Portuguese limestone relates new building to original campus

March 14, 2007
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The 412,000-square-foot Brain and Cognitive Sciences Complex at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Cambridge, MA, campus is considered the world’s largest neuroscience research center, and its exterior is clad in Portuguese limestone.

The 412,000-square-foot Brain and Cognitive Sciences Complex at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Cambridge, MA, campus is considered the world’s largest neuroscience research center. The design team, comprising Goody Clancy of Boston, MA, and lead designer Charles Correa of Mumbai, India, determined early on that the building would be clad in light-colored stone to match with the traditional Indiana limestone typically found on the neo-classical MIT campus.

According to Roger Goldstein, FAIA, Principal of Goody Clancy, the clients’ goal was to have the design team create a “100-year building” that called for robust detailing and scrupulous construction follow-through, and to bring together three distinct research entities to create a world-class center for brain research.

As work on the project progressed, the design team decided to clad the building in a thin stone veneer of around 3 cm, and they considered a range of stones from Europe and Asia, ultimately settling on Regina limestone, quarried in Alenteja, Portugal, and fabricated by Euromarble of Carrara, Italy. “We made two trips to the fabrication yard in Carrara; one to finalize the selection of Regina, and a later trip to confirm the acceptability of the special corner blocks,” the architect said.

“When treated with a honed finish as at the MIT project, it presents a delightfully subtle veining pattern,” Goldstein said of the Regina limestone. “Its overall color is a creamy, warm-toned beige, and the grain can best be described as appearing like the results of someone sketching lightly with a pencil.” According to the architect, the grain was specified to run diagonally on all 8,000 stone panels. “The resulting facade presents a unified appearance as seen from a distance, subtly varied due to the inherent range of the stone color, carefully selected from within a wider range, yet, as one approaches closer, the grain becomes apparent, providing another level of interest to the viewer.”

Installing the stone

According to Project Manager Michael Varone from Kenneth Castellucci & Associates of Lincoln, RI, which served as the subcontractor for the project, the stone installation lasted approximately 10 months, with an average of 30 workers on site at any given time.

Varone said that two main challenges occurred during the stone installation, one of which was due to the fact that the building straddles an active railway. “Another big challenge was that, being in downtown Cambridge, the site was very tight and congested,” he explained. “There were difficulties with the quantity of material we could store on site, and the limited accessibility to move the material around.”

The majority of the stone panels measure 3 x 5 feet long x 1 5/8 inches thick, while at the outside corners of the building and for special conditions such as soffits, the panels are up to 3 inches thick. “At one special acute corner, solid blocks were used, triangular in plan and approximately 3 feet on a side with a tight radiused corner,” Goldstein said. “Here, we specified that the grain be non-directional, because continuing the diagonal grain pattern would not have worked as it turned the corner onto the adjacent elevation.”

According to Goldstein, the stone was supported on a concrete masonry unit (CMU) backup wall, which was treated with a comprehensive air/vapor barrier system (AVB) and rigid insulation. “Stones were set individually, anchored back to the CMU wall with stainless steel anchors and clips, typically four clips per stone panel,” the architect explained. “A rigorous process of mockups, testing and quality control by the construction manager, the architects and the owner ensured compliance with specified tolerances and quality.”

Construction on the project was completed in September of 2005, and the doors officially opened to the public in December. The project won a 2006 AIA New England Honor Award.

“The finished building is a landmark on campus, a powerful and elegant modern home for cutting-edge scientific research,” said Goldstein. “Its skin of Regina limestone seems almost luminous at times, especially at twilight when highlighted by the warm late afternoon sun."

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