Showcasing the Pacific Northwest: McKinstry Co. helped STEM find a new home at the University of Washington

By Claire Swedberg | Oct 13, 2023
The University of Washington (UW) expanded STEM-based classroom space at its Tacoma campus when it constructed LEED-qualifying Milgard Hall. 




The University of Washington (UW) expanded STEM-based classroom space at its Tacoma campus when it constructed LEED-qualifying Milgard Hall. Reflecting the changing landscape for education, Milgard Hall boasts capacity for a flexible teaching environment and a host of sustainable features, including exposed mass timber construction.

The building project launched as a design-build effort, with an interdisciplinary team encouraged to create a structure that would promote academics in the sciences and be flexible for future growth. Electrical and technologies contractor McKinstry Co., Seattle, provided electrical construction for general contractor Andersen Construction, Portland, Ore.

Several years in the making

In 2020, the university was in need of classroom and office space for its sciences programs and opted to create a three-story, 55,000-square-foot facility—a $17 million project that would serve as a student-­oriented hub at the southern end of campus. McKinstry was charged with the primary electrical work, while Burke Electric, Bellevue, Wash., would perform some subtier work and help the project achieve its minority- and ­women-owned business goals.

The Milgard Hall project launched in March 2020 with predesign efforts. Design-build systems are a common option for public-sector or large-scale projects in the Pacific Northwest, and McKinstry is accustomed to being part of that effort, said Tim Goeckner, McKinstry’s electrical construction manager.

The design-build method was an intentional choice for UW Tacoma, said Sylvia James, the school’s vice chancellor for finance and administration. 

“The strong relationships that developed between the owner, the designers and the builders from the earliest stages meant teamwide buy-in on the urban-serving values of the campus,” she said. 

The goal was to deliver a building with a 100-year lifespan and a design that reflected the setting’s history and future orientation of the STEM-intensive occupants.

The project also featured a contracting methodology that included a risk-reward system in which the major contractors on the project agreed to be part of a risk and reward pool. Fully invested in the project’s success, each contractor then had incentive to collaborate.

 “I think that was one of the keys to unlocking some of the creativity and collaboration that really led to a successful project,” Goeckner said.

UW reported that it has been striving to meet students’ needs  as some continue to participate remotely. That requirement created some complexity in the demand for specialty systems in the ­building—from audiovisual equipment to networked communications.

McKinstry addressed the issue by including the low-voltage systems as part of the early design process. Goeckner said that ensured an equitable collaborative process, instead of only addressing low-voltage later in the design process. 

“Low-voltage can’t afford to be an afterthought in the development process; [the design team] needs to see it at the table early,” he said.

When it comes to who is part of the construction team, UW has a forward-thinking approach to diversity, equity and inclusion. As part of the project’s mission, 50% of the design-build contract value went to business equity firms (minority-owned, women-­owned, veteran-owned or small business).

“The diversity of our team echoed the diversity of the campus we are serving and enhanced the success of our project,” said Susan Bouthillette, Andersen Construction’s project manager.

Unique features

Construction posed several unusual issues. One was the use of locally sourced mass timber for the building, which was intended to provide a connection to the community, support the timber industry in the Pacific Northwest and achieve sustainability goals. The aesthetics of the wood also would provide an inspiring learning environment for students. 

The space was designed without a traditional ceiling, which made a coordinated, clean installation necessary. That would showcase the timber, and meant the electrical wire routing, typically installed and then hidden, would be on full display, “so it had to be clean and thoughtful,” Bouthillette said.

McKinstry’s task centered around accommodating the lack of space for wire and other infrastructure in the walls and ceilings. The firm helped design and construct the system to use the open space, organizing the MEP infrastructure so it would not be visually distracting. This double-height, multipurpose space required intense coordination for installing lighting, speakers, projection, several monitors and stage lighting components.

Modular prefab

Part of that effort included an innovative, modular system of electrical, low-voltage and mechanical features in prebuilt pods. McKinstry‘s subsidiary company, Overcast, which makes integrated building solutions, created custom architectural appliances that incorporate key mechanical, electrical and plumbing features.

McKinstry subsidiary Overcast produced intelligent, integrated overhead units for lighting, acoustics, sprinklers and more.

