About The Gazette Search Back Issues Contact Us    
The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University May 5, 2008 | Vol. 37 No. 33
The Gilman Hall Atrium: What If?

Course instructor John Matteo introduces a presentation by a student team that named itself Richter, Rosswog, Bear and Assoc.
Photo by Will Kirk / HIPS

Civil engineering course allows students to reimagine renovation

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

When the massive renovation of Gilman Hall is complete, arguably its most dramatic new feature will be a three-story glass-topped central atrium where there is currently an open, unused light well.

Inside the atrium, a second-floor courtyard will serve as a bridge between the Hutzler Reading Room and Memorial Hall. This new courtyard will sit atop a first-floor space for the exhibition and study of the university's archaeological collection, which will be showcased behind glass walls.

Well, that might be the reality, but that is not quite how 15 senior civil engineering students saw it. They had a few bright ideas of their own about how to rework the space.

The students enrolled in Design and Synthesis II, a capstone course for civil engineering majors, had the unique opportunity this spring to combine their structural engineering knowledge with a measure of creative flair to reimagine a main element of the renovation of Homewood's first academic building.

The class, which builds upon concepts learned in Design and Synthesis I, focuses on sustainability and explores the role of precedent and existing construction as a vehicle for new design. The students specifically learn how to apply modern materials and techniques to sustain or revitalize existing structures within their historic context.

With that objective in mind, the course's creators felt that the ongoing renovation of Gilman Hall--a three-year effort that began last summer--provided an ideal template to serve as the basis for this year's final project, which focused primarily on modifications to the existing atrium.

The course was taught by John Matteo, director of historic preservation for the Washington, D.C., office of Robert Silman Associates, the structural engineering firm hired by the university for the Gilman renovation.

Matteo said the synchronicity of the class and the renovation was just too good to pass up.

"This really was a perfect project for the class," he said. "We wanted to show students how to design new components that would be compatible in the historic sense of a building, and here we have an important historic building right on campus."

The course's lectures focused on the application of engineering to evaluate existing structures as the starting point for the design process. Students learned firsthand about structural analysis, schematic designs, construction materials, cost analysis and many other elements of structural engineering practice.

Matteo said a chief aim here is to explore the role of the structural engineer through design and construction.

For the final project, broken into two phases, the students worked in groups of threes. Phase I required the students to add usable space for Gilman Hall's atrium while maximizing the utility of the existing truss bridge. Phase II incorporated the addition of a glass roof to the design. While they had some room for creativity, the students were required to use the existing bridge in the final atrium design.

During the semester, the groups made four site visits to observe ongoing construction of the building's infill and atrium area, gather structural data on the bridge and hear a presentation from the construction manager.

Guest lecturers included an expert on relevant building materials and a representative of the project's lead architectural firm, R.M. Kliment and Frances Halsband Architects, who detailed the current renovation of the 93-year-old building.

So, what did the students come up with? A common theme among several groups was to strip the atrium bridge right down to its bones and clad it in glass, a natural move for engineers interested in structure. Each team also envisioned a new, accessible space within the atrium--an opportunity for introducing some "green" to the interior while adding a lecture hall and mechanical space.

An added challenge was to improve the circulation and accessibility within the historic building. One group inserted a spiral staircase leading off the bridge to an outdoor terrace below. Another group modified the existing stair and halls while adding an additional glass-railed walkway on the third floor that overlooked the entire atrium and offered a new vantage point for the iconic Gilman tower.

A third group, 310 Engineering, literally took the project to another level. The team's design incorporated a new dramatic north-south skywalk that also suspended the existing truss bridge below, which was cut in the middle with stairs leading off on both sides.

Team member Michael Palantoni admitted that his group's design might cost more but said 310 Engineering conveniently ignored possible budget constraints and focused on the technical aspects.

Palantoni said the class was extremely valuable and a lot of fun.

"It really tells you how the whole design process works," he said. "There is no other course that goes over all these aspects. We learned so much about the practical side of engineering and all the things you have to take into account when working on an existing structure."

He said that he and his fellow students also learned more about Gilman Hall than they ever thought they would.

"It was kind of neat to become an expert on something so familiar to everyone here," he said. "In our other classes, students would ask us what we were doing and we got to tell them, 'Do you know that hallway to the HUT is actually a bridge?' [Laughs.] It's funny how nobody knew that."

They do now.


The Gazette | The Johns Hopkins University | Suite 540 | 901 S. Bond St. | Baltimore, MD 21231 | 443-287-9900 |