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Learning from MIT.nano

An MIT class goes on a field trip — to the center of campus.
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MIT.nano project manager Travis Wanat gives a tour of the construction site to students from civil and environmental engineering course 1.011 (Project Evaluation and Management).
MIT.nano project manager Travis Wanat gives a tour of the construction site to students from civil and environmental engineering course 1.011 (Project Evaluation and Management).
Power, phone, data, and other utilities must all be brought together for MIT.nano.
Power, phone, data, and other utilities must all be brought together for MIT.nano.
Photo: Travis Wanat
Students from 1.011 prepare for their site tour.
Students from 1.011 prepare for their site tour.

In mid-April, members of 1.011 (Project Evaluation and Management), a Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) class, donned hard hats and trudged through mud and cold drizzle to ponder a large hole in the ground: part of the building site of MIT.nano, the Institute’s planned nanoscale-research center.

Joseph M. Sussman, the JR East Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Engineering Systems, organized the field trip. “It occurred to me in a moment of divine insight,” he says. “Sitting smack in the center of campus was the kind of complex project that my students study in class.”

Sussman specializes in applying engineering systems methods to transportation projects. He has been teaching 1.011 for five years, a course traditionally focused on the decision-making behind large-scale construction and transportation projects. This year, though, he expanded the scope of the course.

“We’re now also looking at how people keep projects on time, on budget, and safe,” he says. On his regular walks past the MIT.nano construction site in the center of campus, Sussman saw that a real-world case study in project management was under way just a stone’s throw from his office.

Looking ahead to MIT.nano: "It's one thing to go to college and learn a lot of equations and understand on a theoretical level and say, 'I've seen this.' It's something else entirely to be able to say 'I've done this.'" -MIT student Francis Chen

“It’s definitely a great learning opportunity,” agrees Travis Wanat, a senior project manager in the Department of Facilities. Wanat is at the center of the MIT.nano project, responsible for managing the architect, budget, and schedule for its construction. At Sussman’s request, he led both a classroom lecture covering the planning and construction-management phases, and the field trip to the site. “This was the first time I’ve presented to a class at MIT. To be honest, I was apprehensive,” he says.

Wanat’s concern that there would be little to observe and discuss on the field trip was quickly allayed. “We were removing and reinstalling all of the main utilities, from electricity and tel-data to chilled water, so it was a really good opportunity to see the engineering that goes into creating a supportive excavation.” 

Rising junior Wesley Lau relished this unique view. “You can look at it on a map, but it’s not real until you’re standing at a pit with all the utility infrastructure exposed,” he says. Lau, a construction buff majoring in CEE, confessed that weeks earlier he had traveled at night to the top of Building 16 to watch the demolition of Building 12 (the building that occupied the site of MIT.nano). Lau was also particularly intrigued by the siting for the facility — surrounded on all sides by existing buildings, and without direct access to any city streets. “The construction area is clearly constrained by all the buildings nearby, and I learned they had to balance a lot of difficult options,” he says.

“While it’s in the best location for reducing vibrations and electromagnetic interference, the building is in the worst spot in terms of constructability,” Wanat informed the class. To limit campus disruptions, there are only two points of access, so trucks arriving and departing with demolition and construction material are timed with great precision. “If we miss two minutes here or there, we run into real issues,” he explained.

The necessity of communication and coordination among a veritable army of contractors was just one takeaway from the MIT.nano visit, Sussman says. Another key idea driven home to his class: “You have to think holistically and recognize that in projects of this sort there’s no such thing as a simple change, whether to HVAC or drainage, because if you try to fix one seemingly mundane thing, everything else might unravel.”

Sussman and Wanat are already planning another field trip for next year, when students will be gazing not down, but up at the building’s structural framework. “I tell students: ‘You saw the Powerpoint in class, now put on a hard hat and reflective vest and go where things are happening to a get a real idea of how projects work.’”

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