The units offer LED lighting and controls, fire detectors and sprinklers. The overhead devices also come with acoustics-supporting design and a host of other MEP systems with quick plug-and-play installation. Each of the 170 overhead units is 4 feet by 4 feet, along with linear LED fixtures that provide the primary illumination for many of the occupied spaces. The sprinkler heads also come with a direct water connection.

The heart of the system

The campus’ medium-voltage service from Tacoma Power feeds the power used by the building. To reduce the campus carbon footprint, McKinstry tied into the existing generator and backup power systems on campus, thus eliminating the need for an additional generator on-site.

A main electrical room houses the normal power service controls, with branch electrical rooms on each floor. Mechanical equipment and lighting are fed from 480/277V branch panels. 

The power-distribution system was designed to provide flexibility for the school to reconfigure classes, offices and lab spaces. Separate panels permit a shutdown on specific panels for safe work when modification is being performed.

The power-distribution system also includes measures to help safeguard equipment from utility surges. Surge-protective devices are installed at the electrical equipment service entrance.

The team’s integrated design-build delivery method also enabled members to use innovative processes such as target value design to maximize value for each dollar spent, Bouthillette said. 

Because of the integrated design-build delivery, design decisions were still being made during construction. This pressure coupled with supply-chain issues tightened the schedule in both directions, “so it was critical that our team could anticipate needs and be nimble when needed,” she said.

Working through COVID

Like many projects begun in 2020, the pandemic presented a big hurdle, Bouthillette said. Since the world was going into quarantine, the work was primarily remote. This made it difficult to achieve the usual, healthy team dynamic, she said.

Beyond the early days of isolation, “We also experienced the volatile market conditions and supply-chain issues that surrounded the pandemic, including significant pricing spikes and extended lead times,” Bouthillette said. 

Getting around those issues meant a cooperative approach when it came to scheduling and working together with the various subcontractors.

“We worked tirelessly and collaboratively to overcome these challenges,” she said. 

As quarantines were issued, the Milgard construction team was back at work within a few days, with new policies and procedures to address social distancing and protective covering. At peak, McKinstry had 15 electricians on-site.

The fact that the project was completed on time is a testament to how this team worked together, Goeckner said. He mentioned that the contracting team was able to still meet the original schedule for occupancy within a reasonable time frame.

“It was quite remarkable based on how much that happened at the end, based on some of those delays,” he said.

Revitalization and collaboration

After completion, Milgard Hall helps showcase the revitalization efforts for Tacoma and the UWT campus.

“McKinstry has thorough knowledge and history with the University of Washington, making them a valuable partner,” Bouthillette said. “They were our design-build partner through the design phase as well, so they worked early to understand the specific needs of the project and incorporate those into their work plan.”

The collaborative nature of McKinstry’s work was reflected by the company’s foreman, Mark Palmer, she said, adding that, “He was always available for on-site discussions with the client or the architect, and he understood and applied the client’s goals to his daily work. This individual [Palmer] was truly critical to the success of the project.”

Milgard Hall is now on target to achieve LEED Gold sustainability certification. That, James said, is “an outcome of our goal of creating an exemplary sustainable design that would set a precedent for future development.” 

Building materials (such as the mass timber, brick and glazing) were sourced locally and the timber elements were prefabricated at the factory, bringing the project close to the goal of a sawdust-free job site.

Use of locally sourced timber on the project provides a connection to the community, supports the timber industry in the Pacific Northwest and helps achieve sustainability goals.

“UW Tacoma is an unusual design opportunity because the university is not in a traditional campus setting,” James said. “From our founding in 1990 and the opening of our permanent campus in 1997, we have been very intentional about establishing ourselves as an urban-serving, community-engaged campus, physically and functionally.” 

That means there can be challenges related to accommodating public rights-of-way: tying pedestrian paths into the neighborhood fabric and creating an open, welcoming space while recognizing the needs of the campus community as priorities.

“With Milgard Hall specifically, we knew from the beginning we had a complex program that would bring together our business school, engineering labs and a community-facing design lab,” James said. “We intend this novel mix of users to nurture cross-collaboration and create interdisciplinary connections that lead to innovation.”

Andersen is proud of this project, Bouthillette added, for the strong partners that helped build a cohesive team culture, and then worked throughout the project to maintain that culture. 

“This building provides STEM curriculum in an area where it is significantly lacking, and it enables the UWT student body to thrive,” she said.

Milgard Hall was completed in December 2022 and opened for classes in January 2023.

About The Author

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at [email protected].





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