Memorial Union Phase I complete and sustainable

July 8, 2014 | by Rachel Feil

Renovating a building as iconic and loved as the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Memorial Union poses a unique challenge.

When decades of wear and tear and accessibility concerns necessitated upgrades to the building, the Memorial Union Reinvestment Phase I team worked to preserve its historic character while modernizing the space, weaving sustainability into the design and construction. As the first phase of the project wraps up this summer, visitors can already explore the new space. A formal grand opening is planned for fall.

Sustainability was a core value from the earliest stages of the project, says UW­–Madison project manager Julie Grove, using the LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) green building rating system to track progress. To date, the project is tracking LEED Silver and has a 95 percent recycling rate.

The renovated building will also show great strides in energy efficiency. Like many older buildings, the previous West Wing was an energy sieve. The new design incorporates energy efficient windows, additional insulation, and upgraded mechanical systems. “Just because it’s an old building doesn’t mean you can’t do it,” says Melanie Taylor, project manager for The Boldt Company, the contract-manager-at-risk. “It’s possible to stay true to a building’s character but still improve energy efficiency.”

The project team also involved students in their sustainability efforts. In spring 2012, Angela Pakes Ahlman, the UW–Madison project manager at the time, led a collaboration between Boldt and a Systems Thinking course taught by UW lecturer Tom Eggert. Together they reviewed how sustainability affects all aspects of the building process using the triple bottom line (incorporating social, environmental, and financial costs) and LEED standards.

Taylor worked closely with the students and the Wisconsin Union to identify and implement several sustainable building solutions, including incorporating higher percentages of recycled materials into the steel and concrete for the building. Other students examined how building components could be installed using fewer adhesives, paints and stains to reduce materials and maintenance over time. Boldt even used a deicing product that the students found to be sustainable.

“It was a great experience to be involved in a project that will have a lasting effect on the university and the surrounding community,” says Amy Duwell Brockdorf, who was a student in the class.

One distinctive feature can be seen in the Stiftskeller, where an old Union Terrace tree has a new life in the wooden bar. The tree was slated for removal before construction due to its deterioration. With help from UW alum Paul Morrison of The Wood Cycle of Wisconsin, the tree was removed and shaped into components for the bar. Today, the tree’s wormholes and other features are visible in its upcycled form in the Stiftskeller.

The terrace tree wasn’t the only item reused in the new building. Boldt saved bronze stairway railings from the original West Wing of the Memorial Union and, through coordination with the Wisconsin Historical Society, repurposed them in new stairways. Their installation next to new, code-compliant rails, however, highlighted the years of tarnish and wear. Since no one on the project team had ever worked with salvaged bronze before, a predicament arose – how could these reused railings be cleaned?

For advice, Boldt field engineer Brad Wigh turned to the best cleaning expert he knew – his grandmother. Sure enough, she knew how to clean bronze and, with her suggestions, the project team soon had all of the railings ready to be installed.

Recycling the bronze railings for the renovated building highlights the value of its history and links the current and original characters of the building, Taylor says. “Who knows how many hands have held that railing since 1939?”

Phase II of the Memorial Union Reinvestment Project is in the planning process and will update many areas in the central and eastern parts of the building as well as the Terrace.