Nuclear Fusion Startup Facility Isn’t the Only Project Heating Up Central Massachusetts Construction Market
December 22, 2021: Engineering News-Record, Scott Van Voorhis
Beyond being the future site of a revolutionary nuclear fusion startup, a decommissioned military base in Central Massachusetts has become one of the hot spots for construction in Massachusetts beyond Boston, with more than $1 billion in development activity. Construction on hundreds of millions of dollars in new life sciences and other projects is underway or nearing completion at the former Fort Devens Military Base.
Companies ranging from a nuclear fusion startup to logistics firms are spending hundreds of millions more to build new research, warehouse and manufacturing facilities at the defunct Army base, situated about an hour's drive from Boston, next door to three towns: Ayer, Shirley and Harvard.
Fort Devens closed in 1996 and is now primarily controlled by the MassDevelopment. The quasi-independent state authority has since redeveloped the old base, built in 1917 during World War I, into a modern commercial and industrial park, with a small residential component as well.
“It’s starting to sound like a broken record, but that doesn’t make it any less true,” said Jessica Strunkin, a MassDevelopment executive vice president overseeing operations at Devens. “It is really an unprecedented level of interest and growth in Devens right now.”
Leading the latest wave of development is Commonwealth Fusion, a startup led by MIT scientists that is working to build a nuclear fusion reactor that would imitate the way the sun generates energy. Commonwealth Fusion Systems earlier this year snapped up 47 acres of land at Devens.
Crews have begun work on a $500-million nuclear fusion research, office and facility for the MIT startup, which is backed by private investors, including Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos.
Commonwealth is working with King Street Properties on the project, with the Boston-based firm, which specializes in the life-sciences sector, acting as developer.
BW Kennedy, the contractor on the project, broke ground earlier this year on the first building, a 164,000-sq-ft office and manufacturing facility. Vivo Architecture and civil engineer Highpoint Engineering also are working on the project, according to High Profile.
The building, slated for completion in the fall of 2022, will provide offices for researchers and space for construction of the powerful magnets at the center of the experimental fusion reactor.
Plans are also moving forward on a second 147,000-sq-ft building, which will be where the fusion reactor is assembled and tested, according to MassDevelopment.
Work on that is not expected to be complete until 2025, with the potential for three more buildings down the line.
If that proves successful, Commonwealth and MIT will begin work on the world’s first commercial fusion reactor, with a pilot power plant potentially ready by the early 2030s or even the end of this decade.
Meanwhile, Bristol-Myers Squibb is now wrapping up work on a $500-million expansion at the site.
The 244,000-sq-ft expansion is big enough to accommodate an additional 800 employees and is now undergoing its final round of inspections.
The expansion brings Bristol Myers’ campus at Devens up to 1 million sq ft, with its 2,000 employees making the pharmaceutical giant the largest employer at the former base.
Gearing up for drug manufacturing will take a bit longer, with the new facility expected to start producing Breyanzi, the BMS’ first CAR T cell therapy by 2023. The therapy is designed to treat adults with “relapsed or refractory (R/R) large B-cell lymphoma (LBCL),” according to the company.
Despite the pandemic, the project’s construction team has managed to stick to a fairly tight timetable, said Craig Johnson, vice president, Global Engineering & Facilities at Bristol Myers Squibb, in a statement.
DPR Construction is the main contractor overseeing the project, with subcontractors that include Cives Steel Co., Manafort Precision, Performance Contracting Inc., Walsh Mechanical Contractors, DECCO Inc., Piquette & Howard Electrical Service Inc., and Harold Brothers Mechanical Contractors.
“The pandemic presented a set of new and evolving challenges that we have not experienced in past construction projects,” Johnson says. “Despite this, our project team continues to ensure that this ambitious and time-sensitive project remains on schedule.”
Yet a third major project–a new biomanufacturing campus–also is taking shape at 4,400-acre Devens, with King Street Properties the developer as well.
King Street is underway with the first of a planned five-building campus totaling 700,000 sq ft. The developer is now meeting with various tenants.
A number of other, smaller projects are also taking shape as well.
Little Leaf Farms, a greenhouse lettuce grower, recently doubled its footprint at Devens to 10 acres.
And last month, UK-based Watson-Marlow broke ground on 150,000-sq-ft facility at Devens, where it will make products including “peristaltic pumps, tubing, fluid path solutions and BioPure components,” some of which are used in the life sciences sector, according to trade publication Water Technology.
“We are starting to see a real growth in clusters here in Devens; there is a life sciences cluster but also a third-party logistics cluster as well,” Strunkin said.