Jennifer Carr – Hard-Charging Neoclassical

Gresham, Smith and Partners designed Sid McDonald Hall to look classical but act modern, with all the technology needed today.

When the University of Alabama System — the largest employer in the state — decided to consolidate administrative offices historically spread across several locations on the Tuscaloosa campus, the result was a benchmark, $13.2 million building — Sid McDonald Hall, which opened in September 2014.

“This impeccably designed and built structure brings us all together under one roof and really capitalizes on a lot of efficiencies, ” says Kellee Reinhart, vice chancellor for University of Alabama System Relations. “It was a solution we have been seeking for a long time. This created an excellent environment for collaboration. Our work is usually intense and deadline-driven. We have to be extremely agile as a professional team, and this building is so conducive to the kind of work pressures that are part of our daily routine. From the interior colors to the size and dimensions of the hallways to the layout of the work suites themselves, it’s an ideal fit for our needs.”

Design of the building went to Gresham, Smith and Partners, whose lead architect for the project was Jennifer Carr.

“We met with the key players and identified tasks for getting the project built, ” says Carr. “We wanted to learn how the department heads operated and the things they would like to see in the new facility. We set up the standard for what the square footage looked like based on functional needs.”

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Carr began the project in 2011, taking advantage of the programming phase to gauge individual needs.

As to design, Carr looked to tradition for inspiration for the 35, 243-square-foot building. For a venerable institution with an important legacy, as well as a pioneer for future growth in the state, Carr envisioned carefully calculated neoclassical design elements housing state-of-the-art technology. Harking back to the mid-18th century in Europe, the neoclassical use of a pediment-capped portico of columns combines with an unobtrusive color scheme, lending a timeless aura to a structure housing a team of decision makers who contribute to a state economic impact of more than $7.6 billion.

Working with a site on one of the main campus thoroughfares, Carr was charged with the responsibility of making that space work without building an overpowering front elevation. 

“We had a lot to fit on the site for the amount of site available, ” Carr says. “We were able to get it all in, as well as a good set-back with a little garden (behind the building). Was it a challenge? Yes. But, impossible? No. It turned out to be beautiful.” 

Through interviews, Carr learned that many of the offices functioned similarly and was able to design rooms flexible enough to accommodate varied work styles, from additional conference rooms to casual sofa-oriented seating areas. 

“We were very conscious of the height of this building, ” Carr says. “We needed to fit it to scale. It was the gateway to the new Bryce Campus. The front is two-story with a roof element that conceals the third story from the street, so that it doesn’t feel like such a tall building.”

“Contemporary technology has been adapted into a structure with timeless design that fits in seamlessly with the rest of the campus’ classic look, ” Reinhart says. “It’s really a perfect match.”

J.T. Harrison Construction Co. of Tuscaloosa won the construction bid. The use of brick on the two buildings closest to the project — the student health building and the nursing building — in part dictated the materials for Sid McDonald Hall. 

With approval of the University of Alabama System, Gresham Smith built a true-to-scale model off campus for the architectural team, the construction team and the UA System, allowing the parties involved to study the design’s features and get a true feeling for its ambiance before sinking the first footing.

“It was 20 x 40 feet — not a full building, but huge, ” Carr says. “We were able to review the quality of the installation and allow a lot of people to weigh in on it before construction.”

Just one year after construction, the facility has settled into its surroundings with an aura of permanence.

“We used ratios around the building that have stood the test of time, ” Carr says. “That’s the quality the University of Alabama System strives for. When you approach the building or stand inside, it feels good. It feels right. All of these designs have been tested over time, which makes these buildings jewels.”

Carr says the firm’s mission to listen, think, transform and improve guided the project with the power of a mantra.

“Being involved and engaged with the client in the programming process allows you to gather all of the data and decide what it means and whether you think outside the box or push the envelope. You transform that information into something functional and beautiful for that project.”

Integral to the project was having a team of architects to back up her ideas and her team. 

“Having access to co-workers with a myriad of experiences is an asset in this project, ” she says. “We have experts for environmental design or sustainability issues or energy codes. This is a new, classically designed building. How do we detail this so it looks like this on the outside, but meets standards for today and for the future?” 

A team well equipped to handle the demands of institutions of higher learning answered the questions. The firm also has lent its expertise to the renovation of the University of Alabama’s Moore Hall, many buildings at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and work at other universities, including Vanderbilt University’s renovated Rand Hall, the University of South Florida’s Morsani College of Medicine and Auburn University’s College of Science and Mathematics.

Building namesake Sid McDonald served on the UA board of trustees from 1992 to 2008. A past member of the Alabama Commission on Higher Education, McDonald was named UA Trustee Emeritus in 2008. In the early 1980s, he founded Deltacom Long Distance Services, the state’s first independent phone company following the Bell system breakup. McDonald, who died in May 2015, was inducted into the Alabama Academy of Honor in 2001 and the Alabama Business Hall of Fame in 2010. 

Engineering Consultants

Civil: McGiffert & Associates
Structural: LBYD
Electrical: Hyde Engineering

Cara Clark is a freelancer writer for Business Alabama. She is based in Birmingham.

Text by Cara Clark

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