Burlington, Mass.-based Fay Spofford & Thorndike created this state-of-the-art submarine escape design facility for Groton’s Naval Submarine Base.

It is not an ordinary day for engineers at Burlington, Mass.-based Fay Spofford & Thorndike when they have to factor thousands of gallons of water, tons of electrical equipment, hyperbaric chambers and the U.S. Navy into a design. But all of those elements came into play as the firm recently created a state-of-the-art submarine escape design facility for the Naval Submarine Base in Groton.

“It was very interesting to do,” said Project Manager Rick Govoni. The facility, which is estimated to cost $16 million, is now in the pre-bid phase, Govoni said.

The Navy has some existing submarine escape facilities in places like Pearl Harbor and Key West that recreated the technology in older-generation submarines, but needed one that addressed newer technology, Govoni said. The Navy has been developing new ways to help sailors escape from a distressed submarine, such as suits that will aid them in getting to the surface. Submarine escape practices generated interest after the 2000 accident on the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk, where several explosions during a training exercise left many dead and 23 sailors stuck in a compartment for an unknown amount of time.

A ‘Giant’ Pool

The Groton facility incorporates a 5-story-plus tube of water that will help sailors train to escape a submerged submarine.

“It basically teaches survival skills to get out of the submarine,” said Steven Nutter, graphics and technology director at the Boston-based design firm Miller Dyer Spears, which was subcontracted by Fay Spofford & Thorndike.

The tube of water, along with various medical facilities and other specialized equipment, made designing the building a challenge, Govoni said.

“This is going to be state-of-the-art,” he said.

The facility is divided into two parts and is located on the side of a hill, Nutter said. The training part of the building is between 5 and 6 stories tall and includes the tube of water.

“It’s essentially a giant swimming pool,” Govoni said.

The “pool” is surrounded by portholes, which allow trainers and fellow sailors to watch a trainee’s ascent to the surface of the water. The water itself will be so clear “you could see a dime on the bottom,” Govoni said. At the bottom is a hatch, which simulates a submarine’s escape hatch. The training part of the building also incorporates medical facilities that enable the quick treatment of any problems that could arise during training. If sailors ascend too quickly they can get decompression sickness, aka “the bends” – during which bubbles form in blood vessels – or experience other problems. But the facility’s medical center allows the sailors to be treated at the site.

“They can treat them right there on the spot,” Govoni said.

In the other part of the building – a 2-story section – are classrooms and instruction space, Govoni said. The entire facility will total 23,000 square feet.

The complexity of the project added to the time it took to design, said James Loftus, a senior associate at Miller Dyer Spears. Also, working with clients from different agencies, clients at the base, clients from Washington, D.C., and the providers of specialized equipment such as decompression chambers made the project challenging, Loftus said.

“One of the biggest challenges is coordinating the special equipment with the construction,” Govoni said.

Much of the equipment is extremely heavy and a lot of it is electrical, he said.

“You have to take a lot into account,” Govoni said.

The military had very strict standards for the design, Nutter said.

“It’s so technical that the program determines the design,” he noted.

The actual construction of the facility won’t require special materials, according to Govoni.

“It’s standard building construction,” he said.

But builders will need to pay special attention to the finishing of surfaces because of the presence of so much water, he said.