At Duke University, a Remarkable Transformation

Updating a historic or beloved structure carries its unique challenges.

At Duke University, Skanska was tasked on The Duke West Union project to restore the dining halls at the union building, designed by Horace Trumbauer in 1920, while inserting a new full-service dining environment and activity spaces for students to interact and socialize.  This ambitious renovation began in 2013 and was needed to accommodate a growing student body, while also providing a modern and exciting campus experience.

Skanska Project Manager Will Senner is a Duke alumnus who played a key role in helping to complete the stunning renovation. Constructive Thinking spoke with him about the project.

The Duke Union Dining Hall spaces have remained intact, restored to their original architectural significance, while the core of the building was demolished to allow for a new open atrium, housing a variety of dining venues. A vertical glass south facing wall overlooking the plaza and West Union Quad provides views and natural daylighting. The project is pursuing LEED Silver Certification with sustainability features such as heat recovery wheels, solar hot water heating and storm water collection, and reuse.

CT: Tell us about how you came to work on the project.

WS: I graduated from Duke in 2006 with a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering and a Master of Engineering Management. I started with Skanska shortly afterward and spent my first four years in preconstruction. Prior to the Duke West Union project, I worked on the Hunt Library at North Carolina State University and Penn Pavilion at Duke.

CT: What attracted you to wanting to work on the project? 

WS: I am very involved at my alma mater, serving on the board of directors for the Duke Alumni Association and as part of the engineering alumni council. The project was more than about just expanding capacity; the dining program encourages students, faculty, and alumni to share meals with one another to foster a greater sense of community that will benefit students on campus and beyond.  It’s also the most ambitious renovation project the university has taken on to date.

CT: As a Duke alumnus, how did you feel about working on such an iconic building, especially one that would emerge from its renovation so fundamentally changed?

WS: It’s really been an exciting honor. From day one it was evident that the entire team – the staff and administration at Duke, the design team and our Skanska team – was so passionate about what the West Union renovation could mean for the Duke community.  It was a long road bringing the project to fruition, filled with challenges to deliver an architecturally and technically complex building on a demanding schedule. With everything now open, it is rewarding to see the West Union full of life and excitement, building community as it was imagined.

I think the team was successful in preserving key elements of the original West Union – the Great Hall and Cambridge Inn with their amazing wood clad truss ceilings and historic windows – while blending in new modern spaces. Bringing the new and old together is really a central theme in the renovation but it was also quite challenging.

I think the Devil’s Krafthouse is also a great new space. The team’s ideas to use the original Duke Stone exterior walls as an interior finish is unique. The addition of the relics from the demolition process is also a great way to celebrate West Union’s past in a modern, new space.

Plus, the fact that it is located in the same part of the building as the old “Hideaway” student bar seems fitting – I can remember enjoying “E-Kegs” (engineering socials) in what is now the outdoor pub terrace and Crown Commons. It is great to see that space reinvented and to have had a hand in making that transformation.

The Duke West Union (Before and after)

The Duke West Union (before and after)

CT: What were some of the challenges you faced on the project? 

WS: The restoration work itself was very complex. During the demolition phase, the team had to carefully extract the core out of the existing building while leaving the perimeter “horseshoe” intact. We had to cut in more than 50 openings, many of them eight feet wide and more than 20 feet tall, through the 18-inch thick, original load bearing walls which separated the perimeter legacy spaces from the new core area. We had to lower the basement in the “core” area by six to eight feet to accommodate modern air handlers, which required significant rock removal as well as soil nailing of the existing footings on the portion of the remaining building.

We also took painstaking steps to restore key elements of the structure’s façade, including  the “Duke Stone” walls; the more than 300 original windows; the hand-chipped and painted clay roof tiles; and the wood cladding on the steel roof trusses in the Great Hall and Cambridge Inn legacy spaces.

Of course, all of this work took place in the heart of the West Campus, in the shadow of Duke Chapel. We minimized our impact by limiting deliveries to a small service road, coordinating work around the academic calendar, adding sound protection to the windows on adjacent dorms and using sound deadening blankets. We also worked to ensure pedestrian safety by stationing permanent traffic guards and installing signage outside the site that was regularly updated as construction progressed.

CT: What has been the reaction to the new dining hall? 

WS: It’s been very positive and I’m very proud of it. I think the new West Union honors Duke’s history by blending the grand Gothic look with a contemporary design that matches the innovative space. This is a world-class building that continues Duke’s legacy of leadership, innovation, and inspiration.

Skanska USA

Skanska USA

Skanska USA is one of the largest, most financially sound construction and development companies in the U.S., serving a broad range of clients in the public and private sectors, including those in transportation, power, industrial, water/wastewater, healthcare, life science, education, sports & entertainment, data centers, government, aviation and commercial industries.

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