University of Massachusetts Boston: A Campus Transformed

| February 25, 2019

by James R. Velleman

Visit UMass Boston today and you’ll find an open, waterfront campus busy with people coming and going, studying, lounging, and meeting in landscaped outdoor spaces amid a mix of academic buildings, dorms, and other structures, and surrounded by a tree-lined, two-way road marked by sidewalks, crosswalks, bike lanes, and transit stops. It is, in other words, a characteristic college campus scene — with the bonus of stunning views of Boston Harbor.

Ten years ago, the scene was dramatically different: a place designed to keep people inside. It featured a two-lane “speedway” leading cars in, out, and around campus and a collection of academic buildings that encircled a core, multistory parking garage, through which people entered the buildings. Waterfront access was prohibitive. Go back another 50 years and you’d be standing in the city dump (capped in the 1960s); 75 years before that, witness the city’s massive sewage pump station, which was named for the area’s 17th century use as a calf pasture.

From inglorious past to promising present: The path for creating an institution at the forefront of 21st-century higher education began with UMass Boston’s strategic plan to fulfill an ambitious 2025 vision, which is marked by striking increases in student population, research activity, and global reach and reputation. The strategic plan included campus changes, as guided by an architectural master plan completed in 2009. Reinventing the 1970s campus, the plan called for several new buildings along with circulation corridors, utilities, and landscaping.

As key new buildings came online in the early 2000s, the need for new utilities, circulation, and landscapes grew. Enter BVH, hired in 2011 to redesign and install campus utilities, storm water measures, a roadway system, walkways, open spaces, and landscaping.

Where to begin? On a complexity scale of 1 to 10, this was an 11. We needed to boost utility capacity and performance to support the university’s research agenda, including new utility infrastructure to all buildings, as well as updated utility plant systems, service redundancy, and utility support systems. We faced regulated soils, differing geotechnical properties underlying utility corridors throughout the site, four major building construction projects, and a fully operational campus, which required complicated design and phasing.

On the other hand: possibilities! All that digging opened up the opportunity to shift the entire character and culture of the campus. New surface features and reconfigured circulation focused on people, multimodal transportation options, and inviting outdoor spaces that restore environmental health came into view, all while connecting the university population to the waterfront and the community to the university.

Lessons learned: It was an incredibly complex, challenging, and rewarding project nearly 10 years in the making. UMass Boston is well on its way to becoming the student-centered, urban research university of its vision, thanks in large part to its site transformation from commuter school to destination campus.

There were a host of changes and challenges along the way, and we learned a great deal about the value of detail in collaborative planning, the complexities of working with sensitive, regulated land fill materials, the importance of inclusive design, and how best to engage a campus community. We look forward to sharing the stories and lessons learned when we present Unearthed: Digging into the UMass Boston Campus Transformation this summer at SCUP’s national conference in Seattle. Hope to see you there!

Beneath the Surface
4.5 miles of electrical and telecommunications duct bank
5 miles of domestic water and fire protection piping
6.5 miles of hot and chilled water piping
3 miles of storm piping
2 miles of sanitary and gas piping

Above Ground
A network of pedestrian walkways
Bicycle lanes
A two-lane, two-way roadway
Recreational and outdoor event spaces
11 storm water bioretention basins
800+ trees
LED site lighting

James R. Velleman


James R. Velleman, PE, LEED AP, is an associate principal and project manager at BVH Integrated Services.


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Category: All, contributor, Education

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