May 10, 2006
Hotel features technology in the walls and on them.

Robots in the lobby. Throws with E=mc2 in the rooms. A Cybrary. Your average hotel this is not. Situated at University Park, a 2.3 million-square-foot research park adjacent to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus and down the street from Harvard in Cambridge, MA, the 210-room Hotel@MIT boasts high technology both in form and function.

On any given day, guests could include Nobel prizewinners, heads of state, biotechnology researchers, and other professionals. “This is a contemporary, high-tech comfort zone for high-tech travelers,” says General Manager Cara Spalla. Guests work at all hours of the day and night, and the facility’s technology accommodates their around-the-clock schedules.

Opened in 1998, the Four-Diamond-rated, eight-story, 275,000-square-foot facility is owned by University Park LLP, a joint venture between Forest City Development Corp. and MIT, and is managed by Hilton Hotels Corp.

“I definitely think it’s a trendsetting hotel,” says David Bois, AIA, senior associate at architect Arrowstreet, Somerville, MA. He started designing the hotel and adjacent parking garage and office building in 1995.

Arrowstreet professionals chose exterior materials to fit with nearby facilities - the façade’s brick and glass complement the area. Yet, they used more contemporary, clean detailing, with deep brick returns on the windows and no heavy sill lines. They also used subtle color changes in the brick and setbacks to emphasize the corner of the building.

An MIT Experience
The contemporary look continues inside, with an earthtone palette and strong, sleek lines and defined shapes. Two robots from the MIT museum sit in the lobby, and MIT artwork adorns public spaces. “As you’re standing at the front desk, you automatically begin to see the work that has been done at MIT,” explains Kevin Schopfer, AIA, principal at Ahearn Schopfer and Associates, the interior architect. In fact, he adds, “The overall layer of artwork is the first indication that this is MIT.”

A 27-inch Panasonic flat screen in the lobby conveys the meeting room roster as well as restaurant and hotel activities. Guests can use a PC or iMac available at the front desk to check e-mails, both luring guests in with cyberart screen savers.

The second indication is a high-tech feel in everything from fastening devices to articulated panels. For example, corridor lights and nightlights contain the look of a computer chip frosted into the glass.

And the elevator’s out of this world, with its brushed copper, exposed circuitry, and neon blue-lit disks. “When you step into it, you immediately sense that you’re in a very different place. At lot of people refer to it as the Star Trek elevator,” notes Schopfer. Adds Spalla with a laugh, “The elevators were designed to make you feel like you’re being transported to another place.”

Super Spaces
A supermarket occupies the facility’s second floor, which initially caused design challenges. Entrances had to separate market and hotel patrons. Market visitors enter through a separate street entrance adjacent to the hotel porte cochere. A market foyer also serves as a pathway that connects the parking garage past the market entrance and into the hotel lobby. The store’s equipment is also separate from that of the hotel. “They had all their cooling equipment, which in a typical suburban grocery store sits on the roof and makes a lot of noise. Obviously, that’s not acceptable in a high-end hotel,” says Bois. A larger floorplan on the lower three floors of the building allowed an 8,000-square-foot garden to occupy the roof above the third floor. Cooling equipment for the market was hidden behind a screen wall adjacent to the garden. Special attention was paid to custom enclosures for cooling equipment that would minimize noise levels.

Because of the market’s rooftop garden and operable windows in the hotel rooms, the grocery store’s vents could not be located at the garden roof level; instead, they’re routed up the facility and out the high roof at the top.

“[The] urban garden creates a great amenity for the meeting spaces,” Bois says. The meeting rooms are focused around the garden, and guests can look down on it from their rooms. The 7,700 square feet of flexible meeting space can be configured for up to 10 rooms, accommodating groups of 10 to 280. Offerings include high-speed Internet access, LCD projectors, automatic retractable screens, and multimedia displays.

Quick Connections, Stellar Systems
A major design mandate was to give patrons complimentary Internet access no matter where they were in the facility. The hotel was built with T1 and Cat-5 cabling to deliver the Internet to custom-made systems furniture throughout the facility.

