The face of education is changing—how students learn, how instructors teach and how universities innovate. With the focus on collaboration and communication driving changes in educational facilities, many institutions are embarking on major renovations to modernize their buildings while tailoring them to better suit scholars’ needs. Designing the best learning environment possible while providing flexibility for future changes in technology or classroom configuration needs is a huge challenge in and of itself; combine that with large-scale renovations within an historic building in the heart of a college campus, and you have John T. Tate Hall at the University of Minnesota.

John T. Tate Hall now houses the School of Physics and Astronomy and the Department of Earth Sciences; it includes 29 teaching labs, 26 research labs, state-of-the-art classrooms and a rooftop space for stargazing. All images: JE Dunn Construction

With students and faculty spread out across multiple building on campus, the university wanted space to house the School of Physics and Astronomy and Department of Earth Sciences. Featuring 29 teaching labs and 26 research labs, as well as state-of-the-art classrooms, offices, an atrium and rooftop space for stargazing, the renovations allowed the university to leverage cross-departmental capabilities to create connections for research and discovery through co-locating. Now complete, the building houses 350 faculty, post-grad students and researchers, and serves 5,000 students per semester.

In total, Tate Hall accommodates 24 research clusters between the physics, astronomy and earth sciences schools. All not only have unique needs, but they also bring their own challenges. Designing and installing 21st century MEP systems in a 20th century building only compounded some of these, particularly due to extremely limited floor-to-floor heights. With 40-plus hoods in the labs requiring dedicated fume exhaust and lab services, fitting these systems into such a tight, constrained space required precision and coordination among the teams.

Since this was the third major addition/renovation to the building since its original construction in 1926, and there was no guarantee the previous drawings truly represented the as-built conditions, it was imperative to get an accurate picture of existing conditions. To do this, we performed a floor-by-floor laser scan after selective demolition to capture the existing structural conditions and then integrated the point cloud from the scan into our BIM model for coordination of new MEP, fire protection and structural systems. Here, we found variances in the existing structure and identified discrepancies from the design model, including pan and joist spacings that did not match as-built drawings and variances in the concrete slabs where the formwork had settled. Once identified, we were able to adjust all vertical penetrations and modify equipment sizes to accommodate existing structure, in some cases leaving less than a quarter-inch tolerance. 

“We were able to leverage our laser scan technology to facilitate the BIM coordination process to a level that exceeded anything we had done previously,” said Superintendent Brad Meyer. “This allowed us to produce precise installation drawings that worked within the constraints the existing construction. We were also able ensure the systems were easy to maintain; for instance, the acid hoods in spaces below grade required long horizontal runs of fiberglass and Teflon-coated stainless steel duct, so the team designed and modeled access panels within the ductwork, to facilitate manual duct wash by university facilities management if needed.”
Highly energy efficient mechanical and electrical systems were not the only unique components; with various research and projects constantly underway, equipment requirements were wide-ranging as well. One of the most unique in the building was the shielded room, located within the lab for the Institute of Rock Magnetism. With such sensitive magnetic geoscience research taking place, the shielded room required some creative solutions to maintain the integrity of the space.

The renovation of John T. Tate Hall includes an atrium between previous additions to the historic building originally constructed in 1926.

Because the room is intended to divert the Earth’s magnetic field, the team worked in conjunction with researchers and other partners to ensure it met the requirements of the users as well as performed at an optimal level. The first step in designing the room was locating Earth’s magnetic field before designing and orienting the shield in such a way that would redirect the field, so it would not contaminate any of the research going on inside of the room. Once located and designed, construction followed stringent guidelines for materials and penetrations through the shield to ensure its final performance.

“Six feet above and below the room had to be non-ferrous construction—so to account for that, wood studs for adjacent spaces were utilized in lieu of steel and all surrounding building systems and services were constructed of aluminum, copper, stainless steel and other non-ferrous materials. We worked hand-in-hand with the researchers to identify materials that could not meet the non-ferrous requirement and de-magnetize them to ensure they would not disrupt the magnetic field in the space,” said Meyer.

