Flagship Facelift for Huskers: Commonwealth Electric Co. of the Midwest upgrades University of Nebraska library

The University of Nebraska—Lincoln campus boasts a new learning center featuring open areas, quiet study spaces, meeting rooms, active learning classrooms, presentation rooms and ready access to technology. The learning center replaces the university’s former C.Y. Thompson Library.
Published On
Apr 15, 2021

The University of Nebraska—Lincoln’s (UNL’s) east campus library building was constructed in the 1960s and designed for its time. That means the C.Y. Thompson Library was centered around book research and independent, quiet study. Learning styles have evolved since then, so the school opted to renovate the structure—making it a space for contemporary study habits—which meant fully gutting and rebuilding the electrical system.

The electrical construction task went to Commonwealth Electric Co. of the Midwest (CECM). The project also leveraged architect DLR Group, engineer Farris Engineering and general contractor Sampson Construction, all based in Lincoln.

UNL is the state’s oldest and largest university, with two campuses in Lincoln and more than 100 classroom buildings and research facilities. Completed earlier this year, the new library, renamed Dinsdale Family Learning Commons, began serving students from its location at the center of the school’s east campus.

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Flexible collaboration study area

University libraries have evolved beyond dedicated housing for books. Instead, these facilities serve as meeting, learning and connectivity sites where students bring their homework projects, attend online classes, meet with fellow students or tutors, hear presentations, and find resources. To accommodate today’s uses, libraries are trending away from isolated cubicles, such as study carrels, and rows of shelved books.

The Dinsdale Family Learning Commons features well-lighted spaces with seating areas for collaborative projects and mobile computing support. The challenge was for contractors to transform the 50-year-old building into this modern model, within the existing structure, while the school, at times, operated around it. In the midst of the project, the COVID-19 pandemic caused a temporary slowdown.

The library project has a relatively long history. Planning and fundraising for the renovation began in 2015, said Joseph Goodwater, UNL project manager. The goal was to deliver an up-to-date learning center to the campus’ 26,000 students and faculty members.

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East Learning Stairs

“Technology and study habits have changed drastically, especially in the last few years,” he said, adding that those libraries of the past are “book warehouses” in comparison to the way faculty members and students need to learn today. In fact, the new building would contain only about 10% of the books that were housed in the original building, while access to all of the material would be available through a nearby storage facility.

CECM is a full-service electrical contractor in Nebraska, Iowa and Arizona. It provides commercial, industrial, data center, healthcare and institutional sites with power, low-voltage and technical services.

The company has served the university for decades on new construction and renovation projects. Recently, it installed the electrical system for the UNL College of Nursing’s 125,000-square-foot, three-story nursing building. It brought in power and low-voltage for the new University Health Center, a project that was started in 2015 and completed in 2018.

“We’ve done quite a bit of work on campus over the past few decades,” said Ron Lannin, CECM’s project superintendent.

Because CECM was familiar with on-campus projects that must operate around a busy student and faculty environment, working within tight schedules, space and limited staging constraints was not a problem. In actuality, the UNL library renovation was, what Goodwater called, a typical campus working environment with very little “lay down” space or on-site material storage. To accommodate staging, the team built a road to allow construction vehicles to reach the site.

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First-floor student cafe

The remodel work itself was very standard in nature, Goodwater said.

“The main difference would be the great amount of technology and data wiring that was required in the building,” he said. “Case in point: all collaboration and conference rooms have AV and Zoom capabilities to allow most any technology needed to hold meetings, classes or study groups.”

CECM arrived on site in September 2019 to provide data wiring, technology and the overall power services for the design/bid/build project.

Early on, “We did some value engineering,” said Brad Owen, CECM’s CAD technician and estimator.

The three-level, approximately 70,000- square-foot library was gutted when CECM arrived. Renovations often produce surprises when an electrical system is uncovered decades after it was built. In this case, an early obstacle came in the form of the existing power feed.

“One major item was the failure of an existing duct bank that was to feed the new building transformer,” Goodwater said.

Service had to increase in size and the existing raceways that were installed in the 1960s were compromised. CECM got to work rebuilding the feeder and adding new service.

“CECM was very cooperative and did a great job with replacing that duct bank and kept the project on schedule,” Goodwater said.

CECM then ran conduit through the structure‘s existing floors into all new ceilings and coordinated with the mechanical contractor to prevent scheduled work overlap.

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The contractor also installed the entire electrical system, including lighting, controls and low-voltage connections. The lighting for the new learning center would be a contrast to the banks of fluorescent lamps of traditional libraries. With wide open spaces, high ceilings and clustered meeting areas, the demand for seamless lighting and sustainability meant that LEDs with lighting controls were installed. This smart lighting included 1,140 indoor LED fixtures, outdoor lamps that included four-pole fixtures and recessed and column lighting. All are controlled by the building lighting control system provided by Intelligent Lighting Controls, Edina, Minn. Those controls include time clock and occupancy sensors to ensure the building runs as efficiently as possible.

CECM also worked on the low-voltage systems. Workers ran a total of 80,000 feet of CommScope Cat. 6 cable to provide communications connectivity. The University of Nebraska manages its own fire alarm systems in all of its facilities.

CECM also installed a 130-kilowatt natural gas generator by Generac Industrial Power/HM Cragg, Minneapolis. The workers wired the 1,000A main distribution switchgear by ABB, Cary, N.C., in the main electrical room, two other electric rooms on the first and second floors and electrical distribution located in the mezzanine and lower-level mechanical room. The CECM team also added the rooftop penthouse for air handlers.

The interior configuration resulted in moving or expanding some of the building’s fixtures, including new larger stairwells, elevator and generator.

Construction crews encountered several more unexpected challenges along the way, including discovering the presence of lead paint and some asbestos.

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Commonwealth Electric Co. of the Midwest deployed data wiring, technology and overall power services as part of the library’s remodel.

“When it comes to old buildings, asbestos is quite usual,” Goodwater remarked.

However, in this case, the lead paint, found on the roof, was uniquely thick. Contractors tried to chemically strip the paint, but ultimately the team cordoned off the site to sandblast it off. That required an additional three weeks in an already tight schedule.

“We had to move the schedule around,” Owen said.

A second issue came in the form of a positive COVID-19 test, which meant workers went into quarantine. This caused delays in the late summer of 2020. A skeleton crew—consisting of workers who had already recovered from the virus—was able to keep the project going.

Management stayed on task and many worked remotely. After those weeks of slowdown, all contractors were playing catch up by fall 2020. On-site work continued with limited intergroup or interjob site movement, along with wearing face masks and physically distancing “as much as you can on the job site,” Owen said.

Lift equipment helped CECM run cable and install fixtures in the soaring ceilings of the building, enabling electricians to reach 20-foot ceilings in open areas of the library. The company used scissor lifts to apply the new LED lighting in the open areas.

At peak, CECM had 12 men on-site. Substantial completion of the project came on Jan. 6, 2021.

The new library is now in use by faculty members and students enrolled in the 2020–2021 school year. Some of the primary features include an expansive active learning space on the top floor, presentation areas, an arboretum, an exam commons, quiet study spaces, offices and a new entrance on the building’s east side. The central stairway serves as both stairs and seating for presentations in the lower level. The Engler Agribusiness Entrepreneurship Program is also housed in the new library, and members can hear presentations and hold meetings.

With the latest activities underway in the new facility, Goodwater says it offers functionality and a modern flair. And the mostly glass facade means that the building serves as a beacon that stands out on the campus at night.

The remodeled Dinsdale Family Learning Commons building today “creates a beautiful space for students to study privately or in groups seven days a week and up to 18 hours per day,” Goodwater said.

Technology is readily available and designed to be easy to use. 

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Integrated technology solutions facilitate modern styles of learning and collaboration.

“I am very happy with the way the building turned out and even more happy with the very minimal post-construction issues or warranty items to be dealt with now that the building is in use,” he said.

For CECM’s own crew, the pleasure is in seeing the building in active use and the modern addition it serves for the students that come to the campus each day. In the future, the library may include a cafe and return more books to its site.

“CECM did a great job throughout the building with the power and structured cabling systems that were required,” Goodwater said.

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