MassArt – Tree House Student Residence
26. May 2014
Think of the areas in and around Boston and most likely institutions of higher education come to mind: Harvard University, MIT, Boston University, to name a few. Massachusetts College of Art and Design (MassArt) is relatively small in comparison but a new 20-story tower gives the college some exposure befitting one of the oldest art schools in the United States. Designed by ADD Inc, the aptly named Tree House Student Residence resembles a tree in its bark-like brown skin, while it also echoes Boston's traditional brick buildings. The architects answered a few questions about the project.
The exterior is an organic mosaic of over 5,000 composite aluminum panels of varying depths and hues.
Please provide an overview of the project.
Massachusetts College of Art and Design (MassArt) is an urban arts school located in downtown Boston, along the Avenue of the Arts that is home to numerous artistic venues and educational institutions including Symphony Hall, the New England Conservatory, Northeastern University, and the Museum of Fine Arts. The Tree House project was the central component of MassArt’s desire to increase the percentage of students living on campus from 26% to 44%, including 95% of incoming freshman. At the core of the college’s transition from a commuter school to a residential campus was the desire to create a vibrant living and learning community to cultivate artistic, social and academic development.
The tower is located along the Avenue of the Arts, amidst academic facilities and residence halls.
Through a programming effort that included student focus groups, benchmarking tours of comparable projects, and freshman core curriculum demands, the building harmonizes the needs of college administrators and the unique learning/living requirements of nearly 500 incoming art school freshmen. The project features a ground floor café and living room, a second-floor health center; and a “Pajama Floor” at the third level with communal kitchen, game room, laundry facilities, and fitness center. The residential floors include alternating studio spaces, lounges, project workrooms, and snack kitchens to create an informal studio atmosphere conducive to artistic dialogue and interdisciplinary collaboration. Hailed by critics as the most innovative new high rise in Boston, the project is a unique complement to the city skyline that expresses the character and creative force of the institution it serves.
Dark browns at the base mirror tree bark before growing progressively lighter to make the building appear taller and lighter in the skyline. Green window panels punctuate the façade like the leaves of a tree.
What are the main ideas and inspirations influencing the design of the building?
The exterior, inspired by Gustav Klimt’s 1909 “Tree of Life” painting, is an organic mosaic of composite aluminum panels of varying depths and hues. Dark browns at the base mirror tree bark before growing progressively lighter to make the building appear taller and lighter in the skyline. Green window panels punctuate the façade like the leaves of a tree.
The warm tones of the building skin were created with 5,500 metal panels, dimensionally organized in a two story repeat, but gradually increasing in the proportion of lighter panels over darker as the building rises from the "trunk" to the top. This, combined with higher glosses on lighter panels, gives the building its richness and subtle sense of strength as it becomes more gold toward the top of its “canopy.”
Inspired by Gustav Klimt’s “Tree of Life”, this innovative high rise expresses the character and creative force of the institution it serves.
The project’s interior spaces expand upon this concept through a bold color palette to create an engaging and light-filled environment. The lobby features an oversized, snaking yellow sofa that echoes the shapes of the landscaped plaza. The ceiling, constructed of lacquered western hemlock, reinforces the tree concept while steel door frames add an industrial element. Art is infused throughout the building ranging from commissioned alumni pieces in the lobby to a rotating gallery on the third floor. While the budget did not allow for expensive finishes, designers drew on the possibilities of modest materials such as carpet and paint to develop a bold visual statement that activates the space through color.
Students in the college’s architecture and interior design programs helped shape some of the project’s common areas, including the ground floor café.
From the onset, ADD Inc’s design team was challenged to differentiate the 20 occupied floors of this urban high-rise. The team responded through the use of boldly and distinctly colored corridors and common areas that change every two floors. As one travels vertically through the building, the palette grows from deep purples on the lower floors, to yellows, oranges, and finally blues on the upper levels. Through this simple technique, the residence hall has become a laboratory of sorts for art students to experience the effect of color on light, quality, mood, and identity of space.
The lobby features an over-sized, snaking yellow sofa that echoes the shapes of the landscaped plaza. The ceiling, constructed of lacquered western hemlock, reinforces the tree concept.
To what extent did the clients and/or future users of the building influence the design and the outcome of the building?
The design of The Tree House Residence hall exemplifies collaboration. During the design process, the team worked to harmonize the goals and aspirations of professors, administrators, students, trustees, alumni, city and state agencies, neighbors, and the building’s owner. ADD Inc conducted in-depth benchmarking tours, hosted focus groups and an 85-person design charrette, and developed full-scale mock-up units for students to experience and critique. Students in the college’s architecture and interior design programs helped shape some of the project’s common spaces, including the ground floor café.
The Pajama Floor allows students to lounge, play games, or study in groups.
Were there any significant challenges that arose during the project? If so, how did you respond to them?
The site poses significant construction and structural issues. It contains a large network of underground culverts that carry waste to a Massachusetts Water Resource Authority (MWRA) wastewater treatment plant serving a large percentage of downtown Boston buildings. Consequently, the 20-story dormitory sits on a relatively small footprint—approximately 55 feet by 125 feet. The architectural design is a tall, slender building that curves around and cantilevers over the MWRA easement. The height of the narrow structure and its cantilevered form necessitated unusually deep piles and additional bracing. The constrained footprint mandated that every square inch of space had to be utilized effectively in order to meet the program goals and requirements within the height constraints of the site. BIM modeling of all components and systems enabled real time visualization and coordination by all team members, allowing the team to recognize conflicts early in the design.
A communal kitchen accented by bold color is the center of an active residence life program.
How would you describe the architecture of Massachusetts and how does the building relate to it?
Many of the most-loved buildings of Massachusetts (especially Boston) are warm toned brick buildings in the historic neighborhoods of Beacon Hill, the North End, and the Back Bay. While the material of the Tree House is contemporary metal, the gold, tan, rust, and brown panels connect it to the historic clay color palette.
Email interview conducted by John Hill.
Designers drew on the possibilities of modest materials such as carpet and paint to develop a bold visual statement that activates the space through color.
Ground Floor Plan
Pajama Floor / Level 3 Floor Plan
Typical Floor Plan
MassArt – Tree House Student Residence
Massachusetts State College Building Authority (MSCBA)
B.K. Boley, AIA, LEED AP
David Lunny, AIA, LEED AP
Design Team Leader
Tamara Roy, AIA, LEED AP
Add Inc: Colleen Arria, LEED AP
Odeh Engineers, Inc.