The Robert B. Aikens Commons was part of a master plan to centralize all Law School extensions and departments within the University of Michigan Law Quad. During periods of growth many law-related activities had spread throughout campus. To maximize available space within the quadrangle, a beautiful student center was built by creating a large steel-supported curved glass roof and attaching it to the existing exterior walls of surrounding historic buildings clad with collegiate Gothic architecture.
The dean of the Law School wanted the commons area to serve a dual purpose. He wanted it to be a place for people to hang out, to do formal presentations, or to host donor dinners and events. His vision for the lower level was a domain for students and student organizations. The Aikens Commons project was completed in September 2011 and resulted in a 13,350-square-foot stunning retreat for all!
On the surface, the project seems straightforward. However, the IDS team of architects and engineers know the true challenges of this $10-million addition live below the surface. Principal-in-Charge Paul Stachowiak, Lead Mechanical Engineer Matt Perez and Lead Electrical Engineer Tom Carron reflect on the process and flow of this project.
Describe the scope of the project?
Stachowiak: The need for this addition was originally identified in 2002 but did not become reality due to cost restraints in the original budget. IDS was part of the analysis from the beginning and brought a keen understanding of the site when in 2008 the project costs were scaled back to $90-million, with $66-million in construction costs for both Aikens Commons and South Hall, a new construction project.
Perez: The focus for Aikens Commons was this element of a huge connection hub. We essentially created a giant skylight. We went through pain-staking measures to make sure that it was energy efficient. We installed ultra-insulated glass that controlled the temperature of the space yet still allowed 40% of the sunlight to shine through for a flood of natural light in the student space.
Carron: Aikens Commons is a relatively contemporary structure amidst 1930s Gothic architecture. We used period-correct Gothic lighting fixtures with modern energy efficient light sources at the new Commons entrance as a way to connect the old and the new. Much of what we did, from an engineering standpoint, was beneath the surface including replacing medium and high voltage distribution equipment and updating life safety systems in Hutchins Hall and Cook Legal Research.
What were the biggest challenges of this project?
Stachowiak: We had a fixed space defined by three surrounding buildings Cook, Stacks, and Hutchins, each with three different floor elevations. Fitting between these 1930s stone buildings was a big engineering challenge.
Perez: We put air conditioning in a historical building that wasn’t meant to have air. We had extreme space limitations yet it was important that it was transparent to the public.
Carron: The campus utilities group wanted to replace three old substations two in Cook and one in Hutchins, quite a distance away from the Commons area. We placed a new substation underneath the new Commons entrance and used it as a regional substation to phase out the three old substations. We worked extensively with the construction team to develop a sequence for the work that resulted in minimal disruption to law school students and faculty.
Stachowiak: We had to use any available space for new building systems. In Hutchins Hall we leveled a sloped floor classroom, created the caf on top and gave space below for electrical.
What was unique about this project?
Carron: To let light into the lower level, the perimeter around the main floor was left open creating the illusion of a floating floor.
Stachowiak: When we started this project ten years ago, we were part of the discussion on what to do with an old bridge that was commonly referred to as the trailer in the sky‚Äù that connected Cook Legal Research to Hutchins Hall since the 1950s. The enhanced design carries the Gothic style of the architecture and rather than eliminate it we were able to repurpose and relocate it where the design called for stairwells and elevators.
Discuss team collaboration on this project?
Perez: We really had to work hard to get air conditioning to the first floor. We worked closely with our outside design partners and the internal IDS team and went back and forth quite a few times to come up with a good solution. We used aluminum concentric ring diffusers which had to be installed into a granite wall that was formerly an exterior wall. Then because we had to use original architectural documents from the late 1930s we found that nothing was the way we thought it was and had to work together again to make sure it was functional and aesthetically appropriate!
Thoughts about the project today?
Carron: The UM Law Quad is an architectural treasure. I am pleased we were able to integrate modern infrastructure without compromising the building aesthetics.
Stachowiak: One of my favorite moments on this project was at the dedication. Law School donor and alumni Bob Aikens was present. The Dean, knowing the Commons was built in the same location as Aiken’s student housing said, Bob, you can use this living room any time you want!
Perez: For me this was a really special project; I’m really proud of it. It has been successful and outperformed all of the goals of connectivity!