John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center / Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center / Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center / Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

by Paula Pintos

The John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center was founded in 1970 to advance transportation innovation for the public good, and its new building in Cambridge, Massachusetts—designed and engineered by SOM—furthers this critical mission. Conceived as a vertical campus, this building brings the entirety of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Volpe Center under one roof, with laboratories, data centers, offices, and amenities that were once spread across several structures. After five decades of operation within a fenced campus in the Kendall Square neighborhood, the U.S. DOT Volpe Center is now finally part of the public realm, in a structure that achieves a high level of building performance.

The best-kept secret in CambridgeThe center’s original, 14-acre campus had been intended for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration before the space agency settled in Houston, and in recent years, the facilities grew outdated. To realize a new headquarters, the General Services Administration entered an unprecedented land agreement with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Investment Management Company, which developed the building on four acres in exchange for the remaining 10 acres of campus land.

For decades, the center had been colloquially known as “the best-kept secret in Cambridge,” a gated setting where cutting-edge research took place. Yet the work of the center fit perfectly with the identity of Kendall Square, an entrepreneurial neighborhood driven by technological innovation. For the new, 410,000-square-foot building, SOM empowered the U.S. DOT Volpe Center to reveal itself, and its work, to the streetscape for the first time.

Uncovering the innovation. The architecture of the new center puts the institution on display through several strategies. The 13-story building is set back at least 75 feet from the property line on all sides for security purposes—leaving room for outdoor public greenspaces that hadn’t existed before. Featuring a series of undulating mounds by Maya Lin, the landscape created by Reed Hilderbrand Landscape Architecture affords the public an intimate glimpse into the center. A three-story, transparent entrance faces Fifth Street—providing views into an interior finished in natural materials, where many of the amenities are located. Along Binney Street to the north, six 14-foot-tall garage doors open to usher vehicles in and out of the building, while also providing a place for demonstrations led by the center’s human factors labs.

Calibrating the facade for optimal performance. Cambridge sits in one of the nation’s cooler climates, where the sun hangs low for most of the year and penetrates deep inside the region’s buildings. For the project’s LEED Platinum certification target, SOM engineered the structure to respond to the changing conditions of the day. The new center is oriented to fully maximize daylighting, while the glass and aluminum facade is crafted in different arrangements to minimize glare.

The facades with the least surface area face the east and west, where glare is strongest in the mornings and evenings. The eastern and western facades are clad in glass with vertical aluminum plates that stretch outward like the fins of an aircraft to block glare and solar radiation. Horizontal plates and interior solar shades protect the more expansive facade to the south on Potter Street, which receives the most direct sunlight in the afternoon hours. The north side of the building receives indirect sunlight year-round, which made it possible to optimize its natural lighting with a simple glass and aluminum curtain wall.

Creating a vertical campus. The center takes the form of two rectangular shapes, comprising a larger base for floors one through three followed by a setback above. This configuration is key to creating the look and feel of a vertical campus inside. Most of the amenities are aggregated at the base, to connect the center’s 1,300 staff members in a concentrated area. A main staircase—finished in terrazzo underfoot with white oak along the walls, ceiling, and seating—leads to a large conference area, training rooms, and a cafe with a spacious terrace upon the setback above. A child care center on the ground floor includes an enclosed outdoor playground, while a fitness center is housed on the sixth floor beside a second, smaller terrace that provides space for exercise or respite.

The center encompasses a series of labs for testing, research, and data science. The human factors labs dedicate 90,000 square feet of the first level to vehicle testing in addition to an anechoic chamber for simulation prep. Data science facilities track the location of vessels across the planet’s oceans and seas on the higher floors. Offices designed by Gensler occupy the remainder of the building and receive the most daylight.

Graphics. SOM’s branding studio developed signage and wayfinding for the center reflective of the institution’s identity. A new typeface for the numbers and letters is applied both outside and indoors, to convey a sense of motion, with each character styled to echo across the walls, as if moving through space. Many of the numbers and department labels stretch horizontally, like a car or train whizzing by, while numbers in the stairwells stretch vertically, mirroring the direction of staff circulating inside.

Sustainability and resiliency. In collaboration with Atelier Ten, SOM designed the new center for high performance in its resiliency and sustainability. The facade and orientation play a major role in helping the building reach its LEED Platinum target, and triple-glazing and an overall window-wall ratio of 48 percent contribute to the building’s exceptional energy performance. A photovoltaic roof, air force heat pumps, stormwater capture, and irrigation likewise enhance the building’s sustainability. As required for a federal facility, the building is highly secure, with blast-resistant materials, mechanical systems placed at the crown, and siting distanced from the parcel’s perimeter—creating a center of research and innovation that is as safe as it is welcoming.

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