Senior Scientist Peat Solheid is currently studying paleo-climate records using magnetic proxies from ocean and lake cores. Solheid’s input throughout design and construction was integral to building the shielded room to ensure it worked correctly. “Earth’s magnetic poles shift very slowly over time—millions of years—and everything is recorded in rocks and sediments that accumulate in the ocean. When settled, particles align to the magnetic field at that time, so, using samples, we can tell where a continent was located to see how it’s shifted since,” he said. 

“The room is working great. It’s a little bit bigger and has more usable space around it, so we are able to add more equipment, such as a magnetic microscope, to further enhance our study of paleomagnetism,” he said.
Meeting the requirements of each lab, no matter how complex, was only one piece of the puzzle; keeping research groups operational while installing and moving research equipment was equally as challenging. Coming from multiple buildings on campus, we had to minimize downtime and get occupants up and running in new their labs with the least disruption as possible. Again, because this was a renovation, we had to work within the confines of the building and schedule equipment and installations accordingly. In the case of two 10,000+-pound presses we actually had to leave an opening in the exterior of the building to crane them into the third floor, then finish exterior construction following the equipment installation.

The presses were not the only challenging installation. For instance, we had to facilitate installation of a relocated XRCT machine, a 12,000-pound machine that X-rays cross-sections of objects to create virtual models, in the sub-basement. Due to its location within the building, a two-story vertical concrete shaft was constructed from sub-basement to grade, allowing a path for the equipment to be lowered into the building as late as possible; this allowed them to continue research in their existing space right up to the last minute.  The shaft was then capped in a manner that would allow for removal or replacement of the equipment in the future if needed. 

“Giving them as much flexibility as we possibly could while maintaining the integrity of the space for future needs was extremely important to the process,” said Meyer.

The lab used by the Institute of Rock Magnetism includes a shielded room that diverts Earth’s magnetic field to protect the integrity of the research inside the room.

While many of the challenges of the renovation were a result of the existing conditions, the age of the building necessitated upgrades in other areas as well. As part of the historic Northrop Mall, the façade of the building was a very sensitive area of the project.  One of components most in need of attention was the existing wood windows. To keep the historic look, we removed and refurbished all windows, stripping them down to bare wood (selectively repaired frame and sash components were needed) and re-glazed them following abatement of glazing compounds. 

Once refurbishing was complete, we re-installed the windows, but because of the stringent energy performance requirements on the project, we added insulated interior storm windows to create a high-performing building envelope. This allowed us to maintain the historic aesthetic of the building while meeting the requirements Minnesota’s rigorous B3 Guidelines for sustainability and building performance. 

“The vitality of the building is so dramatically different inside after the renovation was complete, and yet the view from the Mall looks like a well-maintained old building.  It was exactly what the entire project team had always envisioned,” said Eric Danielson, National Director of Science & Technology at JE Dunn. “The new building systems we selected and installed will make this one of the most sustainable labs on campus.”
Sustainable, state-of-the-art and equipped for evolving technology, the renovation of John T. Tate Hall was a total team effort. From demo to virtual modeling, all the way to precise design and installation, every partner—along with university staff and researchers—was involved to ensure it met today’s demands while maintaining the historic building’s distinguishable façade. The result was a world-class facility researchers, faculty and students at the University of Minnesota will use to continue changing the future of science.

With nearly 20 years of professional experience, Brett Dunlap, Senior Project Manager, ICRA Accredited, JE Dunn Construction, has an impressive portfolio of completed projects focusing on science and technology, higher education, and cultural/arts facilities. He works closely with owners, architects and trade partners to find a balance between realizing the client’s goals, design intent and constructability. Brett holds a Bachelor of Science in Construction Management from the University of Minnesota. He has worked on a half-dozen high profile projects with his alma mater, including the Tate Science and Teaching Lab renovation and current work on the new Health Science Education Center.