Building a high-tech academic facility on a tight timeline with preconstruction and prefabricated components
Gilbane Building Company is constructing a state-of-the-art engineering lab and academic facility that will transform educational opportunities for students at a technical university in the urban heart of Boston. Prefabrication, design-assist preconstruction processes, and virtual reality (VR) are critical to meeting the building’s high-tech requirements. At the same time, Gilbane is using this project as a “living classroom” to offer a real-world learning experience to students—and train the next generation of construction professionals in advanced construction methods.
A new facility to educate the engineers of the future
In January 2017, Wentworth Institute of Technology (WIT) in downtown Boston, Massachusetts announced an ambitious plan to build its first new academic facility in more than 40 years. But the WIT administration wasn’t aiming to construct a run-of-the-mill campus building.
The four-story, 78,000-square-foot New Academic Building for Engineering Innovation and Sciences needed to represent the next step in the polytechnic university’s evolution, combining engineering innovation and entrepreneurship. It would house labs, classrooms, and presentation spaces for WIT’s biomedical and civil-engineering programs, as well as the brand-new biological engineering program. WIT aimed to complete the project—from concrete lot to operational, multipurpose building—in 15 months.
Gilbane Building Company, a global construction and facility-management services firm with clients in education, health care, government, transportation, and more, partnered with WIT to construct the facility. Gilbane took an innovative approach: More than just an institutional structure, this new project would be a strategic opportunity to help develop the next generation of construction professionals.
A rendering of Wentworth Institute of Technology’s new multipurpose academic facility for engineering and science. Courtesy of Leers Weinzapfel Associates.
Fast-track schedule, technical challenges
Given Wentworth’s ambitious goals, the new building had to proceed on an expedited schedule. “The president wanted it done for the new programs to open in January of next year,” says Kevin Cooke, senior project executive at Gilbane Building Company. “This project has been accelerated at every level.”
The school’s location added another layer of difficulty. “We’re in a very tight urban site,” says Michael Harris, project manager for Gilbane. “We had to determine what would fit on trucks, fit in the neighborhood, and then get in the building because we have limited access both on the front and the back.”
And by its nature, this technical building is very complex. The structure includes four levels of academic space that feature the most advanced equipment, with laboratories, classrooms, a lecture hall, offices, and an open maker space. “Because it’s a lab building, coordinating our normal piping on top of all the lab piping was a significant challenge in a not-so-large building,” Harris says. On top of those constraints, Cooke adds, “We’re making provisions for future use, trying to be forward-thinking so that the building itself is not obsolete the day we open it up.”
WIT’s new multipurpose academic facility is located at the center of the school’s downtown campus, on the site of three former tennis courts.
A design-assist process from the start
Because of the fast-track nature of the job, Gilbane proposed the design-assist mode of project delivery from early development and preconstruction. “We launched a very robust agreement with our designers,” Cooke says. “We got buy-in from the school to allow us to hire key trade contractors. We hired mechanical, electric, plumbing, and envelope subcontractors to work with the design team as they developed their drawings. The MEP trades are generating the working drawings for the building—the drawings that our superintendent uses every day to build off of.”
Using a common BIM (Building Information Modeling) platform was critical for streamlining the preconstruction process. “We use Revit with our trade contractors and with our designers,” says John Myers, Gilbane’s director of virtual design and construction for New England. “We can exchange models back and forth between designer and trade contractor without any conversion, without any kind of secondary bridging software or any need to print drawings.” To coordinate between teams, he says, “We use Navisworks, which is that bridging software that will allow design models and fabrication models to come together to look at them all in unison.”
A laptop screen displays a VR rendering of the academic-building systems.
Virtual reality helps get everyone on board
The Gilbane team used VR models from the earliest stages of the project to help stakeholders visualize the building and provide input on decisions. “We brought some of the virtual technology to the groundbreaking so that the president of Wentworth and the mayor of the city could walk through the building before we had even put a shovel in the ground,” Cooke says. “We weren’t just putting on a show, though. We were showing them our real tools so that they can understand the type of product that they’re getting.”
The Gilbane team also used VR as an internal quality check. “Because this is such a high-performing building, we have to ensure that everything’s going to line up perfectly,” Myers says. “The schedule doesn’t allow for another shot at it. We had to throw those extra layers of quality assurance, quality control onto our engineering process with our design-assist subcontractors. We used all the tools available, including VR, to make sure that everything was going to line up true.”
