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Stewart’s art, media facelift in making

Former dining commons expected to be transformed into high-tech center by summer 2012

This page from a series of mock-ups provided by the Office of Facilities Management shows conceptions for the Stewart Commons renovation, including the location of the new media department addition (top right), though the completed building may look different.
Courtesy Photo
This page from a series of mock-ups provided by the Office of Facilities Management shows conceptions for the Stewart Commons renovation, including the location of the new media department addition (top right), though the completed building may look different.

Stewart Commons has sat empty since 2006, when Dining Services consolidated its locations. For years, the University of Maine Office of Facilities Management has planned to renovate the space for use by the new media and art departments. In a little over a year, those departments may be able to move in.

The departments will share the building’s existing space, and an addition will be built to accommodate part of the New Media Department. A notice to designers sent out by Facilities Management described its conception of the new space, expecting the New Media Department to control 11,000 square feet and the Department of Art to control 21,000 square feet.

“The project is now at the end of the schematic design phase and the purpose … is to sort out the major uses of major areas of the building and to allocate the footprint between new media and studio art and to generally place the various functions within the building,” Elaine Clark, executive director of Facilities Management, Real Estate and Planning, said.

The renovations will be completed on time and will not exceed the budget, according to Clark. The new media and art departments will be able to move into the building during the summer of 2012 and hold classes there that fall.

“It will facilitate an increased amount of breadth and depth in programs we already have,” said Owen Smith, chair of the New Media Department. “New media has always been growing faster than the facilities.”

Plans for the new media section of the building listed on the notice to designers included a high-performance media production computing cluster, a prototyping production studio and lab and advanced graduate student labs.

Smith also described two types of classrooms expected to be built in Stewart Commons. One will be a traditional computer cluster classroom and the second, he said, will be an “information-technology classroom” designed to accommodate students with their own laptops.

The information-technology classroom will have a large, round table to foster discussion and interactivity while students face their own screens, Smith said.

He emphasized that the new facility is not a replacement for current offices and for the Still Water Lab, a new media center on the fourth floor of Chadbourne Hall, where students have tackled projects since 2003.

The renovated space inside Stewart Commons will expand students’ opportunities for innovation and will house research areas for students and faculty.

Smith hopes the renovated Stewart Commons will attract current UMaine students to the new media major and will become an appealing facet that draws future students to the campus, saying it will “become a very important attractor to bring students to UMaine who might otherwise go elsewhere.”

Susan Groce, chair of the Department of Art, has similar hopes for success of

Stewart Commons.

“When we have expanded facilities, we’ll be able to do more in each medium and handle more students,” Groce said. “Having fantastic facilities does affect the quality of work we do.”

The Department of Art is based in Lord Hall, which also houses a gallery to exhibit work done by UMaine artists. Classrooms and studios are located in Lord and Carnegie halls.

“We’re hoping to be able to grow the program. Right now our facilities are so restrictive in terms of space that we have to limit the number of students in the classroom — and we’ll still have limits. It won’t be without limits for safety reasons,” Groce said. “We deal with a lot of materials that you can’t just keep crowding students in. We want to run a very up-to-date, very safe and healthy program.”

The notice to designers released by Facilities Management described the university’s concept of the art section of Stewart Commons. The renovated building will house painting and drawing studios, a 3-D design studio, darkrooms and a printmaking studio among other resources, according to the notice.

While the renovation costs have stayed under the amount allocated in the budget, Groce said the department has a long wish list of equipment for the studios and she is unsure how many of the items on the list will be purchased.

“We have a lot of equipment needs and we’re just going to take it in priority order of what we can actually afford,” she said. “Everything from table and chairs to easels to equipment … like specialty sinks for stripping and etching for the printmaking shop.”

Clark said the renovations have turned up two “unknowns.” The university must determine the consistency of the soil beneath Stewart Commons before it can lay foundation for the addition, and it must remove a toxic substance called PCB.

“They’re looking at the depth of the ledge. They’re looking at the possibility of marine clay or mud,” Clark said about the soil study. “That affects the type of material that you use for a foundation.”

Polychlorinated biphenyl, shortened to PCB, degrades slowly due to its stable chemical structure. Exposure to PCB can cause headaches, skin rashes, fatigue and impairment of the immune system.

The use of PCB in the open, such as for window caulking rather than inside vacuum pumps, was banned in the United States in 1973 and its production was banned in the nation in 1979. Stewart Commons opened in 1963 and PCB was used in window caulking.

“It’s a highly regulated material that needs to be remediated,” Clark said. “With those two unknowns, we’re going to move into the design development. Design development is the part of the project where you actually start designing individual spaces — sorting out where desks will be, where the outlets will be, where the power will be, ventilation, plumbing, all that type of thing.

“It’s a highly detailed phase of the project,” she said.

Clark said the next step of the project is having President Robert Kennedy approve the schematic design phase before renovation can move into the design development phase. If construction remains on schedule and the cost of the two unknowns does not push the project over budget, the new media and art departments will only have to wait a year to expand.