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GSA helps reimagine ‘the most innovative square mile on the planet’

| GSA Blog Team
Post filed in: Innovation  |  Public Buildings Service  |  Sustainability  |  Technology

Despite the modern research happening inside the old federal John A. Volpe Transportation Systems Center, the vast 1960s, industrial-like campus just didn’t fit the high-tech vibe of Kendall Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The campus needed an upgrade to better meet the needs of the U.S. Department of Transportation, which enhances innovation, collaboration, flexibility, and partnerships that embrace the emerging transportation needs of the future on that site.  Enter a partnership among the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to create a cutting-edge federal facility.

“The open atrium, glass walls, and large-scale LED demonstration boards will not only showcase our innovation and spark ideas inside the U.S. DOT Volpe Center,” according to U.S. DOT, “but also bring the conversation outside into Kendall Square.” 

The area, across the Charles River from Boston and near some of the country’s top universities, has been dubbed the “most innovative square mile on the planet” by a global management consulting firm. In the past three decades, Kendall Square has transformed from a former industrial district to one of the world's leading centers for biotech research and innovation, replete with glass towers, hip restaurants and urban sophisticates.

A white and glass building surrounded by trees and grass in the middle of a cityscape

The new 13-story, 410,000-square-foot building includes offices, multipurpose labs, public spaces, and a state-of-the art conference center. It boasts more than 300 parking spaces, including designated spots for carpoolers, green vehicles and charging stations for electric vehicles. The U.S. DOT Volpe Center is accessible by the city’s public transit system.   

“From the entrepreneurial energy and culture of its hundreds of start-ups, to the research might and market reach of its major corporate players, Kendall Square is a vital source of opportunities, talent and resources to help the people of MIT deliver their ideas to the world,” MIT President L. Rafael Reif wrote to the MIT community in January 2017 when the agreement was signed after GSA’s official acceptance of MIT’s $750 million bid. 

The partnership is “an opening that will not come again,” Reif wrote, “14 acres, mostly underdeveloped, nearly contiguous with our campus and in the thick of Kendall Square.”

The U.S. DOT Volpe Center’s new lab space allows U.S. DOT’s workforce to collaborate and innovate on strategic transportation goals — safety, economic strength and global competitiveness, climate and sustainability, equity, transformation, and organizational excellence. 

The U.S. DOT Volpe Center integrated sustainability into every aspect of the project from the building’s shape, structure, orientation, floor and office layouts, to the building materials, mechanical systems and furnishings. 

The building’s exterior sustainable features include solar panels, storm water capture systems – providing 100% of what’s required for irrigation, eliminating the need to use drinking water to water the plants – and two occupiable green roofs, just to name a few. 

Inside, lighting will run on sensors, turning off and on depending on occupancy. Automatic shades will assist the already efficient cooling and heating systems. Floor layouts and furniture placement were designed to maximize views and daylight. 

In 2016, GSA entered into an exchange agreement where MIT designed and constructed the state-of-the-art U.S. DOT facility on a 4-acre portion of the property to be retained by GSA. In exchange, the government’s 10-acre excess property at the Kendall Square location will transfer to MIT.  

“Cambridge has changed in many ways in the past 20 or 30 years, and it has become a place where there is a lot of exciting research in all different types of disciplines,” said Peggy Van Eepoel, a juror for GSA’s 2022 Design Awards, in a GSA interview. “There is a lot more engagement with the surrounding universities, and so the Volpe Center and the reimagining of it really was looking at a completely different environment.”

The new U.S. DOT Volpe Center broke ground in 2019, and the ribbon cutting is scheduled for September 19. Occupancy is slated for late September 2023.