The Big Dig: “Infratecture” – Blending Infrastructure and Architecture

Today, we continue digging into the Big Dig. As Collaborative Services continues to explore communications for Big Projects and how they come to be and how they are communicated, we once again look into a Boston transportation project that still sparks spirited debate six years after its completion because of its cost – $24.3 billion, including debt service – and its scope.

The Big Dig is still a Big Deal.

Today, we hear from an architect on the project, M. David Lee, a partner with Stull and Lee Inc., a Boston-based architectural and planning firm. He was the Principal-in-Charge for Stull and Lee’s role in the award-winning design of Vent Building No. 7 for the Central Artery/Tunnel Project, the technical name for the Big Dig. He has strong, spirited opinions about the project, which he voiced in 2006 in this CommonWealth Magazine article, “Learning from the Big Dig.”

Construction of the Big Dig
(Credit: David L. Ryan, “The Boston Globe”)

And he continues to have passionate views on the subject of Big Projects. The stakes are high, he asserts. If the public loses faith in the government’s ability to create the path to build high-quality Big Projects, then Big Projects won’t be realized. And we may have reached that tipping point, he fears.

So yes, the Big Dig is very much a Big Part of the Big Picture when it comes to our nation’s ability to move forward with large-scale projects.

We welcome Mr. Lee’s insight:

– – –

You worked on the design of the Central Artery Vent Building Number 7, at the Ted Williams Tunnel. Could you describe that project, and your role a bit?
Stull and Lee, Inc. was part of the coordinating architectural and engineering team led by the joint venture of the The Bechtel Corporation and Parsons Brinckerhoff. In that role, we were the initial designers of Vent Building 7 through preliminary engineering. Final design and engineering was handled by the TAMS company engineers and architects.

Did the project pose any unique challenges?
Vent Building No. 7 was one of several such structures built to provide ventilation to the highway tunnels. On a much smaller scale dimensionally, my firm (Stull and Lee Inc.) designed two ventilation structures for the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority’s (MBTA) Orange Line transit subway tunnels. With these buildings, roughly the size of a Boston row house, the unique challenge in design was how to integrate them into a dense, historic residential fabric.

In contrast, Vent Building No. 7 is several times the size of the Orange Line ventilation structures. Its location on the spacious airport property meant that its design was freed of the constraints on the fine-grained historic fabric which drove much of the thinking about the Orange Line buildings. That said, because of the enormous scale, cost and visibility (thousands of air travelers taxi by this building every week) of this structure, we felt that our charge went beyond meeting its functional requirements to celebrating its status as “civic” design in the best sense of the precedents set by the wonderful bridges, dams, roads and public buildings built in the Works Progress Administration (WPA) era. In fact, I coined a term “infratecture” to describe what we were reaching for.

MBTA’s Vent Building on Yarmouth Street

The unique challenge in our view was to find an architectural language using massing, form and materiality that fulfilled necessary engineering parameters but was also visually expressive, well proportioned and detailed without going over the top from a cost perspective. In pursuit of that objective, we, along with TAMS’ engineers and architects, exploited opportunities to break up the massing and use formal language such as the sloped end caps on the vent stacks combined with careful attention to the selection and proportioning of the principal components such as the louvers and rain screen cladding. The objective was to produce a building that while clear about its purpose went beyond being simply utilitarian.

Central Artery Tunnel Ventilation Building No. 7
(Credit: Ryan Iron Works, Inc.)

Who were stakeholders involved in the project you worked on?
The primary “stakeholders” in the case of this project were the Massachusetts Highway Department, the Federal Highway Administration and the Massport (the airport) and by extension the airline passengers who would view this building as they taxi past.

What was the timing of their involvement? What worked best for that involvement?
Stakeholder involvement really came down to the negotiation between design, engineering and cost considerations. Truly an interdisciplinary effort, each discipline shaped the final result.

– – –

Ventilation structures the size of several houses – that is definitely an amazing accomplishment!

Part II of our interview with Mr. Lee continues later this week as he describes how project evolve over time and why keeping stakeholders engaged throughout the process is important.

Mike Stetz, Senior Writer
Collaborative Services, Inc.

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