John Myers (right), director of Virtual Design and Construction for New England at Gilbane, reviews the VR model of the multipurpose academic building with WIT student Shannon Sturtz.
Prefabrication fulfills high-tech requirements
According to Cooke, the complexity and accelerated schedule of the WIT facility “begged for the highest level of application for prefabrication, as well as design technology.” There are two major prefab components: the prefabricated penthouse on top of the building, which houses the major mechanical equipment, and all of the plumbing and mechanical piping, which came in 20-foot-long prefab racks. “The penthouse was fabricated off-site in nine sections and brought in and put together in a weekend,” he says. “Something like that in the old days would have taken over a month to assemble.”
“Off-site fabrication for us, from a safety standpoint, from a schedule standpoint, from the standpoint of being able to do things in parallel instead of in sequence, those are the things that make Gilbane successful,” Myers says. “In order to do prefab properly, you have to have a 3D model. You have to give your contractors the operational surety and the dimensional surety that what they’re going to prefabricate is not going to need to be disassembled on the jobsite.”
The prefabricated penthouse unit, which houses mechanical systems for air handling, cooling, and exhaust, is lifted to the roof of the structure.
A construction site becomes a lab for learning
From the beginning, Gilbane saw the building project as an opportunity to create a significant learning experience for construction-management students. “The idea of using this construction as a learning lab was very exciting to the Board of Trustees and the president when we made our proposal,” Cooke says. “We brought that concept full circle and created a learning environment that included aspects of what we do every day.”
The Gilbane team has hosted construction-site tours and a lecture series for the WIT community, as well as guest lectures in various classes. There is also a webcam that provides a real-time view of the project’s progress. For the students, it’s an opportunity to see how the structural elements of a building connect together in real time and understand how health and safety protocols and other processes work on the jobsite.
“A lot of the professionals in the Boston area for architecture, structural engineering, civil engineering, construction management come through Wentworth,” Myers says. “For me, it’s a great experience to pass on what we’ve learned to the next generation of architects and engineers.”
WIT student Shannon Sturtz (center) gets a site walk-through from project manager Michael Harris (left) and project engineer Obie Rankin, a 2014 WIT graduate.
On track for a campus transformation
The 15-month schedule for the New Academic Building for Engineering Innovation and Sciences is on track for a spring 2019 opening, launching alongside WIT’s new engineering innovation programs. “We have approximately five months left to complete—and we’re going to deliver precisely on time,” Cooke says. When the building is finished at the end of 2018, the faculty will have approximately one month to transfer equipment from other locations on campus and put it to use in the new facility.
Prefabrication has enabled the team to take control of systems and make sure they’re installed to precise tolerances. “We can be very efficient from a building operations standpoint as well as create an environment that is very contained for the science that’s going on,” Cooke continues. Additionally, “We’ve actually maximized usable gross square footage within the building by condensing systems to spaces that you physically could not reach if you were building it piece by piece by piece.
“This building is going to be transformative for the Wentworth community,” Cooke says. “It’s like putting the best tool you could possibly put in the toolbox for learning experience.”
Kevin Cooke, senior project executive at Gilbane Building Company, on the WIT building jobsite.
Transforming an industry, too
Gilbane’s efforts are helping WIT—and the construction industry—move into the future. Prefabrication has evolved, Cooke asserts, and it’s broken through the old barriers to adoption. “The foremen and the workers out here absolutely appreciate the type of organization and efficiencies that come with the prefab process,” he says. “We’re seeing more and more investment by subcontractors and general contractors.” And another important advancement he sees, especially in a marketplace like Boston, “is the use of union workforces off-site to get a quality level that is second to none.”
The delivery of prefabricated materials to the jobsite has also changed. In years past, Gilbane was reluctant to engage fabricators outside the immediate region of a project. Not any more, Cooke says: much of the Wentworth building’s envelope was built in South America. “It came dedicated to the job on its own shipping facilities,” he continues. “Customs operations were set up overseas so that we didn’t get delayed. So it’s not just the prefab; it’s the process of delivery that makes it so much more attractive to builders.
“We’re bringing complete rooms of buildings and installing them in hours as opposed to weeks and months,” Cooke says. “The delivery methods that we’re employing now are very state of the art, but they will be like kindergarten compared to college five years from now.”