It’s rare that a building project comes in on time. Thanks to cooperation among architects, builders and administrators, New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) has remained two years ahead of schedule in completing a complicated $83.5 million building project.
The project involves a dramatic modernization and expansion of the university’s former student center and food service operations. Two new structures—totaling more than 350,000 square feet-- have been simultaneously under construction since July of 2001 and are expected to be completed by September of 2004.
It’s a notable achievement because it’s not easy to dismantle a food service operation and student center while still running a university.
“In my experience, to revamp a university's food service operation can often mean six months of preparing and serving meals in a tent,” said modernist architect Charles Gwathmey of Gwathmey Siegel, New York City, the project’s chief designer. At NJIT, however, the university switched kitchens in one weekend and was ready to serve 1,600 residential students, plus 7,000 commuters, faculty and staff, within 24 hours of closing one operation and starting the new one. Gwathmey attributes the project’s speed to good planning and terrific synergy among the architects, Turner Construction Company (the builders) and NJIT administrators.
To begin, Gwathmey divided the project in half. Phase I included building half the student center, filling it with new kitchens, dining halls and cafeteria-style serving areas. The architects also incorporated the mechanical operations to heat and cool both new buildings. Pooling all the mechanical resources into one spot turned the student center into what architects and engineers like to call a bar building. “It’s a battery pack for the rest of the construction,” said Gwathmey. By combining these difficult operations into one region, the project jumped ahead by months. Work could begin on the second structure, a large six-story, block-long academic building, which was up and ready for occupancy in under a year.
By September of 2003, Phase I had ended and the project was into Phase II-- gutting the former student center building as if it were a Soho loft. Eventually, this second phase will showcase a dramatic student dining area encased in glass and capped by a third-story rooftop garden.
More notable aspects of the project involve the use of sustainable architectural materials. One green goal has been to reuse the old building. “Saving the old student center building saves money, but also reuses an essentially good structure,” said Gwathmey. “It is easy to reuse the perfectly uniform columns that now exist.”
Another measure has been to wrap the building’s exterior in a veneer of zinc. “Zinc is a noble material,” said Gwathmey. “Zinc is energy efficient, lasts longer than most other surfacing materials, and ages well, forming its own patina. The cost is comparable to that of using stainless steel or pewter”.
Although the buildings are far from finished, they augur an entire new image for NJIT. The zinc veneer sheaths the campus in a high tech gloss; the piazza between the two buildings is a natural gathering place for students, professors and staff; the bridge that connects the two grand structures has already visually unified the campus.
In Gwathmey's words, "University buildings, especially a student center, have an obligation to give the campus a sense of place, and happily, that is what we are achieving here."