Modernizing a 1960s-Era Ballroom

This is the first installment of a series that will follow the renovation of the Commonwealth Ballroom in Squires Student Center at Virginia Tech. The goal is to show the “tip to tail” of a major renovation project and engage the audience throughout the process. After this installment, visit acui.org/bulletin to stay up to date on the project.

Squires Student Center has been a part of the Virginia Tech campus since 1937. Within the last 80 years, this building has seen two major additions: one started in the late 1960s and one started in the late 1980s. In the 1960s renovation, the 15,000-square-foot Commonwealth Ballroom was added to the building. In the time since this renovation, Commonwealth Ballroom has become a vital space in Squires Student Center, in use close to 300 days per year. It is used by the entire campus and extended community—student organizations, departments, external clients, etc. Not only is the ballroom the department’s most heavily utilized major venue; it also generates the most revenue and garners the most complaints from users and Virginia Tech’s own staff.

Modernizing a 1960s-Era BallroomFrom a facility improvement standpoint, the ballroom has remained mostly untouched during the past 50-plus years. Out of many to choose from, what is the most important reason for this renovation? To fix code violations? Make it more aesthetically appealing? Update the equipment? All of the above. While it can be difficult at best to balance priorities in rapidly aging buildings, Virginia Tech staff used a mixture of data and front-line experience to prioritize the lengthy list of needed renovations. Commonwealth Ballroom is an example of when data and experience align to drive a project forward. Through installments in the online Bulletin during the coming months, this project will offer a glimpse into the renovation process and what other campuses can learn from following one institution’s experience from start to finish. This introduction provides some background on the history and goals contextualizing the case study. 

About the Project

Using a design, bid, build approach, initial projections have the construction phase of the project taking four to five months. Most often, projects are driven by either timeline or budget. Obviously, there is a significant relationship between these and other factors (scope, quality of work, special equipment or finishes, etc.). Then again, the other factors are often subsets of timeline and budget and can be achieved by prioritizing (or de-emphasizing) one or the other. The biggest driver for this particular project is schedule. The community needs this space back online. Reducing downtime reduces the loss to the campus in terms of opportunity and revenue. 

At the end of the day, Virginia Tech decided it would be easiest to take the room offline from October through February. While no time is easy to lose a space so critical to campus, this provided the best opportunity for the room to come offline. Budget is just as critical. In an old space, costs quickly escalate, and there can be a tendency to overspend to make up for a lack of spending in the past.

The space is held from October 5 through March 1, with reservations already in place for March 8. Three large-scale dances traditionally occur in Commonwealth Ballroom every year from January through March. Two of them will occur in the first few weeks following the completion of the renovation. Event planning staff have worked tirelessly with clients to help reschedule or find alternative venues for many traditional campus events. 

Currently, Commonwealth is most utilized for dances, smaller concerts, banquets, career and housing fairs, and other miscellaneous events that require a large space. The space is readily configurable for clients through various lighting, audio, and rigging options to bring individual visions to life. However, visually, the space looks similar to what one would see in a high school gymnasium—a large, bland open space with light wood plank flooring and dated ceiling tile and paint. All that is missing are bleacher seats. Unfortunately, the stage and connected green room are only accessible via staircases.

Modernizing a 1960s-Era BallroomAmong the most outdated and problematic parts of the space are the air handlers. There are two units that control HVAC for the room. Both are located in a penthouse on the roof of Squires and were installed directly over the ballroom as part of the 1960s addition. The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) rates the useful life of commercial air handlers at 25-30 years without undertaking a significant rebuild. Seven of Squires Student Center’s 25 total air handlers date from the 1960s renovation. The two above Commonwealth have experienced more frequent breakdowns, burst coils, clogged lines, etc. than the others combined over the past five years. Maintenance staff have dutifully kept them running to the best of their ability; however, the HVAC system is unstable at best.

The entire ballroom project moved up the priority list when Virginia Tech discovered that rigging work performed to support production for orientation and other large events was removing sprayed fireproofing from the structural steel above the ceiling grid. Luckily, the room was allowed to remain open until funding was secured for this project.

Modernizing a 1960s-Era Ballroom

The budget for the disparate parts of the project totals $2.7 million. As part of Student Engagement and Campus Life’s annual budget (SECL is an auxiliary whose budget is mainly fee-derived and supplemented by self-generated revenue), there is a line dedicated to address infrastructure and other critical needs that would not be possible within the standard operating budget. Virginia Tech is able to roll this funding over from year to year, so staff have strategically aligned budgets from three annual cycles to “save” for this project. However, staff have needed to make some hard decisions about what won’t be addressed as the ballroom takes priority. The age and overall condition of SECL’s buildings (especially Squires Student Center) sits between 11%-33% in terms of their Facility Condition Index or “critical” status. The index is a measure calculated from the ratio of current year required renewal cost to current building replacement value. The list of projects SECL has decided to put on hold ranges from replacing additional 50-year-old air handlers, updating the fire alarm and HVAC control systems, and bringing 30-year-old bathrooms up to code, to addressing moisture intrusion and replacing deteriorating theater seats. 

Moving Forward

At a certain level, all projects require an iterative process to agree on a finalized scope. This project was no different. Virginia Tech began by entering a feasibility study initially centered on two things: 

  1. Would the existing structural steel support the weight of a moveable partition? 
  2. How much would it cost to add new air handlers to the room?

These initial considerations quickly ballooned to include three rounds of architectural renderings and conceptual budgets for the total project cost. At the time of writing, Virginia Tech had just received its fourth round of architectural and pricing revisions. Most of the cuts made to the scope were driven by budget more than anything else. At one point or another there were three additional operable walls, another air handling unit, a large speaker array, full flooring replacement, theatrical lighting replacement, new lighting board, a number of installed screens/projectors, and new entry doors and hardware. Many of these were removed before receiving conceptual budget numbers, the remainder after Virginia Tech looked at the projected number breakouts. Virginia Tech staff decided “wants and needs” as a group, then prioritized the list. At that stage, it was easier to drop certain pieces, even if people had their hearts set on something.

With the latest round of revisions, the ballroom project is moving ahead to formally enter the design process. The next two design milestones are in early August (95% complete) and September (100% complete). Each of those months also will require submissions to the university building official. Bidding will open in mid-September with awards anticipated by the end of that month. The project will be bonded by mid-October so that construction can begin by then as well, again with anticipated occupancy by March 5, 2018. With a tight timeline, and the likely occurrence of unforeseen challenges, this project will require stakeholders to work together and make quick, firm decisions along the way. Follow along at acui.org/bulletin to find out what happens next in the process.

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