Visually Transparent and Inviting
By Lisa Kopochinski (03/01/2012)

It has been decades — four to be exact — since the University of Detroit Mercy has seen a brand new building on its campus, but many will say the wait has been worth it.

UDM’s McNichols campus in Detroit, Mich., will be the site of a new 40,000-square-foot fitness center this September that university officials say will serve as a centerpiece for student life and provide a wide range of activities.

“After years of planning, the new facility will be located on the campus next to the engineering building,” says Tamara Batcheller, associate vice president of facilities management at UDM. “The student fitness center will enjoy a prominent location facing the campus mall and allow inviting views into the building from the street. The new facility will enhance and expand recreation program offerings and provide a destination for students, staff and alumni.”

Designed by TMP Architecture of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., the $6.7 million facility is being constructed in two phases. The first phase will feature a two-court gymnasium — on the ground level — for recreation and intramural sports, an elevated three-lane track, group exercise room, men’s and women’s locker rooms, exercise and weight-lifting rooms, cardiovascular workout rooms, a lobby, student lounge and snack bar area.

“The student lounge will be an informal hangout spot for students to interact with one another and with faculty; a destination rather than simply a lobby,” says David Larson, senior vice president and director of design at TMP Architecture. “From the lounge, glass walls allow deep views into the building, contributing to a welcome and exciting environment. The upper level running track will also be visible as it extends around the perimeter of the gym, skirts the edge of the weight fitness areas, and reaches out over the lounge area.”

Phase two — to be completed after further fundraising — will include an eight-lane pool for competitive meets and recreational swimming with spectator seating, a concessions area, team locker rooms, and additional offices with an alumni boardroom.

A Nod to the Past

When TMP first began discussions with UDM in 2007, the university was very clear that the design emulate the vernacular of the original university structures that used stone veneer, punched fenestration and clay tile roofing reminiscent of mission architecture of the 1800s, says Larson.

“The UDM campus, like many campuses across the country, has buildings that are expressions of various architectural styles and the current campus administration wanted this new building to be an expression of their original mission architectural roots. To this end, we developed variations of the UDM mission context, but used glass more generously to allow better views inside and outside of this building. The result is a building that is comfortable with its surroundings, but still fresh, modern and welcoming.”

The entry will include a two-story glass front and pedestrian canopy, and the brick structure will have a large span of windows and vaulted ceilings. The facility has also been organized around a dramatic circulation spine that allows easy access to all amenities.

“The building is visually transparent, allowing views into most of the activity areas, creating a vibrant and exciting atmosphere,” adds Batcheller.

Mother Nature Has Been Kind

The Monahan Company of Eastpointe, Mich., is the general contractor. Construction began last November and is slated for completion this August.

“Our biggest challenge is the schedule,” says W. Dan Monahan, project director. “With starting the building in November, half of the ten months we have to construct the building is winter construction. The building envelope will not be complete enough to initiate interior construction until mid-April. That gives us four months to build out the interior. Challenge is one way to describe it.”

Monahan adds that the team has been extremely lucky with the weather, having made good progress with site excavation and foundations. Steel was due to be erected shortly with masonry scheduled for late February.

“Most of the exterior walls are 30-foot tall decorative block and cast stone construction,” says Monahan.

For TMP, the biggest challenge was to provide the right architectural image within the budget. This was no small task as it required the efforts of all disciplines to develop systems and material choices. Fortunately, the structural framing is very basic, says Larson.

“Ductwork and air handlers were placed to minimize sheet metal, and the footprint was compressed enough to eliminate the need for the expensive fireproofing of the structural steel.”

From a design standpoint, he adds that the most unique aspect of this project was finding the appropriate balance between the existing mission architectural language, while introducing a modern feel and transparency to express the fact that this is a fitness center and not an academic building.

“We had a wonderful dialog with UDM to arrive at a design that we all felt proud of. This is an important facility for UDM — an essential recruitment tool and the first new structure on the campus in 40 years. It had to be right.”

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