September 23, 2009

Onward and Upward

The School of Dental Medicine building’s vertical expansion is heading into the final stretch as plans are made to move in

By Julie Flaherty
Slide show by Georgiana Cohen

For months, faculty, students, staff and alumni have absorbed the details of the School of Dental Medicine vertical expansion project that has added five floors to the building at One Kneeland Street in Boston. They’ve read the updates on elevator openings and closings, and, for the most part, nodded approvingly when they saw the architectural drawings and floor plans.

Click the play button to see an audio slide show about the dental school vertical expansion project.

“And then they see the space,” says Mark Gonthier, associate dean of admissions and student affairs, “and to the person, it’s ‘Wow.’ ”

They comment first on the abundant natural light, let in by long swathes of floor-to-ceiling windows, and encouraged across the rooms by glass walls, soft paint colors and maple cabinetry. Then they marvel at the spaciousness—the 108-chair pre-clinical simulation laboratory, which runs nearly the entire length of the 14th floor, and the 75-seat continuing education amphitheater, which frames a phenomenal view of downtown Boston.

“The people who have seen the postgraduate clinics,” Gonthier says, “have appreciated the quality of the space,” including the open operatories and private treatment rooms.

The major construction is done, aside from the front entrance, which features a more striking glass entryway in keeping with the design of the upper floors. New microscopes, X-ray machines, furniture and artwork are on their way. Soon after the dedication ceremony on November 20, the administrative personnel (including some who have been working in rented space outside One Kneeland Street) will begin moving to the 14th and 15th floors.

Once the clinics close for the winter break on December 17, the endodontics and orthodontics departments will move to the 11th floor, and the periodontics and prosthodontics departments will take up residence on the 12th floor. By the time second semester begins on January 4, the waiting rooms will be ready to receive patients.

Everything is on schedule, right down to the new dental chairs and consoles, which arrived on a half-dozen tractor-trailers in the beginning of August.

Careful Choreography

This adherence to the timeline is all the more amazing considering the building remained open for teaching and patient care throughout the 18-month construction project. To minimize disruptions, the builder, the project manager and the school engaged in some careful choreography, planning around exam periods and occasionally relocating classes so that noise and vibrations would not disrupt the learning process.

“We really have not lost a single day because of construction,” says A. Joseph Castellana, the school’s executive associate dean. “This is not to say that there haven’t been inconveniences.” The underpinnings of a new freight elevator, for example, are now positioned in what used to be the office of Stanley Alexander, D75A, chair of pediatric dentistry. “Dr. Alexander has been permanently displaced from his office,” Castellana says. “He took it extremely well.”

The project was recently nominated for a Building of America Award by Real Estate & Construction Review magazine, in part because of the ingenuity required to expand a skyscraper in a crowded urban area. Because the building is bordered by busy streets, a subway line, a sky bridge and narrow alleys, there was no maneuverable and structurally sound spot to secure the crane that hoisted construction materials to the five new floors.

“We had to ultimately bolt it to the roof of the building,” says Tony Miliote, managing director of health care and science for Shawmut Design and Construction, which is doing the work. Although such workarounds have been done before, they are “very, very rare,” he says.

The contractor also had to think from the top down when it came time to erect the façade of the building. With no ground area to secure a scaffold,  workers suspended 19 scaffolds around the face of the building, a more dangerous and more complicated process. Even so, “it’s been a very smooth job,” Miliote says.

One of Castellana’s favorite features is the internal staircase that unites the clinics on floors 11 and 12. The architects, he says, were sensitive to the fact that they “were taking programs that were physically in very close proximity—in fact, in too close proximity—and spreading them out not only from one floor to two, but in twice the square footage. We segregated them, but didn’t want to alter the way clinicians and patients among the four programs interact.”

The central staircase, he says, is “vast and bright and airy” and visually connects the two floors. A similar staircase should foster interactions between the continuing education center on the 14th floor and the alumni lounge on the 15th. “It is also a way to help alumni engage with the school,” he says.

Onstage and Off

One design change could have an important impact on the very culture of the dental school. Both the 11th and 12th floors are divided into two distinct halves: patient treatment and consultation areas on the west side, and supporting offices, conference areas and locker rooms on the east.

Castellana, a former hospital administrator, was introduced to this kind of floor plan  at a medical center in Louisiana. The idea comes from Disney World, where employees are always in character in the public areas but can speak candidly about park business in areas behind the scenes.

Faculty have already begun referring to the “on-stage” and “off-stage” areas of their departments, Castellana says. “When you go off stage, you can talk about how difficult the exam was, or discuss a student’s skill or deficits in a setting where the conversation is confidential,” he says. The on-stage areas, by contrast, are all about attending to patients.

A similar on-stage/off-stage design is planned for floors 2, 3 and 4, which will be getting their own makeover in the coming years; preliminary plans may be drawn up as early as 2010. In the meantime, small changes, such as replacing the ceiling, lighting and sound system in the 8th-floor pre-clinic, should improve life for pre-doctoral students.

With the new space only months from occupancy, Gonthier thinks back to what it must have been like for the dental school to move to 136 Harrison Avenue in 1949 and to One Kneeland Street in 1973.

“And now you have the next chapter,” he says, “which I think in many ways is positioning us to have the best facility in the country and the best resources in the country.”

Julie Flaherty can be reached at

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