Vanderweil Engineers and Geier Brown Renfrow Architects worked together on the $7-million modernization of the Miller Center of Public Affairs building at the University of Virginia.

The University of Virginia (UVA) recently celebrated the modernization and expansion of one of its many historic facilities--the Miller Center of Public Affairs building, located on the university's North Grounds in Charlottesville. The center, which is partially housed in a mid-19th century ante-bellum structure, underwent an extensive renovation that included comprehensive hvac and plumbing upgrades.

The Miller Center of Public Affairs is noted for its role in the study of the national and international policies of the United States, with a special emphasis on the American Presidency. The center houses a team of approximately 40 scholars and staff members, with library and research space, administrative offices, and conference areas. The modernization project involved the renovation of the center's main facility, the circa-1856 Faulkner House, and the construction of the new Thompson Pavilion, which adjoins the historic property along the site's eastern side.

The Faulkner House, officially designated as a Virginia Historic Landmark, is named for American writer William Faulkner, who taught at the university in the 1950s. The building had undergone a number of remodelings over the past century, but its systems were severely lacking in terms of both temperature and humidity control. The plumbing system was also completely outdated and in need of replacing.

Blending the Old and the New

Vanderweil Engineers and Geier Brown Renfrow Architects worked together on the $7-million modernization, which involved close coordination to integrate the building systems and blend the new and old structures together successfully. Both firms have extensive experience in restoration and expansion work, including historic preservation and higher education.

Vanderweil, which provided mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and fire protection design services for the project, has also engineered many complex museum, library, and laboratory facilities and is adept in the design of spaces requiring strict temperature and humidity control. University representatives were particularly concerned that the center's expansive library collection and multimedia archives be housed in a state-of-the-art environment that provided adequate hvac control and fire protection.

Addressing the Challenges of Historic Buildings

The design team was challenged to incorporate modern systems into the historic structure, while maintaining the architectural integrity of the building, which was "clearly not designed to accommodate today's building systems," says Daniel Kailey, P.E., an associate with Vanderweil who managed the firm's work on the project during construction. "The challenges we faced were fairly typical of century-old buildings," he adds. "There was a lack of existing drawings, the plumbing systems were antiquated, and there were a number of historic finishes--such as the existing plaster and trimwork--that could not be impacted."

Kailey also notes that the building lacked plumbing chases, and presented several "unforeseen surprises" during demolition. "The pipes weren't always where the designers thought they were when they conducted the field survey," he adds. "We needed to make several design adjustments once demolition told us everything we needed to know."

The installation of the piping in particular required close coordination among design team members. "The horizontal piping runs for the plumbing, hvac piping, and sprinkler piping all had to be placed in the lower level ceiling," says Kailey. "The ceiling was already low at less than eight feet, so coordinating all of these piping runs to avoid dropping the ceiling further--where we would have been up against code violations--was one of the most difficult aspects of the project. Those ceilings simply weren't built with the idea of running pipes through them."

As a further complication, the available water pressure was also "borderline," according to Kailey. To avoid the cost of adding a fire pump, the sprinkler piping was increased in size to keep pressure losses to a minimum.

Another renovation challenge involved the installation of sprinklers in the attic and exterior porches--all of which are constructed completely of wood. Working with the sprinkler contractor and local governing agencies, Vanderweil opted to install side-discharge dry-pipe sprinkler heads.

"All of these challenges were not so much technical problems as they were issues of coordination," says Kailey, who has worked on a number of historic structures throughout his career. "The major hurdles here involved such issues as coordinating piping runs with the architect, finding places to install dry pipe valves and open site drains for condensate drains, and resolving conflicts between the actual field conditions and the anticipated conditions that the design documents were based on. Projects like this really require engineers to move beyond design and get involved as an integral part of the consulting team."

A Successful Modernization

Despite the many project challenges, the Miller Center has been successfully modernized with minimal impact to the cherished historic structure. In addition to the plumbing restoration, engineers at Vanderweil also upgraded the hvac system in the controlled environment, involving the installation of a new chiller. The architectural layout placed the mechanical room, which contained the chiller, directly below the library and reading room. This presented a significant hvac and architectural design challenge, since the atmosphere of these rooms would be adversely impacted by noise transmission from the chiller. According to Kailey, "The final design and installation were a resounding--or perhaps better said 'quiet'--success, with sound from the chiller all but inaudible to those quietly reading or studying only a few feet above."

The new Thompson Pavilion addition nearly doubles the existing office space, providing approximately 15 new offices to accommodate scholars and research fellows. The pavilion also houses conference space, a reference library, a reading room, and the multimedia research center.

A rededication ceremony for the center was attended by former President Jimmy Carter, along with Virginia Governor Mark Warner and former Governor Linwood Holton. President Bush and former Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Ford addressed the gathering via video presentations, and Nancy Reagan sent a letter to be read on her and her husband, Ronald Reagan's behalf.

"The Miller Center serves a vital function in the study of American government and the Presidency," says Roger E. Frechette, III, PE, president of Vanderweil Engineers' Mid-Atlantic Regional Operations. "It was an interesting challenge for us to address both the historic preservation requirements of this restoration as well as the system requirements for a modern library and research center. We were proud to take part in this project, and collaborate with such an esteemed institution."

Based in Boston, Vanderweil Engineers also has offices in Princeton, NJ; Alexandria, VA; and Baltimore, Md. In addition to the Miller Center project, the firm's work in historic structures includes such projects as the 17th-century Wren Building at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, VA; the circa-1857 Peabody Institute in Baltimore, MD; Hillwood Museum in Washington, DC; the Kentucky State Capitol Building in Frankfurt; the Mary Switzer Building in Washington, DC; and two National Historic Landmark Buildings in Washington, DC: the circa-1851 Smithsonian Institution (Castle) Building, and the circa-1881 Smithsonian Arts and Industry Building. Other projects completed by the firm include renovation and preservation work at the Old State House (c. 1713) and Faneuil Hall (c. 1742), both in Boston. Visit for more information.