Controlled Chaos: Stata Center

When Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) considered construction of The Ray and Maria Stata Center for Computer, Information, and Intelligence Sciences, the facility committee wanted something bold. They wanted a building that would reflect their outlook as they faced the 21st century, just as many of their older buildings had facing the 20th. This building had to be unique and memorable.

The resulting structure, which opened in the spring of 2004, is a nine-story angular building that brings a whole new look to the technical college. When your eyes try to make sense of the angles, the building appears fluid.

Located at the corner of Vassar and Main Streets in Cambridge, Mass., the center includes two buildings, the William H. Gates and the Alexander W. Dreyfoos buildings. They combine rectangular brick with sculptural metal-clad elements. Brick rectangular wings were built to contain office spaces.

The state-of-the-art Stata Center, now in use by the technology department, was designed by architect Frank O. Gehry. With the help of engineers, contractors and electricians, he proved that 90- and 45-degree angles are not required for modern architecture. And some Boston-area electrical contractors have proven that power does not need to be routed by square angles either.

For Broadway Electrical Co. Inc., the building is personal. This Boston-based contractor installed nine stories of lighting and electricity with two challenges: to provide unique lighting and to do it within the geometry of a Gehry model. This meant installing lighting through the floors instead of ceilings, running cables through concrete slabs and sending lines up beams that sliced the building walls at strange angles.

In the late 1990s, MIT razed a World War II era building with the intention of replacing it with a striking, bold 21st-century-style home for computer, information and intelligence sciences. The technical college sought a building with an adventurous look-unprecedented, radical and fascinating. They chose the Gehry design for its distinctive look as well as its respect for the goals of MIT. The general contractor for the building was Skanska USA Building Inc. of Boston.

Intended to reflect the various communities around the site and the diversity of ideas that would be expressed inside its walls, the design would hopefully make a powerful statement about MIT's campus.

The reality of wires and conduits

But once the Stata Center evolved beyond the conceptual phase, the reality of building and wiring caused considerable head shaking. Engineers and project managers met the renderings with skepticism and incredulity. Turning the design into a real physical structure seemed nearly impossible-especially since nothing like it existed. There seemed to be no 90 degree angles, few straight vertical walls, and ceilings, where conduits and cables would normally run, were not in the design. As one welder pointed out, everything is leaning.

Broadway Electrical general foremen Peter Caratelli and Ken Nadeau said that the project became their life for several years; they still marvel at their resulting accomplishment. They started in December 2000 and finished in the spring of 2004. At the onset, Caratelli, involved with office support for the project, prepared an AutoCAD design of the building. With this, he was able to work with the men in the field, ensuring they stayed on course with the plan.

Nadeau described his own functions as “the hardware for [Caratelli's] software.” Nadeau was on the job site throughout the project, overseeing the nuts and bolts of the work.

For both Nadeau and Caratelli, Gehry's goals were challenging from the start. The center's power would flow below the raised floor to main distribution panels and then branch to a series of secondary distribution panels. The lighting fixtures along the corridors would be integrated into the data cable system to use the overhead cable-tray system efficiently.

The ceiling grid would include future locations for light fixtures. Pendant lights would hang in the open offices and laboratories and side-mounted fixtures would offer indirect lighting in offices. Designers wanted an abundance of natural light through many roof and wall windows, and in some cases, electric lighting would be an accent for the natural sunlight, when it was available.

“We took a risk,” said Broadway Electrical Vice President Larry Hurwitz, recalling the company's bid on the job. “We had never worked on a building like this. No one had anything to draw on.”

Broadway Electrical, which has built major academic buildings and other large commercial sites, has plenty of experience in the field, but none that could prepare the company for the Stata Center. Other contractors were in the same position.

“Every day was a challenge. For one thing, they were changing things as they went along,” said Nadeau.

Because of the unique design, Broadway Electrical felt more like a design/bid/build contractor than the bid/build that they were, because “everything was more or less conceptual,” Hurwitz said.

Some features include 15-inch raised floors on all nine stories of the building. Everything that would normally be installed in the ceiling went into the floor. Office partitions were placed on top in such a way that wiring maintenance could be done through the floor. For the contractors, though, this meant that not only were they working on the floor, racing the concrete guys who were working right behind them, there was almost no surface space for equipment storage while the project progressed.

“Once you got the tiles up, there was no place to put your gang boxes,” Nadeau recalled.

According to Hurwitz, the lighting was 70 percent custom or more. “Usually you have a standard, so you don't have to keep reinventing the wheel.”

But the lack of standard was just one small challenge. “We had pretty much every type of fixture,” Hurwitz said. Fixtures included downlights, strip lights, pendants, low bay, cove lights, outside pole lighting, step lights and many others, all with their own application.

Altogether, Broadway electricians installed 400,000 linear feet (about 74 miles) of PVC. Most of the conduit was laid within 14-inch slabs; some were larger, such as the basement's 3-foot slabs. Every single conduit had to be centered in the middle of a slab, in part because the unusual nature of the construction had the general contractor worried about weakening the slabs. Data networks needed to be installed under the floor. Broadway Electrical built spare conduits into the system to accommodate future use. All components are “plug-and-play,” which allows for adding or relocating power loads. The outlets are distributed either to the walls through a short cable or to a floor box.

Keeping on schedule was impossible. Broadway Electrical, with about 60 of its 145 journeymen working at the site, was already running behind when it started the project. Project Manager Chris Gibson said that the job ultimately was about a year late. Gibson said it was an aggressive schedule that would have worked well with a standard job but was impossible to maintain with the amount of unfamiliar work being done at the Stata Center. The delay started with excavation. Then, the appropriate curved steel caused a further delay.

“It was a conceptual schedule,” Hurwitz said. “On a square building, it would have been good.”

Controlling the chaos

Hurwitz recalled telling an engineer early on that they were working on a Frank Gehry project. The engineer warned him it would be more of a challenge than they realized. The Gehry design involves lines and angles that seem to defy the physics of steel and concrete.

“Then you've got to turn that into pipe and wire. It's a completely different process,” Hurwitz said.

Despite the challenges, Gibson said that “98 percent of the pipes were dead on.” He attributes that to the crew and also lauds the contractors and engineers who worked on the project.

Broadway Electrical provided primary and emergency power distribution systems for the entire facility; the company also put in lighting and fire alarms. Broadway Electrical also installed empty raceways that support the security and tel/data systems, which were installed by Sullivan & McLaughlin Companies Inc., another Boston-area electrical contractor. Sullivan & McLaughlin (SullyMac) put in $1.2 million worth of telecommunications and security systems networks at the center.

For security, the Stata Center uses two separate and independent tel/data networks. SullyMac installed the two networks, providing an Ethernet connection throughout the building.

Broadway Electrical brought state-of-the-art lighting to corridors with fixtures set in cable trays mounted above all the doors.

After completion, contractors and designers alike spent some time appreciating what they accomplished.

“I think of this in terms of controlled chaos,” Gehry said in Nancy Joyce's book about the project, “Building Stata.”

The challenge for Broadway Electrical had been to bring power within that controlled chaos. Gehry's vision for the building reflects what he predicts to happen inside it-the collision of intellectual ideas from a diverse group of inhabitants. MIT had its own vision-a building containing spaces that foster fruitful interactions; a building connected by paths, inside and outside; and a flexible-use structure that could change as demands on it change.

Broadway Electrical's Hurwitz said he still enjoys walking around and through the building. So do his project managers.

Hurwitz said, “You just feel a sense of awe,” when contemplating what the electricians and other contractors accomplished, taking the conceptual design and bringing it to fruition. EC

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at


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