The “STCC shuffle” is a thing of the past.
That’s what we used to call the crisscrossing journey that students had to make across the Springfield Technical Community College campus to access the array of services they needed. That’s no longer necessary, thanks to a comprehensive renovation of Building 19, now known as the Ira H. Rubenzahl Student Learning Commons.
The task of turning Building 19, a former warehouse built between 1847 and 1863, into a full-service student center on the Massachusetts campus was obviously a challenge from a design and architecture perspective, but it was also a big project for the IT department. Here’s how we did it and what we learned.
Old-Style Brick Buildings Add Complexity to Wi-Fi Systems
Building 19 is a massive space; it’s longer than Boston’s Prudential Tower is tall. It was built to house the Springfield Armory, where U.S. government weapons were made until the armory’s closure in 1968. When STCC was established on the site in 1967, Building 19 served as surplus storage for the college, as an outpost of the Springfield Police Department’s mounted division and as the office of the college’s head maintainer.
The building had a slaved ethernet connection running on older fiber-optic cable, but we knew we needed to build out an entirely new wireless architecture. Our goal was to ensure that all the offices being relocated to the building had the same quality of internet connection (or better) as they had in their previous locations. With the library also being housed in the Learning Commons, we needed strong Wi-Fi to support students as they worked and studied as well.
Building materials posed another consideration. The Armory was made of brick, which propagates a Wi-Fi signal differently than concrete or drywall would.
The facilities staff brought the IT department in at the end of the design and layout process, just as construction was set to begin. We reviewed all the specifications and looked for compatibility issues with all the systems we were tasked with putting into the building — everything from switches and wireless controllers to fire alarms and door locks.
IT Staff Reviews Blueprint and Site Survey Options
One big challenge was that the architectural plans included only five wiring closets, none of which are on the second floor. Each closet houses three to nine switches. Given the building’s size, we had to be careful to ensure we didn’t exceed the 328-foot wiring distance for our Ethernet protocols.
We also had to route all the wiring for second-floor offices either up or down. A great deal of coordination was required to make it work and to ensure none of the wiring was left exposed.
In hindsight, the wiring closet layout is one of the elements we might have pushed harder to change in the overall design. We’ve made it work, but looking forward, changes will be difficult and expensive to make.
On the other hand, we took a few chances that really paid off. Because the building was, at the start of construction, a shell, we elected not to conduct a wireless survey, which would have been the usual starting point. We were familiar with retrofitting buildings of a similar type and age — Building 27, Building 50 and Building 60 on our campus were previous IT projects — so we had an idea of how the materials might affect signal propagation. And, because there were no internal walls in place, a wireless survey would have been of limited value.
Instead of a survey, we took a set of blueprints and sat down with our vendors to plot out a plan for our switches and cabling. To be on the safe side, we did include a line item for a wireless survey in the project budget, so we could troubleshoot at the end of the project and shift our access points if needed. But a year after cutting the ribbon on the student center, we haven’t found a need to do the survey. The blueprint approach worked for us.
In the end, the IT department was able to make a major contribution to a building that is utterly transformed from its days of storing gunstocks and old computers and sheltering police horses. Today, as the heart of STCC, the Learning Commons is a building with a rich history and an exciting future.