Class of 2015: Graduate Includes Rotunda Renovation on Resume

Grace Zammitti stands in front of the Rotunda under construction with a hard hat and a bright orange safety vest

U.Va. engineering graduate Grace Zammitti

Editor’s note: In the run-up to Final Exercises on May 16 and 17, UVA Today will introduce readers to some of the outstanding members of the Class of 2015. All of the stories, plus other information about Finals Weekend, will be compiled here.

Renovating the University of Virginia’s Rotunda, a World Heritage site designed by Thomas Jefferson, has taken an army of historic preservationists, architects, engineers and contractors.

And at least one student.

Grace Zammitti, a civil engineering degree candidate in U.Va.’s School of Engineering and Applied Science (with minors in engineering business and architecture) has worked as an intern for Facilities Management at the Rotunda during the renovations. After graduation, she will take a job with Whiting-Turner, the contractor on the Rotunda renovation project, in the firm’s Washington, D.C. office. 

In a recent interview with UVA Today, Zammitti said the key to finding her way into the project was as easy as asking.

Q. How did you get involved in the Rotunda project?

A. I had an independent interest in the Rotunda. I’m fascinated by construction projects, especially when I stumble upon them in the middle of Grounds. I sought out my own internship, contacting Don Sundgren (U.Va.’s chief facilities officer) and asking to talk about the possibility of working for Facilities Management. He loved the idea. He was excited that I was excited. He asked me what I wanted to work on and I picked the Rotunda.

Q. What is it about the Rotunda that fascinated you?

A. The historical aspect drew me to the Rotunda. Thomas Jefferson designed it, which makes it all the more fascinating. It is very much in the spirit of U.Va. I became interested back in 2013, when it was Phase I of the renovation. They were replacing the roof, and I just wanted to learn about it. I had internship experience with facades and roofing, so this seemed right up my alley. I wanted to learn more.

Q. What have you learned in all of this?

A. Besides the basics of the actual construction project, I’ve learned a lot about the interplay between the contractors, the engineers and the architects. I attend the bi-weekly owner-architect-contractor meetings, where everyone gets together and discusses the progress of the project. These taught me a lot about the different dynamics on a job.

There’s a lot more than just technical talk going on, which made me realize that engineers need to be multifaceted. I have a double minor in business and architecture, and the point of that was to try to be as well-rounded an engineer as possible. I wanted to understand all the different ways of looking at a project.

Now, during the OAC meetings, when an architect talks about his or her vision, I am able to relate and understand where they are going with it. The business minor in me is always thinking, “How much is this going to cost?,” which is always important in engineering and construction. I know engineers joke about architects, which can sometimes create friction on a project. But honestly, I don’t feel that way. I feel like a hybrid.

Q. What have you learned about yourself?

A. I’ve learned that when I am eager to do something, I should ask. I simply asked to get involved in this project, and look where it has led me. A couple of weeks ago, when they were putting in the capitals, I wanted to be on site for that and so I asked. Whiting-Turner was more than happy to let me on site and watch. I feel like so much of what I have done has happened because I asked, and I am going to remember that in the future.

Q. How has this helped to shape you to become the engineer you will become?

A. I have a respect for historical preservation, and the historical significance of a project. I am really looking forward to doing more historical work, of which Whiting-Turner’s D.C. office does a lot. I am also more understanding of the client’s needs.

Here at U.Va., everyone holds the Rotunda near and dear. The University has a lot of different needs that the contractor, Whiting-Turner, has met, such as the Lighting of the Lawn, which was a huge success this year. Whiting-Turner worked with the event organizers on logistics, and went above and beyond to make sure this event happened.  That is taking the extra step for your client. I have seen that in Whiting-Turner and that is something I am going to echo in my career.

Q. Does it make you better at what you do at the Rotunda because you are a student and a Lawn resident?

A. I think it’s good to have a student working on this project, because I think I can lend some fresh eyes. I like to think of myself as a source of information for other Lawn residents, because they all want to know what is going on in their front yard. I think overall, my role as a student has been beneficial to the project. I can be a source of positive information, to keep rumors from spreading amongst the student body. My hope is that, by knowing what is going on and being able to tell people, I can keep communication open concerning the project.

Q. What do you do at the Rotunda?

A. My position is more of an apprenticeship, which is something I’m so thankful for. My bosses at Facilities Management say that my main job in our meetings is to learn, absorb and ask questions so that I really get the most I can out of this. I learn a lot about the project and offer my opinions on student attitudes.

I’ve gone on multiple site visits, too, which is always the best part. Steve Ratliffe (senior construction administration manager at the Rotunda for Facilities Management) took me up to the roof in 2013, which was one of the most unique experiences I have ever had. To stand on the roof of the Rotunda and look down on the Lawn totally changes your perspective of the Academical Village. It was surreal.

I was also involved when they were designing the capitals, which was really interesting. The main goal of these design meetings was to try to bring the capitals back to Jefferson’s original design, before (New York architect) Stanford White replaced them after the fire. I think the capitals are my favorite part of this project.

I also archive historic records of construction projects on the Rotunda and on the Lawn. Historical preservation is hugely important to me, so I really enjoy this aspect of my internship as well. It is cool to get a glimpse of the past and see how construction was done, and how the Lawn has changed over the years.

Q. How has being able to work on the Rotunda enhanced your experience as a student?

A. I have to say it has been the pinnacle of my experience here. It is like the cherry on top, the culmination of everything I am interested in. I feel extremely fortunate to be able to work on something that is so supremely geared to what I want to do. And I feel it has made me more connected to the University, especially with Thomas Jefferson being an engineer, being an architect, designing this whole space.

I couldn’t imagine a better way to spend my time here. And it’s all because I asked. The architecture students and the engineers say, “That’s so U.Va.” or “That’s so U.Va. of you to work on the Rotunda.” It’s honestly been the most rewarding experience I have had here. Definitely the thing I will remember the most.

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Matt Kelly

Office of University Communications