As High as It Goes: Alderman Library Renovation Reaches Its Pinnacle

May 12, 2022 By Matt Kelly, mkelly@virginia.edu Matt Kelly, mkelly@virginia.edu

More than 100 workers, bedecked in fluorescent vests and hardhats, gathered Thursday in the construction yard adjacent to the University of Virginia’s Alderman Library. They stood in front of the renovation/construction project to witness the traditional “topping-out ceremony,” marking the installation of the two uppermost steel beams in the project.

The workers, eating boxed lunches, were interspersed with University officials there to mark the occasion. Earlier, construction workers, University officials and library personnel – ranging from Colette Sheehy, UVA’s senior vice president for operations and state government relations, to John Calvin, a project executive for Skanska Construction – autographed the two 16-foot steel beams, six inches in width.

The Alderman Library renovation/construction project started in 2019. The two beams are part of the steel-framed clerestory roof structure, an architectural feature that will allow natural light to reach the study and reading rooms inside the library. The clerestory roof structure is the only steel part of the added structure, which is entirely concrete.

In recognition of this, Skanska, the general contractor on the project, hosted the topping-out on the 881st day of construction. A crane hoisted the final two beams, draped with a 3- by 5-foot U.S. flag, into place.

The renovated library, now 64% complete, will feature a new north entrance (facing University Avenue) with a terrace and doors opening into a spacious second-floor lobby. When Alderman Library was originally built in 1937, it featured a stately facade on its north side, but when the new stacks were built in 1967, this side became an uninviting wall. The renovated building, designed by HBRA Architects with Clark Nexsen, will feature more natural light, improved climate control, more accessibility and more open spaces.

Construction workers signing the beam.
Construction workers for Skanska and its subcontractors sign their names to the two beams that will mark the highest point of the structure. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Thursday’s ceremony, held in the construction laydown yard in Nameless Field, featured remarks from Chris Rhodes, Skanska senior project manager; John Unsworth, the University librarian and dean of libraries at UVA; and Mark Stanis, director of construction for UVA. Alex Alverez, a carpenter for subcontractor Martin Horn, translated the remarks into Spanish.

Rhodes thanked the workers for making the moment possible, and cited the history of topping-out ceremonies to celebrate construction milestones.

“This is an important milestone in the restoration of this historic project, and it reflects our transition away from asbestos, demolition, dirt work, rock and the building structure, and toward the building envelope and the interior finishes,” he said. “Traditionally, topping-out ceremonies remain popular in northern Europe and North America. They have traditionally included greenery or evergreen trees placed at the highest point.”

Library personnel signing the beam.
Alderman Library personnel sign their names to the two beams that will mark the highest point of the structure. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

He noted that the Egyptians placed a plant atop a pyramid to honor the workers who died; a Scandinavian tradition sets bundles of wheat on a building to bestow prosperity on the structure; and a Native American belief holds that buildings should not be taller than trees.

“Today, as a society, we strive to be more environmentally conscious or more ‘green friendly,’” Rhodes said. “Our project will ultimately achieve a LEED certification of silver or better. And so we have gotten away from placing greenery. Today we will substitute our American flag as the topping element to our clerestory beams.”

He hoped that the signatures on the beams would become a time capsule, a wish for the prosperity of the those who study in the building, and a celebration for their continued health, safety and well-being.

Alex Alverez and Library Dean John Unsworth giving remarks over the signed beam.
Alex Alverez, left, translated Library Dean John Unsworth’s remarks at the topping-out ceremony. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Unsworth said the ceremony marked a turning point in the library’s construction and renovation.

“I was first at UVA in the 1980s as a Ph.D. student, and graduated the same year the building celebrated its golden anniversary,” he said. “In that bygone era, there was no air conditioning in the library, and we were still using the card catalog. The building was already beginning to show its age, and when I returned in the 1990s and early 2000s, it was even more evident.”

He cited awkward fuse boxes and electrical panels used to turn lights on and off, variations in temperature within the building, pipes that would leak water into the basement and an unreliable elevator. When he returned in 2016, renovation plans were in the works.

“The University needed a library building that could properly serve the UVA community and that was fit to survive into the 21st century,” Unsworth said.

The flag and beam rising over the crowd.
The audience, which included UVA Facilities staff, library staff and construction personnel, look on and film on their phones as the beam is raised above them. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

He thanked the tradespeople for their work on the project.

“It took eight months to build the concrete addition from basement to roof,” Unsworth said. “It took over 12,000 cubic yards of concrete and 200 work days to complete the concrete superstructure that supports the reinforced floors at levels one through four.”

He said that was a lot of concrete to invest in a building.

“This is all worth it because it will allow the floors to bear the weight for compact shelving for the collections – and there will be significant print collections in the building, because it is our humanities and social science library and those folks who still work intensively with print,” he said.

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Library staffers will also benefit when they move into a new space from healthy air, natural light and running water, he said.

“When this new library opens, every part of it will have been improved,” Unsworth said. “Not only will it be safer and more comfortable, it will also be more accessible and easier to find your way in, with better use of space, with beautiful new spaces like the study courts and the new coffee shop. It will be a better space in every way for the collections and the people it will hold. It will be a beacon for students, faculty, researchers and community members, and I predict it will be among the most heavily used buildings at UVA. And this is only possible because of your collective expertise, commitment and hard work.”

Stanis thanked all the teams working on the project, including the University stakeholders, but particularly cited the tradespeople.

“There have been about three-quarters of a million hours worked on the job so far, and it will be well over 1 million before it is done,” Stanis said. “You all have spent a lot of time here.”

Flag and signed beam being raised by a crane.
The two beams, with an attached American flag, were hoisted to the roof of the Alderman Library addition by a tower crane. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

He said some workers came from as far away as Burma and Peru; crews came in from the West Coast and the South, as well as from as close as from Richmond, Maryland and North Carolina.

“My team recognizes some of you came from other UVA projects, such as the residence halls and the Medical Center,” Stanis said. “Whether you came from near or far, for one week or four years, it takes all of you together to create this building.”

He said the project started shortly before the COVID-19 virus hit and the workers persevered, coming to work every day and wearing masks.

Construction worker guiding the placement of the signed beam.
A worker lowers the beam down on the roof of Alderman Library. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

“At Facilities Management, we understand that it is the people who make projects successful,” Stanis said. “We know that sometimes you get here as early as 3 a.m., that sometimes you are here on weekends and even some evenings. We know that you have worked in hot, sticky, muddy corners and in the cold, wet and dark ones. And you have done it safely. We want everyone to go home to your family or friends every night.

“You have worked smart. You have worked carefully. You have worked generously.”

He said the project was complex and unique, requiring the workers to install a 125-foot-long shear wall through an existing building from basement to attic, removing 6.300 cubic yards of rock, threading pipe under low beams and above high ceilings, all the while having an open road running through their construction area and wrestling with the issues related to the project being one part renovation, one part new construction.

“I want you to know that your work is seen,” Stanis said. “So much of what you have done will be covered up when we are done. But without your work, your attention, your skills, the building would not be dry, it would not be comfortable, it would not be light, it would not be safe, it would not be sound. When we turn this building over the to the library in 2023, we expect it to be dry for the first time in its life.”

After the ceremony, the two beams were hoisted by the 205-foot tower crane to the sound of whistles, a warning that something is overhead, and placed on the top of the library.

Media Contact

Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications