A Space for Next-Generation Thinking

Tufts’ new Collaborative Learning and Innovation Complex promotes cross-pollination among diverse disciplines
view down the main stairwell of the 574 Boston Ave building
Looking down the main staircase of the Collaborative Learning and Innovation Complex, which is all about interdisciplinary interaction. Photo: Alonso Nichols
December 7, 2015

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Standing beside a pristine whiteboard, Usman Khan, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, considers what the blank slate symbolizes about his new work environment. Sure, the renovated building at 574 Boston Ave. is beautiful, a deft blend of contemporary, colorful design and historic character. But the gleaming whiteboard, he says, invites brainstorming – and that defines the essence of the new Collaborative Learning and Innovation Complex, or CLIC, as it’s often called.

“I look forward to filling the white board up with symbols, equations, concepts,” says Khan, whose research focuses on developing the next generation of data-gathering drones. “We need to bounce ideas around, and now we are in a place where that can happen.”

That outlook says a lot about the larger vision for CLIC, which opened in late May on the Medford/Somerville campus and is now home to three departments: physics and astronomy, occupational therapy and community health. Joining them are engineers from the Human-Centered Engineering Laboratory, a research cluster with shared interests in human design, robotics, signal processing and remote sensing; the Human Factors Engineering program; the Entrepreneurial Leadership Studies Program; and some faculty from the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development.

Students in the study room on the fourth floor of the CLIC building. Photo: Alonso NicholsThese may be unexpected enterprises to gather under one very large roof, but CLIC is all about interdisciplinary interaction and a physical space shaped to spark the kind of collaboration that can generate new ideas.

“CLIC is yet another illustration of the importance of facilitating cross-departmental interactions,” says Provost David Harris. “Departments continue to be critical units for creating and disseminating knowledge and for educating and training students. But it is also clear that advances in many areas are more likely to occur when people with a range of perspectives and skills come together.”

A Compelling Destination

CLIC sits on the southern edge of the campus, on the site of a century-old factory building. For Tufts, the location was both a challenge and an opportunity.

“What really mattered was a building that would attract people down to this end of Boston Avenue,” says Lois Stanley, director of campus planning. “One of the guiding principles was that it be a beacon. We wanted to create a building for the entire university—that was important from the very beginning.”

“Because it was a new type of building and a new type of use, we had a lot of ideas” about how to meet people’s needs, says Barbara Stein. Photo: Kelvin MaLuckily, 574 Boston Ave. offered a large canvas on which to create a compelling destination. The sheer scale of the four-story building—some 95,000 square feet—was matched by a strong industrial character: massive wooden beams, wood floors and generous windows. Tufts and the architectural firm ADD Inc. wanted to preserve the history and yet also be attractive to undergraduates—and meet the vastly different needs of some 250 full-time faculty and staff.

What evolved was an intense, five-year makeover, says Barbara Stein, director of capital programs. “Because it was a new type of building and a new type of use, we had a lot of ideas about how to do that,” she says. “We took our time reexamining how we do things at Tufts—we did that every turn.”

“Like Walking into Google”

You can see that difference immediately. The large space has been carved into departmental areas that line the perimeter, and smaller “social zones”—public areas with varied seating arrangements for small and larger groups, all designed to create flow in the building.

The open space for study and collaboration on the fourth floor. Photo: Alonso NicholsThe transparency and openness is carried through many integrated design elements, such as the generous use of interior glass and the amped-up fruity colors—orange, lime and teal—that make an immediate impression. “Students have said to me, ‘Wow, I feel like I’m walking into Google!’” says Inga Milde, J95, executive director of Entrepreneurial Leadership Studies. “That makes being here fun.”

Colleen Dunwell, a graduate student in occupational therapy, agrees that CLIC is a cool place to be. She likes, for instance, the exposed overhead network of heating and cooling pipes and the prevalence of natural light. “CLIC has an artistic style,” she says. “It’s beautiful and very comfortable. It’s a nice place to hang out.”

And while academic buildings traditionally push a stairwell to an outside wall, the one in CLIC is a dramatic focal point. The large central stairs are enlivened by original art, a seven-panel mural by Boston artist Sophia Ainslie, G01, that soars upward, through all four floors.

A Wide Range of Needs

Diverse workspaces accommodate a wide range of needs, from offices and conference rooms to sophisticated physics labs. There are tiny huddle rooms for two-person interviews and phone rooms, spaces particularly appreciated by social scientists for conducting interviews for their research.

