Boston University's Center of Computing and Data Sciences, also known as "jenga" building for its stacked layers.

Boston University’s Building Jenga works its way to the top as a finalist for World Building of the Year

Boston University's Center of Computing and Data Sciences, also known as "jenga" building for its stacked layers.
Boston University’s “Jenga” building reaches even greater heights, making it to the World Architecture Festival’s shortlist for Building of the Year. Staff of David L Ryan/Globe

Boston University’s Center for Computing and Data Sciences, located at 631-635 Commonwealth Ave. and colloquially known as the Jenga building, recently earned a spot on the shortlist for the World Architecture Festival’s Best Building of the Year and Best Interior Design.

As an architect, you don’t determine what an icon is, said Paulo Rocha of KPMB, one of CCDS’ principal architects. The audience, the world, the people who use the space throughout history will determine if it’s iconic. We just wanted to make a building that really made an impact on Boston.

BU’s campus, which spans primarily the 1.5-mile Commonwealth Avenue strip, leaves little room for expansion.

The only way forward is up, said Azer Bestavros, associate dean at the Center of Computing and Data Sciences. The question is, how do you go up without making it look like an office?

The interior of Boston University’s Center of Computing Data Sciences. Staff of David L. Ryan/Globe

In 2013, Boston University launched a call for the world’s best architects, said Walt Meissner, BUs Associate VP for Operations and project executive at CCDS. After a four-month period, the 50 companies competing for their design choices were narrowed down to just one: KPMB.

Ultimately their presentation and their team was the most fascinating for us. It was the most intriguing, and more importantly, they didn’t design it from the outside, like you think they designed it, Meissner said. They really designed it from the inside out.

The unique stacked structure, which actually had nothing to do with Jenga, was inspired by the idea of ​​a vertical neighborhood, cleverly sidestepping the sordid office building trap that less creative architects may have succumbed to.

I think the catalyst was really thinking about the different departments and designing the building as sort of a neighborhood stack and tearing down the scale of a tower, Rocha said. There is this idea of ​​synergy between departments, creating opportunities whereby, if your department is spread over three or four floors, then you can take the stairs, promoting well-being in terms of walkability.

CCDS’s non-aesthetic claim to fame has been for its sustainability innovations, highlighting the incredible teamwork between BU Sustainability, the architects and everyone involved in delivering the project.

Carbon neutral and 100 percent fossil-fuel free, the buildings’ sustainability goals have earned them a LEED Platinum certification, a globally recognized symbol of achieving sustainability, according to the US Green Building Council website. Platinum is the highest level LEED certification a building can achieve, with only 8% of buildings in Boston achieving the status.

Geothermal wells approximately 1,500 feet deep in the ground heat and cool the building. That’s about the height of two John Hancock buildings deep, Rocha said.

To meet the university’s zero-emissions goal, the school purchases 205,000 MWh of wind power and resells the power to consumers in the Midwest, earning renewable energy certificates against its own carbon emissions in Boston.

The building hopes to be a landmark for other large organizations looking to go green.

The BU’s goal for carbon neutrality is 2040. Lisa Tornatore, director of sustainability at the BU, said. The intent is: if organizations that are large landowners, like BU, fail to meet the city’s goals ahead of time, then will the city really achieve its carbon neutrality goal by 2050?

World Building of The Year has been awarded annually by the WAF since its launch in 2008 and is judged by 140 industry professionals.

The preselection jury was impressed by [CCDS] combination of dramatic and distinctive design, which incorporates very high levels of environmental design thinking and will be a benchmark for many decades, WAF Program Director Paul Finch wrote in an email.

CCDS worked its way up to the finalist position, joining 249 other buildings on the list to compete in the Higher Education and Research category.

I think he deserves every award we can get. But even more, I love what the design is doing, said Bestavros, urging those who praise the building on its aesthetic merits to look no further than its central purpose: functionality.

This is a campus upgrade of massive proportions, Bestavros said. You go. See poetry, biology, chemistry. Clearly the students use the building as a place to study, to work. Not just data science students, but everyone.

Roacho and another representative of the building will attend a conference in Singapore from November 29 to December 1, where they will have the opportunity to present the project. If they win their category, they’ll move on to compete in the completed buildings section of the competition and could be named World Building of the Year, according to the WAF website.

This marks the second time the CCDS has been shortlisted for the WAF, as it was previously nominated in the Future Projects category while still in production.

It’s great that WAF recognizes the innovative possibilities for creating beautiful, healthy and sustainable design, said Rocha. Designing for us is not just about ticking boxes. It’s about ticking boxes but also about making sure the impact of what we design is really felt by the people who use it.


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