interdisciplinary connections and cross-pollination of ideas. A large ramp connects the first and second floors and provides 14 collaboration spaces that can be used on a first-come first-served basis.
The architects also focused on increasing access, in a move they describe as giving the public realm back to the students. “Most buildings on campus were introverted as many university campuses are. In brick buildings, with interior atriums that don’t have any access to light or view, you don’t know where you are in the city or where you are on campus,” Rocha explains. “Our mandate was to turn that inside out and make the building as open and porous and vibrant as possible.”
To achieve this, KPMB bookended the building with public spaces. The podium, which houses 4180 square metres of classroom space, the BU Spark technology incubator, and a central atrium, has been conceived of as an “urban porch.” The highly porous glazed space animates the streetscape on Commonwealth Avenue.
Above, each two- or three-storey “neighbourhood,” modelled after the scale of the neighbouring brownstones, houses the offices of the different academic departments. “As random as it looks, it’s actually quite formulaic,” says Rocha. The lowest floors are devoted to math and statistics, the middle floors host computer science and the top floors are dedicated to interdisciplinary work and public space. These three zones are united by a staircase that promotes connectivity. An event space on the 17th floor offers panoramic views of the campus and the Charles River and is connected visually to the podium by way of its warm wooden finishes.
It’s been a welcome addition to the campus. “The best feedback is seeing the building being used,” says Rocha. “The day it opened, the collaboration ramp that goes from the first to the second floor was just inundated with students.” But beyond its role as a university building, the building’s bold presence has also been a beacon for the community at large. The firm has received feedback from locals who are excited about how the building has transformed both the campus and the city. As a symbol of climate leadership, the Centre represents the same forward-thinking ethos that defines Boston University’s Faculty of Computing & Data Sciences, which is committed to leadership in a rapidly evolving field.