News Article

Three Q: Suzy Nelson and David Friedrich

West Campus

March 20, 2019

Student housing is a hot topic on MIT's campus. Numerous projects are underway to increase the amount of student houisng and enhance the student residential experience now and in the future. In response to some recurring questions about current projects related to student housing, Vice President and Dean for Student LIfe Suzy Nelson and Senior Associate Dean for Housing & Residential Services David Friedrich shared their perspectives on topics ranging from the architecural principles to the New Vassar Street residence hall to housing renewal.

Q1. One of the first things you did when you arrived at MIT three years ago was to work with students, faculty, and staff on a set of architectural principles for undergraduate residence halls. How have those principles played a role in the design of New Vassar Street and the renewal of New House? 

SUZY: Developing the architectural principles document was a great introduction to the way MIT works—students, faculty, and staff teaming up to work together. This group discussed what MIT undergraduate residence halls should be like in the future, and thought through guidelines for building elements such as layout, common space, lighting and flooring, room sizes, ratios of students to graduate resident tutors (GRTs), and outdoor space.

Student input was invaluable in shaping the final architectural principles document given their working knowledge of house life, and two particular student-driven ideas emerged from our conversations. The first is the cluster concept, a grouping of approximately 30 students and one GRT that lives together in a space comprising an appropriate mix of single and double rooms, a GRT apartment, and shared space. Second was the critical path, which is the route a student takes through the building to their cluster. Both were identified as being important to fostering community. 

Students and DSL staff are very invested in the design of renewed or new residence halls. The principles are a good theoretical foundation that guides the design and construction. That said, there are always competing priorities when building or renovating a residence hall. While we want to make sure the physical space aligns with student input as much as possible, our campus partners need to make sure that the building can be completed on time, is within budget, and meets MIT’s sustainability goals

In our planning conversations for New Vassar Street and New House, students’ input informed several decisions. For New Vassar Street, students had a hand in designing much of the interior space including the layout of the dining hall, desk and mail area, critical path through the building, additional lounge spaces on each floor, placement of bathrooms, laundry, music, maker and exercise spaces, and student and house team residential spaces. At students’ and DSL’s request, Capital Planning invested extra time and resources to bring in a dining consultant who helped us develop an innovative country kitchen and pantry design that would build community around cooking and learning to cook while still being connected to the building’s dining facility and meal plan.

With New House’s renovation, we were working within the parameters of an existing structure. Students were instrumental in coming up with creative ways to maximize the use of the residential spaces to meet the needs of the nine communities in New House. Students guided the floor and lounge configurations, furniture and fixtures, and common space needs. Altogether, it was a successful project that resulted in a practically new residence hall.

DSL’s role in these efforts is to facilitate student input into a process that includes other campus partners such as architects, structural engineers, construction companies, and many other stakeholders who are charged by MIT with managing (sometimes competing) priorities and constraints, and ensuring that the building is completed on-time and on-budget. In addition to thanking the students involved in all three projects, I want to thank those campus partners who listened intently and modified designs to reflect student input as much as possible. 

In other words, to paraphrase the Rolling Stones, we can’t always get what we want—because that is unrealistic—but if we try, we just might find, we get what we need. In the case of New Vassar, we get a beautiful new residence hall that will offer students a wonderful residential life experience for generations to come.

Q2: How are you approaching the Burton Conner project? What did you learn from New House and New Vassar Street that might help?

DAVID: First, it’s important to remember that every project is different. While there are themes and experiences from other projects that we can draw on, Burton Conner renewal will present its own set of opportunities and challenges. We need to take this one step at a time. As of right now, we know the focus of the project is on systems and infrastructure renewal. The full scope of work for the building is still being determined, and we will have a clearer sense of the scope early in the fall of 2019.

We did learn a lot about the need to engage residents early and often to prepare for relocation. Even though we didn’t have very much lead-time with New House, their student leaders and house team were excellent partners throughout that project. Thankfully, we have more than a year to plan with Burton Conner’s exec and house team.

