Emarie Skelton



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06/17/19 - High Plains Architects has been working with Montana State University to renovate a portion of the second oldest building on their central campus. “Second oldest” may not sound that impressive, but the building was occupied in 1898, just nine years after Montana became a state. That means that the building has been continuously occupied (yes, even during our renovation) for one hundred and twenty-one years! The impressive, three-story structure is the most recognizable building on campus and currently houses multiple important departments, including central administrative offices and student services.

Given its age and prominence, it is no surprise that the building was already listed on the National Register of Historic Places. However, it was constructed long before accessibility standards were established, and has undergone at least 33 piecemeal remodels! The end result was a four-story building, three above grade plus a full basement, with only one accessible floor level and extremely dated restrooms in the basement and on the second floor.

The building’s original floor plan was an “I” shape with a grand central hall running down the long axis of each floor level, terminating at either end at the full-height East and West stairways. Although the exterior has been minimally modified over time, the interior has been sub-partitioned repeatedly, eliminating the central hall on all but one floor level and removing the East stairway. The elimination of this stairway greatly inhibited circulation within the building and introduced a significant life safety hazard. Two exterior fire escapes were introduced to provide required egress, but were no longer up to code and proved hazardous, when covered in ice most of the winter.

Our task within a limited renovation scope was to bring the building into the 21st Century providing accessibility to all floor levels and restrooms to meet current code requirements. All the while returning the character to its original intent. We quickly realized that introducing an elevator to the building would require us to address egress requirements as well, and improving life safety became a primary design goal. The monumental character of the original building and our ethos concerning historic places introduced a third design priority, which was to restore as much craftsmanship and integrity to areas impacted by our work as possible. A final design consideration was to limit the area of our renovation to the greatest extent possible, since the building would remain occupied by crucial administrative and student services offices throughout construction.

Challenges included a compressed construction document and bidding schedule, an aggressive construction schedule, and working in a fully occupied building around existing systems in the center of a busy college campus through all phases. The limited building documentation available, especially concerning accurate structural information, presented a significant challenge. Our consultants demonstrated remarkable flexibility and tenacity as they worked first with us, and eventually the contractor, to address discovered structural conditions.

Indeed, working on all floor levels of such an old building was a lesson in discovered conditions. For example, not until demolition had removed a portion of all floors in did we discover that our East Wing work area was not as symmetrical as it appeared! The layers of renovation we stripped away, described as “decades of sins” early on in the project, revealed their own surprises, often requiring modification to both the structural and architectural design. Some surprises are fun, though. An early site visit produced a newspaper clipping from 1932 that had slipped into a space between floor joists! The clipping was delivered to the university library for preservation.

After extensive demolition and structural work the project is progressing rapidly toward completion with the elevator being installed and trim and finishes being completed. Throughout the process, the importance of communication has been paramount. Communication between owners, stakeholders, contractors, subcontractors, and the design team has remained constant. Communication with the building itself has been essential, too. The High Plains Architects mantra of “listening to the building” has been field-tested in this project from the early stages of working with local code officials to remedy egress problems to extensive structural design modifications addressing discovered conditions. Historic renovation requires expertise, humility, flexibility, and cooperation: it takes a team. We anticipate a completed project this summer that the university can be proud of for decades to come, the result of great teamwork.
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