Designs enhance student success

TKDA received a Grand Award Jan. 24 for its design of the U of M Pioneer Hall. 


In the competitive world of recruiting students, TKDA prepares plans to suit University of Minnesota needs

TKDA has been awarded a contract to design a new residence hall and expanded dining hall at the University of Minnesota Duluth. It’s the fourth housing/dining project the company (and its predecessor firms) have prepared for the UM system.

The 10-story residence hall will be constructed on the north end of Griggs Hall and will complement the eight-story Ianni Hall to the south. In the long term, new facilities eventually will replace ones that are growing old, but it’s not an overnight process. Food and housing operations at the UM are required to support themselves. They finance construction through public bonds that must be repaid. 

Architects are still preparing details to be included in the final design, but one thing is clear: This isn’t your father’s dormitory. Today’s student expectations have changed considerably compared with baby boomers. Even the term “dormitory” is a thing of the past. In 2020, college officials don’t want students to feel they are being warehoused like 19th century loggers.

“When kids visit the campus with their parents, residence hall quality is a huge deal,” said TKDA Senior Registered Architect Brian Morse, who is leading the design team. Equally important is investing in modern dining facilities. “They are recruitment tools. Campus administrators know what their peer colleges are doing – how many square feet of study space and community space is provided per student. Universities are very competitive.”

One significant way in which students have changed involves their personal lives.

“We must meet their social as well as their academic needs,” said Daniel Elliott, UM associate director of facilities, housing and residential life. That’s a problem with some existing resident halls. They provide rooms but little public space for social interaction.

“The whole idea is about student success. If they don’t get through the first year, they won’t graduate,” Morse said. “The university takes this very seriously. There’s a commitment from the top down to the success of students. It costs a lot of money, but they’re not investing into buildings. They’re investing into students.”

Partnering for success

Morse has worked on several prior University of Minnesota building designs, first at SJA  Architects and later at TKDA, which acquired SJA. At UMD, the projects included the Kathryn A. Martin Library, Weber Music Hall and Heaney Residence Hall. On the Twin Cities campus, he was involved with the 17th Avenue Residence Hall, its dining hall, and Pioneer (residence) Hall, a project for which TKDA received significant recognition in January.

Although TKDA is based in St. Paul, the architecture and engineering firm often uses its Duluth branch office talent to assist with projects being designed elsewhere. The award-winning Pioneer Hall renovation and expansion was among them.

The beloved historic brick building began service in 1928 and was the second oldest dormitory in the UM residential district. 

“It had been an integral part of campus but was poorly laid out for modern needs,” Morse explained. The five-story structure “had no handicap access, no elevators and minimal study space.” 

“Once students came back from class, they pretty much just went to their room,” Elliott added.

In 2016, the Board of Regents decided to preserve key parts of the facade but rebuild much of the interior, creating a complicated and expensive project - $104.5 million. 

“Ultimately, we left the historic exterior wall that faced the public side and we ripped out walls that faced the courtyard side,” Morse explained. Sixty percent of the original Pioneer Hall was removed. 

TKDA believes it’s beneficial to partner with outside firms to enhance results. For instance, an international design team that specializes in sports venues assisted TKDA with the AMSOIL Arena project. For Weber Hall, Argentine Architect Cesar Pelli conducted extensive acoustical analyses. The Pioneer Hall project team included KWK Architects of St. Louis and McGough Construction (which also has a Duluth branch) as construction manager. 

“There is no star of the show,” Morse said. “By leveraging everyone’s skills, you build a great project. You get involved in some really cool stuff when you open up your mind and get a team going. It definitely ramps up results.”

A different vibe

Students who attend UMD appreciate quality – the clear lake, clean environment and pure water. Morse said they want the same from the places they live and eat on campus.

In terms of residence halls, that includes study areas near their rooms, game areas, tutoring space, lounge areas and laundry rooms designed to prevent sound from escaping into living areas. In dining halls, students are looking for fresh food, not fish sticks and canned pears, he noted. “Students aren’t going to invest four years of tuition into that.”

UMD already has quality eateries, Morse added, but they’re not large enough to meet demand. The new dining center, Superior Dining Hall, follows a recent remodeling of The Food Court in Kirby Student Center. 

“This new space will have a totally different vibe. It will have a sports bar corner with hamburgers, a coffee corner. A rotating international menu in one of the venues. Our consultant, who has worked for many Big 10 colleges, already has many details worked out,” he said, even the best location to save students time between classes.

But the university also must design new buildings with an eye to the future, Elliott stressed. Although that’s a difficult challenge, it’s important to note that UM structures are expected to serve from 50 to 75 years.

“We have to look at ways to incorporate public space in buildings that can be adapted to meet the future. In the past, some halls did not allow for that type of change,” he said.

“If you don’t reinvest, you have a bunch of dilapidated buildings,” Morse said. 

As soon as students complete their classes in May, work will begin. Completion is set for the fall of 2021. The new dining Hall should be ready slightly early so UMD staff have time for a soft opening to work out any bugs.