John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center

With a distinctive facade design defined by solar-shading fins, this new building creates a vertical campus for the U.S. DOT’s transportation research and innovation center.

Project Facts
  • Status Construction Complete
  • Completion Year 2023
  • Design Finish Year 2019
  • Size Number of Stories: 13 Building Gross Area: 575,000 square feet
  • Sustainability Certifications
    LEED BD+C NC (New Construction) Gold, BD+C, Gold, 1 LEED BD+C NC (New Construction) Platinum, BD+C, Platinum, 1
  • Collaborators
    Rowan Williams Davies & Irwin Inc. (RWDI) R.G. Vanderweil Engineers, Llp Shen Milsom & Wilke SBLD Studio Van Deusen & Associates Mcphail Associates Hinman Consulting Engineers VHB (Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, Inc.) Studiomla Architects Reed Hilderbrand Gensler Hopkins Foodservice Specialists, Inc Atelier Ten Jensen Hughes Turner Construction Company
Project Facts
  • Status Construction Complete
  • Completion Year 2023
  • Design Finish Year 2019
  • Size Number of Stories: 13 Building Gross Area: 575,000 square feet
  • Sustainability Certifications
    LEED BD+C NC (New Construction) Gold, BD+C, Gold, 1 LEED BD+C NC (New Construction) Platinum, BD+C, Platinum, 1
  • Collaborators
    Rowan Williams Davies & Irwin Inc. (RWDI) R.G. Vanderweil Engineers, Llp Shen Milsom & Wilke SBLD Studio Van Deusen & Associates Mcphail Associates Hinman Consulting Engineers VHB (Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, Inc.) Studiomla Architects Reed Hilderbrand Gensler Hopkins Foodservice Specialists, Inc Atelier Ten Jensen Hughes Turner Construction Company

The best-kept secret in Cambridge

The John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center was founded in 1970 to advance transportation innovation for the public good, and its new building in Cambridge, Massachusetts, furthers this critical mission. As the original facility grew outdated, the General Services Administration (GSA) entered an unprecedented land agreement with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Investment Management Company, which developed the building on four acres in exchange for the remaining ten acres of campus land.

For decades, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) Volpe Center had been colloquially known as the “best-kept secret in Cambridge,” a gated setting where cutting-edge research took place. For the new 410,000-square-foot building, SOM empowered the center to reveal itself, and its work, to the streetscape for the first time.

Aerial view of U.S. DOT John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center
Dave Burk © SOM

Innovation on display

The architecture of the new U.S. DOT Volpe Center puts the institution on display. Sited on four acres of the original campus, the headquarters engages the streetscape with green spaces by Reed Hilderbrand Landscape Architecture and an earthwork by Maya Lin comprising a series of undulating mounds. A three-story, transparent entrance faces Fifth Street and provides views inside. Along Binney Street to the north, six 14-foot-tall garage doors enable the street-facing lab spaces to host demonstrations.

The U.S. DOT John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center
Dave Burk © SOM

Building a vertical campus

The new building brings the center’s operations under one roof for the first time, with laboratories, data centers, offices, and amenities that were once spread across several structures. The new center takes the form of two rectangular volumes, comprising a larger base for floors one through three followed by a setback above to serve the 1,300 staff members.

As a cutting edge science facility, the center encompassess a series of labs for testing, research, and data science. The human factors labs dedicate 90,000 square feet of the first level to vehicle testing and simulation prep. Amenities are aggregated at the base to foster a sense of community. A main staircase leads to a large conference area, training rooms, and a cafe.

Dave Burk © SOM

Graphics strategy

SOM’s branding studio developed signage and wayfinding for the U.S. DOT Volpe Center that reflects the institution’s identity. A new typeface for the numbers and letters is applied both outside and indoors, to convey a sense of motion, with each character styled to echo across the walls, as if moving through space. Many of the numbers and department labels stretch horizontally, like a car or train whizzing by, while numbers in the stairwells stretch vertically, mirroring the direction of staff circulating inside.

Dave Burk © SOM
Dave Burk © SOM
Dave Burk © SOM

Calibrating the facade for optimal performance

Targeting LEED Platinum, the new center is oriented to maximize daylighting, while the glass and aluminum facade is crafted in different arrangements to minimize glare.

The facades with the least surface area face the east and west, where sun exposure is strongest in the mornings and evenings. The eastern and western facades are clad in glass with vertical aluminum plates that stretch outward like the fins of an aircraft to block glare and solar radiation.

“We calibrated the building to make the most of the sunlight, and that sensitivity to its context is permeated outward as well in the way the U.S. DOT Volpe Center interacts with the neighborhood,” said SOM Partner Chris Cooper. “We empowered the U.S. DOT Volpe Center to reveal itself, and its work, to the public.”

“The work of the U.S. DOT Volpe Center fits perfectly with the entrepreneurial identity of Kendall Square, and the building’s configuration and interior palette are key to making it a welcoming place,” said SOM Principal Joseph Ruocco. “What we’ve created is a vertical community, one that brings a new level of wellness to the U.S. DOT Volpe Center’s staff.”

 

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