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MA Design Award Interior Category

Careful use of metal complements a rejuvenated lobby

The renovation of the lobby of the Patrick V. McNamara Federal Building in Detroit was part of a much larger project that included reworking space for a new tenant occupying the building and updating security in the post- 9/11 world. Through funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the General Services Administration wanted to meet the new demands, yet keep the aesthetic of the building intact.

The sophistication of the renovation and the role metal played in adding to the design of the lobby are what captured the attention of the 2015 Metal Architecture Design Award judges.

Bob Varga, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, is vice president and design principal for SmithGroupJJR, working out of firm's Detroit office. He identified the lobby renovation requirements. "One was to clarify circulation," he says. "Because the building floor plan and the way it was designed, it was difficult to know where you were. Two was to expand the lobby. And three was to meet the security needs of the new tenant."

Those renovation requirements were explicitly intertwined. In particular, the lobby no longer met the demands of the public. Lines during tax season and other busy times often pushed out the door and into the elements. Expanding the size of the lobby involved moving a curtainwall to the outside edge of the building footprint. The new curtainwall stands just inside the buttresses. "We held it off the buttresses," says Varga, "so it reads like an insertion that could be removed. We purposely made it look as delicate as possible."

The curtainwall is a point-supported system that is hung from beam above. "It has stainless steel rods that drop down from the top. Rectangular tubes that act as girts," says Varga. "Just by the expression of the metal, it became part of the aesthetic."

In addition to expanding the lobby, Varga and his team needed to create a separate, secure entrance for the new tenant that bypassed the public entrances and provided a discrete path to a dedicated elevator. Those floor plan changes were made in a way that preserved the lobby's aesthetic.

"The building had good bones," Varga says. "It was a combination of internationalist and brutalist style. It had double-story space with a lot of glass that you can see through to the lobby, which is kind of monumental in its own way. But they combined it with a brutal aesthetic of concrete. So the materials were rich and there was a cool, really high space. It was a good keeper, if you will, and we thought how could we add to it rather than demo it or really modify it."

But the existing lobby was oppressive. The concrete had aged and dirtied, so the lobby felt more like a dungeon than a welcoming space. It required cleaning and better lighting. But lighting also helped clarify the path to the exit. Because the lobbies were confusing, people would exit the elevator and not know how to get out of the building. "Lighting played a huge role," Varga says. Lighted glass ceiling panels framed in steel showed the path to the lobby. "The really nice LED lighting washed across the textured wall," Varga adds. "The light highlighted the concrete and contrasted it with the steel."

"To me, steel was the natural element to use," Varga says. "There's a level of authenticity to the materials that were already in the building, that I felt like steel added to the authenticity. If we respect what's there, how do we add to it? If we don't respect what's there, we do something totally contrasting and do our own thing. Fifty years from now, what's going to feel more appropriate? We felt steel was correct because it resonated and added to the authenticity. Because it was different enough, though, it was clearly added. It's different but it's authentic."

For Varga, it was more than just selecting steel that made the design work. He pushed for plate stock instead of a lighter gauge, which would have cost less. "Using something thicker that is crafted adds to the character of the building," he says. "It becomes structural. When you touch it, you know it's solid. It has a level permanence that feels like it's been there for while."

The judges recognized that attention the importance of the steel and how it fit with the renovation of the lobby, earning this project the award for Interiors.


Patrick V. McNamara Federal Building Lobby Renovation, Detroit

Completed: May 2014
Total square footage: 12,700 square feet
Building owner: U.S. General Services Administration
Architect: SmithGroupJJR, Detroit,
General contractor: Clark Construction, Bethesda, Md.,
Steel fabricator and installer: Davis Iron Works Inc., Commerce Charter Township, Mich.
Steel supplier: Contrarian Metal Resources, Allison Park, Pa.,

Photos: Jason Robinson