Bidding adieu to brutalism at UW–Madison

October 6, 2010 By Brian Mattmiller

Angela Pakes Ahlman has a scene from an old grade-school environmental education film seared into memory. It depicts a factory belching thick smoke into the sky, while in the foreground, a pipe spews an oily plume into a river.

photo, Anegela Pakes Ahlman.

Angela Pakes Ahlman says the ultimate goal is to design and construct a building that will serve the university for at least 100 years and to make new campus buildings welcoming, flexible and sustainable, unlike the windowless concrete monoliths from the 1960s “Brutalist” era, such as Union South and Humanities. In the current UW construction boom, she says each project is being treated as an opportunity to create something that enhances the campus experience.

In the late 1970s era that produced the federal Superfund toxic cleanup program, this was the quintessential symbol of pollution. But today, Pakes Ahlman’s environmental focus is on something less obvious, yet more pervasive in our lives.

“Growing up, we were taught that manufacturers were the polluters,” says Pakes Ahlman, a 1996 UW–Madison dual-degree graduate in geological engineering and geology/geophysics. “But it hasn’t been until recently that we’ve recognized that our built environment — basically, what it takes to build and operate all the homes and buildings of the world — is really the biggest culprit in greenhouse gas emissions.”

As an architect and engineer manager for UW–Madison Capital Planning and Development, this shift in perspective serves Pakes Ahlman well. She joined UW–Madison in 2006 and is leading a number of high-profile campus building projects, including the School of Education, Union South, Human Ecology and the Wisconsin Energy Institute.

With each project, Pakes Ahlman says the goal is to design and construct a building that will serve the university for at least 100 years. In terms of the value added for modern buildings, she says additional goals are to make them welcoming, flexible and sustainable.

It’s safe to say those haven’t always been adjectives of choice in describing campus buildings — certainly not the windowless concrete monoliths from the 1960s “Brutalist” era, such as Union South and Humanities. In the current UW construction boom, Pakes Ahlman says each project is being treated as an opportunity to create something that enhances the campus experience.

“We are changing the way we think about design and construction to more sustainable means,” she says. “We seek ways to reduce the amount of energy needed to operate buildings by using active chilled beams for cooling, increasing daylight opportunities, and adding more green space to enhance those outdoor ‘third-places’ we all enjoy so much on our campus. We’re also sourcing more materials from Wisconsin-based companies.”

UW–Madison has eight major projects seeking LEED certification, and each is on target to reach a silver or gold level, she says.

“It means a lot more to me because this is my alma mater,” she says. “If I were a student here again, what kinds of spaces would I appreciate? Where would I like to hang out with friends or get a cup of coffee or meet my study group? I want every building we develop to be special and more sustainable than the past.”

Pakes Ahlman cites a number of future favorite spaces she is helping create. At Union South, now about 50 percent complete, that “third-place” will be a massive sun garden on the south side of the building. Sun will heat the space in the winter and be blocked by exterior fins in the summer. The building has also been designed to accept building-mounted wind turbines.

At the Wisconsin Energy Institute, which is breaking ground later this year, it will be a collection of “demonstration gardens” that will grow some of the very materials being researched as potential biofuels. “At some of our projects, we look at ways to integrate photovoltaics and wind energy in a way that shows the public how renewable energy can be functional and efficient. We are also using geothermal as a source of free energy from the earth to improve the energy efficiencies of some of our buildings.”

But her favorite addition will be the north-facing section of Education Hall on Bascom Hill. That unfinished building back-section had always been an eyesore, with small “nodes” built for extra space and a narrow parking lot that put Bascom Hill pedestrians in harm’s way of vehicles. Pakes Ahlman researched, promoted and received approval for a complete makeover of that space, with a subsurface parking lot and an elevated green terrace with a view of Lake Mendota and Muir Knoll.

“What an addition to campus — to have another terrace overlooking the lake,” she says. “We’re giving people a tough decision now: Do I go and sunbathe on Bascom Hill or do I embrace the lake views from the new café from the north side of the building?”

While building is her passion today, her first experiences out of college were more in taking buildings down. After finishing her civil engineering master’s degree at the University of Michigan and working for Ford Motor Co., Pakes Ahlman received an offer from Entrix Environmental Consulting in Houston to open her own office in Michigan and do consulting work for the auto industry, which is a huge global property holder.

Starting with her first contract of $10,500, Pakes Ahlman built the business over four years into a 45-employee operation with numerous multi-million dollar contracts. The biggest was with Ford, doing environmental assessments on its massive Rouge River plant, one of the largest factory complexes in world history. One project was to reassess underground resources across the entire 100-year-old, 1,100-acre plant — larger than all of UW–Madison, from Memorial Library to Eagle Heights.

She would work with The Rouge again under tragic circumstances, when in February 1999 a powerhouse exploded and killed six people. Her knowledge of the resources around the plant helped the company slowly decommission and demolish the damaged structures. She was reminded of the devastation of the blast from coal bunkers next to the powerhouse, which were still smoldering in June of that year.

Her biggest professional leap may have been, ironically, to a job back with Ford in 2002. This time, she was hired by the Ford Land Division to serve as its lead civil engineer for new building projects. “I didn’t know the first thing about construction,” she says, but was convinced by a Ford vice president who wanted strong project management and problem-solving skills.

Pakes Ahlman’s first project was to travel to Toronto to participate in building a new Ford Canada headquarters along Lake Ontario. After introductions, the group immediately got to work and rolled out blueprints of the site. As she reviewed the blueprints, something immediately struck the trained geological engineer: There was a significant geological fault line running right through the middle of the building site. She knew exactly what to say and do.

“An immediate comfort level just washed over me,” she recalls. “It was at that point in my life I realized my solid education in engineering gave me exactly the right tools to do whatever I wanted to do. That was a really incredible feeling.”