Mystery BuildingIntrigues Spartans

Michigan State University's newest building looks like every other academic facility on the East Lansing campus, but it serves a very different purpose. Can you guess what it is?
August 11, 2010

Have you figured out what the mystery building is? Hint: It has a concrete frame and sloped floors.

Still not sure? One more hint: You have to pay on the way out.

Yep, it's a parking garage!

If you feel a bit embarrassed at being fooled, join the club. Not one staff member on this magazine could correctly identify the building's true identity. Neither could most students walking past the building during its construction on the campus of Michigan State University in East Lansing.

“During construction, students kept asking which academic department was moving into the new brick building,” says David Clark, AIA, LEED AP, director of architectural design with Fishbeck, Thompson, Carr & Huber, Grand Rapids, Mich., which partnered with parking consultant Carl Walker Inc., Kalamazoo, and Granger Construction, Lansing, on the project. The parking structure, which opened last December, is located on the university's historic north campus.

MSU officials went to great lengths to make sure passersby would have difficulty distinguishing the 730-car Grand River Avenue Parking Ramp from other buildings on campus. Highly detailed punched openings, traditional red brick cladding, and a sloped slate shingle roof are among the features that help the structure blend seamlessly with the historic character of the campus.

“Aesthetically, the façade has as much detailing as many academic buildings built today,” says Clark, referring to features like arched stone porticos that mark the pedestrian entrances and stone window surrounds that are scaled to match that of nearby campus buildings. While most of the window openings are not glazed, faux mullions and mesh safety gates create an occupied, shaded appearance when viewed from a distance.

The entire brick skin was field-laid, a highly unusual approach for parking structure construction. “We've designed many brick-clad parking ramps, but we typically use precast concrete with brick inlay for the exterior,” says Clark. “It's a faster and less-expensive construction method.”

But MSU officials were concerned that brick-inlay precast would not provide a close enough match with nearby buildings, especially given the limited brick color options offered by precast fabricators. “Plus, the university knew this structure would be there for 100 years, so they were willing to pay more for it,” says Clark.

On a cost-per-car basis, the new garage cost $20,000-$22,000, a premium of 25-100% over standard campus parking structure construction, says Clark.

“Ramps can get as low as $9,000-$12,000 per car, while upscale garages with a precast brick-inlay exterior typically fall in the $15,000-$18,000 range,” says Clark. “This one was in the higher range because of the shape of the building—it had to fit it into a tight site—and the numerous aesthetic façade features.”

MSU was able to justify the $15 million-plus tab for the 730 parking spaces because not one cent came from public tax revenue or general student fees. Instead, the garage will pay for itself with user parking fees paid by employees, students, and visitors. Since the early 1980s, parking at MSU has operated as a self-supporting entity, and it's big business, bringing in nearly $10 million in revenue in 2006.

In all, the garage has five levels of parking, including one below grade and a “rooftop” deck that is covered by the mansard roof. Clark says the below-grade construction was necessary in order to meet the program requirements without exceeding MSU's campus height restriction.

“It was a major challenge getting 730 cars into the site without creating a monster scale-wise,” says Clark. “We didn't want this structure to tower over the surrounding structures.”

The building's chevron-shaped footprint also helps to scale-down its mass by breaking the long, uninterrupted exterior walls typical of a rectangular parking structure. Generous amounts of open space and landscaping surround the structure, further enhancing the campus feel.

Clark says the team also utilized the building's shape and surrounding landscaping features to help conceal the sloped floors from the pedestrian and vehicle traffic along Grand River Avenue.

“Basic floor-to-floor elevations are about 11 feet, so you can imaging a ramp going around the length of the building and traversing 11 feet in height for each level,” says Clark. “It was a challenge trying to accommodate the level window pattern while disguising the ramp so people could not see it through the façade.”