We have gotten right down to business and worked with the Burton Conner students to form a transition team. Its members will help to guide communication and will also act as points of contact for Burton Conner residents when they have questions or concerns. The students serving on the team were selected entirely by the Burton Conner house government to act as the students’ voices. 

The transition team will also help to make staff aware of emerging issues so we can work together to address them quickly. We recognize that relocating students while their residence hall is under renovation is disruptive, but our goal is to make this go as smoothly as possible.

SUZY: Additionally, Burton Conner alumni have reached out to support current residents. Two events are being planned by Burton Conner alumni and the MIT Alumni Association (MITAA) for this semester—the first in April features MIT alumna Dr. Sophia Yen from Pandia Health. Heads of House Janelle Knox-Hayes and Jarrod Hayes say that they will continue to work with alumni and the MITAA to make these and any additional community events a success leading up to and during the renewal period.

Q3: There has been some confusion over whether the New Vassar Street residence hall would serve as a “swing dorm” during different residential renewal projects. What is the plan for New Vassar Street?

DAVID: New Vassar Street is going to be a community with its own unique identity, which has been the plan all along. It will house about 450 undergraduate students, and it is targeted to open in August 2020, a couple of months after Burton Conner closes for renovation. It’s understandable to think that moving an entire dorm into a new facility would be the best approach, but given that house renewal will be ongoing for many years, this would be disruptive and unfair to the New Vassar community.

When it opens, New Vassar will be the second-largest undergraduate residence hall on campus. Only Maseeh Hall is bigger, with about 500 residents. The other nine residence halls range in size from about 95 to roughly 390. The goal is for a different residence hall to be renewed roughly every two years. Were it used as a swing dorm, New Vassar would not be used to capacity or would be filled with some number of students who themselves would be relocated consistently every two years for a decade or more.

SUZY: Relocating residents for a year or two is disruptive to both the students moving and to their host communities. So our main goal is to meet the needs for relocating individual and smaller friend groups in Burton Connor as best we can. For example, New Vassar Street will be a dining dorm. We know that some BC students want to continue cooking for themselves and prefer relocating to a community without a dining hall, or they may want to move into their FSILG.  We are going to work closely with the Burton Conner transition team to enable better communication between Burton Conner students and staff and to understand needs. To support host communities, we will work very closely with DormCon and the other house execs to make the best of a challenging time.

At the end of the day, we want to make sure students find a supportive and caring house where they can have a positive living experience with their friends, and where they can make some new friends. And giving New Vassar’s community an opportunity to take root is important for the long-term health of MIT’s housing system and New Vassar’s residents. Like our other houses, we want New Vassar Street to become a vibrant, supportive community that will strengthen the house system even more.

We also took an important step toward creating New Vassar Street’s community last month when Professor Steven Hall and Dean Naomi Carton were asked to form the nucleus of a house team and founders’ group for the dorm. Steve has been associate head of house at Simmons Hall, which is a very strong community. His experiences in Simmons will be invaluable to the formation of New Vassar Street’s founders’ group. Naomi, living on campus since 2012, is a long-time staff member who has worked closely with students. While she will continue her day job working with graduate students and their families, Naomi’s experience supporting the day-to-day life of a student community will be invaluable. Together, they will be a great team for New Vassar Street.

It’s an exciting time to be at MIT and to be working on student housing: we are building new residence halls on Vassar Street and Site 4 (for graduate students), we opened a totally renewed New House, and we are making plans to renovate and better steward our building resources. Of course, change is uncomfortable at times, and it’s important to acknowledge that and to support all students who are affected by these projects. We are making major investments in student housing for students now and in the future. Ultimately, there will be many positives coming from this renewal period: MIT will have revitalized residential communities where generations of students can live and enjoy house life for years to come.

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