The University of Arizona’s $56-million Student Success District project is much like the experience of learning itself—a single idea that evolves into something far greater than the sum of its parts.

What began as an update to the Tucson school’s main library is now a multifaceted, 193,200-sq-ft renovation and new construction program that will integrate a full range of academic and career development resources within a five-acre “campus district.”

Scheduled for completion by the end of 2021, the design-build program, being led by Sundt Construction Inc., includes renovations to sections of the school’s main library and its science and engineering branches, and a full interior rework of the historic 1920s-era Bear Down Gymnasium.

Alongside the existing buildings will be a new 57,1720-sq-ft center for numerous student services that were previously spread across campus. The nearly 174,200 sq ft of site improvements include landscaped connections between the facilities designed to promote a sense of seamless exploration for students as they chart their individual journeys to the future.

“The more we looked at our existing buildings and their proximity to each other, the more opportunities we saw to build connections and create a distinctive district that evidences our commitment to helping students,” explains Shan Sutton, the dean of the university’s libraries. He adds that while some integration of libraries and support spaces is not unusual, the scale of the district concept “shifts the way students see libraries and support areas and will likely entice them to take greater advantage of those services. And it sends a message that the school is committed to their success.”

Changing Concepts

Going bigger also multiplied the design-build team’s challenges in executing the university’s vision. “In addition to knitting the buildings of different architectural styles together to function as a whole, we’re also changing the concept of libraries by integrating noisy hands-on learning spaces to coexist with quiet study areas,” says Corky Poster, architect and principal planner with Tucson design firm Poster Mirto McDonald (PMM), which collaborated with the San Diego office of Miller Hull on the design.

In preparing for phased construction to get underway in August 2019, “we had to look at how the school was working,” says Sundt project manager Tom Bersbach. He cites considerations such as keeping both libraries open throughout construction, rerouting traffic on nearby thoroughfares and coordinating just-in-time material delivery schedules to optimize limited laydown space. 

Several underground infrastructure upgrades coincided with the building work, so “we needed to coordinate routing and service switchovers and confirm whether undocumented utilities were still active,” adds Sundt preconstruction project manager Jeremy Kwapich.

“We needed to coordinate routing and service switchovers and confirm whether undocumented utilities were still active.”

– Jeremy Kwapich, Preconstruction Project Manager, Sundt Construction

The plan called for creating a two-level, 56,230-sq-ft collaborative maker lab and digital data utilization studio in the main library. Sundt’s crews gained access to a previously underutilized basement level by cutting a 28-ft by 28-ft hole in the 36-in.-thick concrete waffle slab on the ground floor. They sawed the slab into sections using a 5-ft-dia blade mounted atop a scaffold and then removed the rubble through the opening created for a new elevator in the library’s south wall.

The two floors are linked by a monumental wood staircase that doubles as space for casual seating. The library’s ground-level openings were reconfigured into a more welcoming storefront that features low-e, high-performance glass—a district-wide exterior component that exceeds code requirements for energy without the need for any additional exterior shading or louvers.

At the other end of the east-west axis, opening the nearby Albert B. Weaver Science & Engineering Library to the rest of the district meant cutting a 36-ft by 100-ft opening through a foreboding five-story-tall brick facade. That allowed crews to install a 2,000-sq-ft, two-story, steel-framed glass curtain wall entrance built on concrete spread footings.

PMM architect Charles Pifer says the entrance incorporates a cast-in-place concrete shear wall that serves as a dramatic backdrop to the new feature stair, which connects the ground level to a renovated open study area on the level above.

To create such a large opening in the unreinforced brick building, crews installed temporary steel angle lintels at the fourth-level floor beam in 2-ft increments across the opening to carry the load of the upper wall, allowing the underlying brick to be carefully removed.

“These temporary lintels were needed only until the final concrete shear wall was installed, at which time they were abandoned in place,” Pifer says.

Meanwhile, the district’s new construction component, the four-story Bartlett Academic Success Center—which houses mentoring, administrative and student study areas—will be completed this fall. Built on a 6-in.-thick slab-on-grade with 13-in.-thick cast-in-place elevated decks, the building will feature glass and metal panels set in a cast-in-place frame—the concrete frame chosen over steel when international tariff issues created uncertainty in material prices.

“As it turned out, construction activity in Phoenix began affecting concrete availability, while the steel market stabilized,” Poster says. “Overall, we made the right choice.” Rebuilding From the Inside

In September, Sundt will begin transforming the historic 30,000-sq-ft gym into a multifunctional facility. Scheduled for completion in late 2021, the plan calls for preserving in place a third of the existing gym floor and concrete bleachers to commemorate the university’s storied basketball history.

Taking advantage of the 51-ft, 8-in.-high apex of the gym’s barrel roof, the remainder of the interior will be fitted with a three-level diagonally braced steel endoskeleton. That will add an additional 14,000 sq ft for student academic and health services, exercise and wellness activities and other related services.

“We’ve since made up a lot of that time and are fairly close to the original schedule.”

– Tom Bersbach, Project Manager, Sundt Construction

Here too, the renovation must address multiple structural issues. PMM architect and principal Jon Mirto explains that the existing wood-over-steel-joist gym floor acts as a diaphragm to stabilize and brace the perimeter’s unreinforced brick masonry walls, which are also supported by the bleachers. Similarly, cutting a 60-ft by 40-ft opening in the gym’s south wall will remove a substantial section of shear wall.

With diagonal shoring providing temporary bracing for the historic walls, the remaining floor and bleacher walls will be removed. A concrete-over-steel-deck floor diaphragm will be integrated with the remaining original floor. The steel structure’s mezzanine-level floor diaphragm and other elements will provide additional reinforcement.

“The braced frame will double as a support point for a new w-section lintel spanning the south opening and will help to stabilize the shear wall at the building’s south end,” Mirto adds.

The gym’s building systems also will undergo a massive overhaul, replacing temporary package units from a previous short-term renovation with full connections to the central campus heat and chilled-water systems. Although the renovation strategy has been carefully mapped out, Sundt’s Kwapich says the building’s age and original construction are likely concealing any number of unknown issues.

“This building already has a little bit of everything,” he says. “We expect to find more as we start to open up the structure.”

Overshadowing the challenges of each project element has been the broader issue of working through the COVID-19 outbreak. Bersbach says that while the need to adapt to worksite safety protocols and procedures initially slowed progress, “we’ve since made up a lot of that time and are fairly close to the original schedule.”

Kwapich credits project resiliency to the design-build team’s close relationships, allowing collaboration to continue despite reduced face-to-face interaction. The use of 360-degree cameras and other technology tools during jobsite walks has helped as well.

“We’re proving to ourselves that we can stay in close contact and do things without having to be in the same space,” he says.