Old Main's Douglas Fir Gets New Life

A group of students set to graduate from the UA in May has salvaged and repurposed Douglas fir taken from Old Main during its renovation.
April 13, 2015
Extra Info: 

Other students in the UA College of Architecture, Planning & Landscape Architecture who volunteered their time this semester to work on the project are:

  • Jonell Diekmeier
  • Michelle Leonard
  • Enrique Lopez
  • Brad Meyerson
  • Joseph Madaghiele
  • Billy Park
  • Kara Tully
  • Clauda Hapenciuc
  • Bridget Proulx 
  • Carlos Flores

 

The Douglas fir that, for more than 120 years, was part of Old Main's second-floor veranda is getting a new life.

Since the fall of 2014, a group of University of Arizona students, led by lecturer and architect Paul Reimer, designed and has begun building a 21-foot-long bench using the porch rafters. The bench is slated to be installed on the lower level at Old Main later in the year.

"I am really grateful. I understood the magnitude of this project," said Reimer, a lecturer in the School of Architecture.

It was during Old Main's most recent renovation and restoration that Rodney Mackey, associate director of Planning, Design & Construction at the UA, began to imagine a new future for the wood, which the team said could be more than 500 years old.

Soon after, Mackey connected with Robert Miller, director of the School of Architecture, and involved Reimer with the intention of launching a project that would evolve into the design of a bench for Old Main.

During the fall semester, Reimer launched a course to involve students in the research and design phase. The group studied how Old Main visitors interacted with the exterior space, especially while studying and meeting. The team wanted to create an object with reverent functionality — something true to Old Main's history and its future that would provide a use for visitors.

Reimer said the project involved a number of unique opportunities, largely because it created an opportunity to be creative and to involve students in an engaged process, using historic materials. He also said that given trends in the field toward the increased use of repurposed and sustainable materials, the project presented a teaching moment.

College of Architecture, Planning & Landscape Architecture students with their rough prototype. (Photo courtesy of Paul Reimer)

College of Architecture, Planning & Landscape Architecture students with their rough prototype. (Photo courtesy of Paul Reimer)

"Many times in architecture school, we talk about materials, but students do not often get a chance to work with materials," Reimer said, adding that architecture students at the UA have the benefit of accessing the college's Material Lab, which provides space to model, fabricate and test different materials.

"They are able to gain reverence for materials," he said. "It is critical to understand the history of materials to be able to prepare them."

Some of the students from the fall class — all are set to graduate in May — have remained involved this semester, volunteering their time to wrap up the project.

"It was important for me to remain dedicated. This is such an amazing piece to be working on," said Stephanie Oleksa, who will graduate with her architecture degree. "It is historic, it is original."

All of the students who worked on the project this semester are set to graduate in May.

All of the students who worked on the project this semester are set to graduate in May.

Removed from Old Main, the wood appeared dull and rotten. After the students milled, fabricated and resurrected the wood planks, the original reddish hue and natural grain patterns resurfaced and are now ready to be oiled before installation.

"It's just gorgeous," Reimer said. Tucson-based Rustic Elegance helped the team build the steel support armature.

The students involved this semester have manifested the original concept into a steel bench with fir wood seating, which can be used for sitting, lying down or reclining.

Taken from Old Main, the Douglas fir had to be milled, fabricated and resurrected before it was ready for installation.

Taken from Old Main, the Douglas fir had to be milled, fabricated and resurrected before it was ready for installation.

"We wanted to push the limits and design something that is everlasting," said Darrell Ibanez, who will graduate in May with a degree in architecture.

"The design is a compilation of everything everyone had in mind," Ibanez said. "I hope people will be attracted to it when they see this interesting form on the original site."

Ibanez said he took particular interest in the course and in volunteering this semester because it has taught him how to scale projects and to work through the challenges of something complex.

"It was a great opportunity for me to have a chance to contribute to the UA and leave something behind. It's a fortunate position to be in," Ibanez said.

Oleksa, who will work with the SmithGroupJJR in Phoenix after graduating, said the course and experience working with Old Main's Douglas fir has been especially useful in helping her to gain skills for her life beyond the UA.

"We do a lot of individual group projects, but working in a group like this, you find your strengths and weaknesses and passions," she said, adding that she appreciates being able to contribute to Old Main's legacy. "It has been an honor to work collaboratively. It has been a blessing to work on this project."