Three years ago, Wi-Fi was installed throughout, and last year a second T1, doubling the bandwidth to 3 megabytes, was added to accommodate the increasing demand for speed to desktop. In meeting rooms, up to 128 individual IP addresses are available. “If [guests] have an older system that they don’t have a wireless card built in, they can dial ‘0,’ ask the operator to page engineering, and we will send a wireless card with the disk,” says Derek Galajda, the hotel’s director of engineering. Cisco 1200 wireless points are backwired to routers in the electrical closets, which connect to the T1 backbone.

Not only can guests enjoy unlimited high-speed Internet in their rooms, but also in the “Cybrary” off the main lobby, with its overstuffed leather couches and chairs, televisions, shelves lined with books from the MIT collection, and bay window with elegant sheers. “I even whisper when I go in there, and I don’t know why,” says Spalla, smiling.

Lighting includes compact T8 fluorescent light bulbs with electronic ballasts in public areas and back-of-the-house corridors, a spec for which Galajda praised the architects. “This is the top of the technology on the fluorescent light bulb side - there’s nothing better right now that we can upgrade to get us any energy savings,” he says.

Guest room lighting includes 32-watt Harmony compact, 32-watt TCP, and three-way compact fluorescent light bulbs. Task lamps all have flexible necks. Night lights in the bathrooms formerly used incandescent bulbs, which would burn out after 2,000 hours, requiring a lot of maintenance time for replacement; Galajda’s team switched to fluorescent LED lighting, which lasts 10,000 hours.

Climate is controlled with a split Trane air-handling system, with one cooling tower on each side of the V-shaped building. A Siemens building control system allows Galajda’s team to schedule and control the building’s climate via computer.

While Spalla and Galajda take pride in the entire facility, they’re particularly proud of the hotel’s safety record. “We are one of the safest hotels in the Hilton chain,” says Galajda. Fourteen color, digital cameras record video to a computer, and activities can be saved to a CD and e-mailed.

Guest rooms are guarded with a SAFLOK 4000 keycard system. Inside each room, a safe with a digital display is large enough to hold a laptop and other physical and intellectual property.

A Room with a (Tech) View
All innovative design needs updating over time, and the Hotel@MIT received some updates a couple years ago. “They still wanted to have a little bit of the ‘techie’ edge, but they wanted it to be a little more sophisticated and softer, more inviting,” says Joyce Raedel, director of design at Ai Group, Atlanta.

The interior design team created a custom fabric pattern of scientific formulas, including the famed E=mc2, as a design element. That pattern is used on the bed throw, which many guests purchase. Fabric on the lounge chair looks like an exploding atom. A state-of-the-art ergonomic task chair supports guest work habits - and backs.

Sometimes the seemingly invisible amenities are appreciated the most. Recently added were cordless dual-line bedside telephones with speaker-phone capability, a luxury for those who sprawl work out on their beds. The furniture contains jacks and outlets - while they’re no longer needed by those using wireless Internet access, those who don’t or with multiple computers or a printer use them. “To accommodate the travelers that we learned were traveling with multiple devices and printers, we have begun installing surge-protected power strips in our premium rooms and our suites, so that our guests don’t have to crawl around on the floor and decide what to unplug,” explains Spalla. “We’re just giving them the power that they need to accomplish their goals.”

Guests can log onto a website, attach their files for printing, and have those documents delivered to their rooms or saved at the front desk. They can plug in their MP3 players or iPods into MP3 jacks in room alarm clocks.

The Hotel@MIT is packed with technology both in design and function, and it works. It hits the right balance between sleek, contemporary architecture and a comfortable tech look. “It’s always the challenge in the hotel world to come up with a project that is unique and comforting and people want to come back to it,” Schopfer says.

Spalla loves being at the hotel each day, and so do her guests. “This hotel is a favorite of many - serious luxury,” she says.

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