The building features plenty of study spaces and nooks. Photo: Alonso NicholsA stand-out public space is the fourth-floor Davenport Family Foundation Gallery, where elevated windows running the full length of the building infuse a 20-foot-wide corridor with natural light. The gallery offers ample seating areas where both whiteboards and blackboards invite students to tackle homework together or just hunker down with their laptops.

Specialized spaces include a new classroom for occupational therapy, outfitted with a kitchen and bathroom to give students the hands-on, professional experience they will need to work with future clients. Human factors engineering students and faculty now also have a long-awaited lab space to test the usability of novel engineering products; the Usability Lab for Human-Centered Engineering, a gift of the Cornfeld family, includes a one-way mirror for observing how people use prototypes, such as a medical device in a simulated hospital room setting.

The Davenport Family Foundation classroom on the fourth floor, and the Otis-Spiropoulos Family classroom on the third, says Hugh Gallagher, an associate professor of physics, are optimized to support diverse teaching styles.

“I teach introduction to modern physics, and I like to include group work and discussions,” he says. “Now I can say, Take your table, roll it to a corner, spread out and work together. Even the chairs have wheels. I am very impressed with how much effort went into thinking about how we teach at Tufts today and are likely to teach in the future.”

CLIC is also a model of sustainability. It is expected to receive a gold LEED ranking, the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification that recognizes best-in-class building strategies and practices. “Reducing energy costs was a big priority,” says Stein. “We used triple-glazed windows to reduce heat loss and insulated the exterior walls so well that we don’t need perimeter heating. Here you’ll see no radiators; all the heating comes from interior vents.”

Pasta and Newton’s Apples

"In Person," a mural by Sophia Ainslie, G01, at 574 Boston Avenue. Photo: Alonso NicholsSome finishing touches are still to come. Next spring, a restaurant operated by Dave’s Fresh Pasta in Somerville will open in a former carriage house next door.

Also in the spring, in an adjacent courtyard, where drought-tolerant plants grow in tiered gardens and curved stone benches resemble small boats, Tufts will plant an apple tree. Not just any apple tree, but one started with a grafted cutting from the tree from which a historic apple reportedly fell in 1666, prompting Isaac Newton to speculate about the nature of gravity.

“We took cuttings at MIT from the ‘Newton’ apple tree in 2009, and grafted them onto 10 rootstocks back in 2010,” says George Ellmore, associate professor of biology. “We were told not to expect a high survival rate—only about 2 percent—but we beat those odds, with six trees growing stronger by the year in a garden between Barnum and Ballou halls.”

Cross-department connections are clicking, and the new building has helped unite departments, too. The Department of Occupational Therapy had been housed in two locations, and Physics and Astronomy was long split between Robinson Hall and the Science and Technology Center around the corner on Colby Street.

“Being here at CLIC has given us an opportunity to not only be together, but also to have more visibility for all the great things going on in the department,” says Caroline Hagen, the administrator for the physics and astronomy department. “The more students spend time here, the more I hope they see how the upgrade reflects physics and astronomy today—as a cutting-edge, forward-looking department.”

Photo: Kelvin MaJennifer Allen, chair of the Department of Community Health, says moving to CLIC from a small house has created a better sense of community. “Now we’re all in one suite together—it’s fantastic,” she says. “And I’m delighted to be among so many other Tufts faculty. Sasha Fleary [an assistant professor in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development] and I have always wanted to write some grants together. Now that she’s right across the hall, we’ve finally started.”

Entrepreneurial Leadership’s Milde has designated one space as the “Venture Lab,” a place where entrepreneurial students can collaborate and brainstorm, refining their ideas for promising start-ups. She predicts the future of CLIC will parallel the energy that bubbles up in that small room.

“I’ve seen how Tufts students are very comfortable walking across imaginary boundaries and reaching out to different departments,” she says. “I am eager to see that same cross-pollination potential grow here in CLIC. It might start with just the natural happenstance of us being close together. And once that starts, the inspiration will come.”

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.

Would you like to visit CLIC? The exterior door is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. to the general Tufts community. Most space at 574 Boston Avenue is scheduled online through the EMS space and resource reservation system. To reserve space not listed on EMS (including the 1st floor lobby and 4th floor atrium), please contact the manager of administrative services at 617-627-1108 or at lorin.polidora@tufts.edu.