A sneak peek of the new Michigan Union

Monday, December 16, 2019 - 7:50pm

The Michigan Union, which has been closed for renovations since April 2018, is set to reopen to the University of Michigan campus community on Jan. 13, 2020. Before the long-awaited reopening, The Michigan Daily and The Michiganensian were invited by the University Unions office for an exclusive tour of the new building.

Located at the heart of campus and known to be the center of student life, the new Union building incorporated more student gathering spaces by enclosing the first floor courtyard and by reconfiguring the floor plan of the front lounges. 

The new building also features the IdeaHub, a new meeting space dedicated to the University’s more than 1,600 student organizations. The IdeaHub is meant to replace private office space previously available for a fraction of student organizations. To further open up more meeting spaces for student groups, all University offices have been moved to the third and fourth floors of the building. 

Panda Express and Subway will return to the building. They will be joined by six new restaurants, including Taco Bell, Panera Bread and MI Burger. 

In addition, the renovations include significant infrastructural changes, such as upgrades to the electrical, mechanical and plumbing systems and replacement to the roof and windows. According to a press release provided to The Daily by Susan Thwing, Housing Services’ Marketing and Public Relations consultant, the changes emphasized sustainability, resulting in an “estimated 37 percent energy savings” and “20 percent in water consumption savings.” 

The renovation also addressed accessibility issues in the old building. All floors of the building are now connected by elevators, allowing easier travel between floors for individuals with disabilities. In addition, the Union’s North Entrance has been redesigned to include an enclosed accessibility ramp. LSA senior Nick Schmidt, Michigan Union Board of Representatives chair, said he is excited for the new Union to reopen and serve as a meeting spot for students and the campus community. 

“Our other campus unions don’t necessarily have the big open social space that we now have in this Union, so hopefully it will foster a lot of conversations and collaboration and friendship,” Schmidt said.  

History of the project 

In 2016, the University of Michigan Board of Regents approved a plan to dedicate a $85.2 million budget to renovate the Union, the building’s most comprehensive renovation since its opening. Funding for the project came from the $65 University Unions and Recreational Sports Facility Improvement Fee that all full-time students pay each semester as part of their tuition.

According to Schmidt, students have been involved in the project from the beginning. Students served on the Michigan Union Board of Representatives, attended meetings and completed surveys. 

“Being a part of this project has really changed my college career,” Schmidt said. “It’s allowed me to be a part of something bigger than myself.” 

First floor

On the first floor, some of the most significant changes are in the courtyard, which is now covered with a glass ceiling so it can be used regardless of weather conditions. 

The new courtyard in the Union as seen from the second floor terrace. The space was created to meet students' demands of more open study spaces and to allow the courtyard to be used year-round.

The new courtyard in the Union as seen from the second floor terrace. The space was created to meet students' demands of more open study spaces and to allow the courtyard to be used year-round. Buy this photo
Olivia Cell/Daily

The new courtyard features the Block M at its center, resembling the one on the Diag. Susan Pile, University Unions senior director, said she envisions the space to quickly become a popular social hangout, as the space is also located right next to Sweetwaters Coffee and Tea. 

“We want it to feel like an indoor Diag … the type of serendipitous interaction that happens on the Diag, the natural connection where you run into your friends,” Pile said. “I can just imagine students saying ‘I’ll meet you in the courtyard.’” 

The courtyard is also equipped with a projector screen and has space for a stage, so it can be used and reserved for various programming events. Schmidt said he hopes people will use the space to host watch parties on game days.

“I’m excited to see maybe on game days to have the projector come down and the game projected,” Schmidt said. “If they don’t have a place to watch the game or don’t have tickets, people can still feel like they’re a part of the atmosphere.”

Directly connected to the Willis Ward Lounge is the new South Lounge, previously the site of several administrative buildings. The South Lounge, which also has a projector, can be reserved for private events or used as a casual hangout spot. 

Together, Pile said the lounges will add vibrancy to the building’s first floor.

“One of the things we didn’t have a lot of in the pre-renovation of the Union were spaces for students and other community members to just come in and land,” Pile said. “This is one of those spaces where they will be able to do that.”

Second floor 

Overlooking the courtyard on the second floor of the building, the new IdeaHub is a mixed-use space intended to serve as a flexible meeting area for all and any student organizations. 

The IdeaHub features a variety of private and semi-private spaces available for use and reservation only by student organizations. In addition, the Billiards Room has been removed and replaced by a large, open office-style room with movable furniture available on a first come, first served basis.

Two “movement studios” — dance studios that can be used to host student performance group rehearsals — were added with the renovation.

Students will now be able to use two movement studios on the second floor of the Union. Everything is newly built except for the stained glass windows, which were preserved and left original.

Students will now be able to use two movement studios on the second floor of the Union. Everything is newly built except for the stained glass windows, which were preserved and left original. Buy this photo
Olivia Cell/Daily

Also newly available is a creation room, where Pile said students can paint and engage in other creative activities “without fear of getting paint on the floor.” 

In the old Union building, 73 of the University’s more than 1,600 student organizations shared 40 private office spaces, which were primarily used for storage. In an email statement to The Daily, Nick Smith, Center for Campus Involvement director, explained the IdeaHub was conceptualized in response to students asking for more equitable student organization work space. 

“Students’ vision for the IdeaHub is a place for student organizations, led by students, and filled with students,” Smith wrote. “With students leading the design decisions, the IdeaHub is designed to be highly flexible, simple and intuitive, equitable in use, and with a focus on student organization engagement and learning.”

To replace the function of the offices, lockers will be available throughout the day for student organization storage. 

According to Josh Lee, CCI’s manager for student development, the IdeaHub will be staffed with student employees, who will oversee the space and provide advising to organizations. Lee said CCI staff will also facilitate a variety of programming activities such as roundtable discussions, workshops and guest speakers. 

Pile said she is excited to see student organizations that are passionate about a variety of causes all working in the same space.

“A hive of activity can happen in here at one time,” Pile said. “Everything from a dance practice group in one of the movement studios to Dance Marathon to cultural orgs to environmental organizations can all be here and be in collective shared use of space in creating our community, which is fundamentally what the Union is about.”

Third and fourth floor

The third and fourth floor of the new Union primarily house University offices, with small nooks for study and rest scattered throughout. 

Located on the third floor are offices for CCI, Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs, the Spectrum Center, Student Organization Accounts Service, Central Student Government and the University’s Student Life administration.

The Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center as well as the Counseling and Psychological Services office are housed on the fourth floor. The 40 offices previously used by student organizations have been converted to office space for CAPS. A larger reflection room and a foot-wash room can also be found on the fourth floor. 

The fourth floor of the Union is dedicated to student wellness--all of the floor's previous office space has been converted into space for the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center as well as the Counseling and Psychological Services office.

The fourth floor of the Union is dedicated to student wellness--all of the floor's previous office space has been converted into space for the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center as well as the Counseling and Psychological Services office. Buy this photo
Olivia Cell/Daily

Pile explained the third and fourth floors are meant to be a quieter space for study and reflection. 

“One of the things that I love that we’ve done is we’ve got this great, open, shared social space and connectivity on the lower levels, and then we have these small little nooks that allow for some quieter conversation or to be by yourself (on the upper levels),”  Pile said. “We really tried to balance those needs throughout the building.”