New furniture, new paint, new student spaces

Phase II of Student Union renovations to begin with student input


Gracie Terrall, News Editor (She/her)

The University Student Union is set to begin renovations at the end of March as a part of the Phase II Union renovation plans.

The renovation will begin March 22 until mid-August and cost around $2.5 million.

“Students really felt like we had some work to do to get this building into the current time,” Jennifer Novotny, senior director of the Union, said. “Our furniture was getting worn out and dated. Students commented on not seeing enough (artwork) that ties them to the university.”

Updates to the Union will include remodeled meeting rooms and cosmetic updates to the Market and Prairie Lounge, located outside the Lewis and Clark room. Students can expect to see new carpet, furniture, artwork and paint in these spaces.

Within all of the meeting rooms available for public use, there will be new multimedia Audio Visual systems. These systems include new video cameras for virtual meetings, wireless control panels which allow people to project their screens onto a TV, new lighting and furniture.

“We didn’t know when we were planning this that there would be a pandemic and people would have virtual meeting requests,” Novotny said.

The AV system takes up $500,000 of the total project cost.

The university is doing much more than just aesthetic updates. New mechanical, electrical and plumbing updates have already begun within the Union.

According to Keith Skogstad, the project manager for the renovations, they replaced some of the heating pumps and electrical paneling that were original to the 1973 building. There are also future plans to replace aspects of the kitchens.

“We have plans for new air handlers, exhaust fans and hoods for the kitchen,” Skogstad said. “We had a whole drainage system from the main kitchen that just disintegrated on us because it’s old and cast iron.”

This project comes after Phase 1 of the Union renovations was completed last school year. Phase I relocated the Office of Multicultural Affairs from the basement to a newly renovated office and lounge space on the second floor. The cost for this project was almost $1 million.

The University Student Union enlisted student feedback and input through engaging with student focus groups like the Student Union Advisory Committee (SUAC) to help with the design process.

“What we heard a lot was students want the spaces to be conducive of studying, hanging out and eating,” Novotny said. “A lot of the furniture pieces you will start to see were selected by students.”

Akea Aschmeller, a 2020 graduate and former Black Student Alliance president, served on SUAC her junior and senior year as the BSA representative. Aschmeller helped make decisions about furniture, color schemes and other practical elements added to the new Multicultural Center during Phase I.

“We had the opportunity to test out chairs or look at different whiteboard options and lighting,” Aschmeller said. “They’d ask us what colors we thought look good together or what we thought about different things.”

Aschmeller said faculty from the Union valued the students opinions and took them into consideration when finalizing the designs.

“They wanted our opinions, they wanted the good, the bad and the ugly,” she said. “They wanted to know what was going to be beneficial for us and what was going to help us be more successful.”

The university decided on a phased approach for the renovation to avoid the Union being shut down. In 2004, the Union was closed for about a year to expand, allowing for additional dining, lounge spaces and meeting rooms.

“Our goal is that we would not have a dip in services and students can use the facility for the rest of the school year,” Novotny said.

It was important during this renovation that the Union remain open and accessible, something other colleges were not able to do.

“At about the same time we did our renovations, the University of South Dakota did theirs and they were down for almost three years,” Skogstad said. “That’s almost one generation of students.”

While the Union remained open, between 2009 and 2010, what was once three large conference rooms was converted into what is now Einstein Bros. Bagels, Weary Wil’s and the area where the Bummobile is housed.

The last large renovation was in 2013 when the southeast dining area was added. This includes Chick-fil-A, Panda Express and Extreme Pita.

Phases III and IV of the renovation will either be upgrades to the student engagement spaces or renovating the Volstorff Ballroom. Which project will be started first will be determined based on necessity and highest usage of the space.

“When I’m walking around the Union, I’m always seeing how things can improve and asking ‘what’s not working?’” Novotny said. “Almost everything we can work at and get better, well, most everything.”