Exploring The New Ubben - Part I

Jul 28, 2021

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So if you're unaware of my history, I started blogging in 2009 as a hobby. In real life, I was a Landscape Architect in St. Louis. That's what it says on my degree from Illinois (Bachelor of Landscape Architecture, one of those weird degrees where it's not something like Bachelor Of Arts). In February of 2020 - four weeks before Covid - I left my job of 24 years and moved to Champaign to do this full time.

What good does a BLA do when you start writing full time? Well, for starters, you write clunky sentences like "what good does a BLA do when you start writing full time." Eventually I'll probably have to take a writing class somewhere so I can learn to write good.

This week, however, I realized that maybe I can put my degree to use. Maybe a quarter-century as a Landscape Architect can benefit me in some way. How can I apply what I learned? Reading a set of plans.

The Ubben expansion is underway. Dirt is moving. Hallways are closed. And unlike the Smith Center when it was under construction, no floor plans have been published anywhere. We've seen renderings, but they don't have much context.

Context you say? I spent 25 years working on context. Most people think that a Landscape Architect is the guy who plants the hostas in your back yard, but if that were true, nobody would need a four-year degree. Yes, landscape design is part of the profession, but there's a lot more to it than that. The way I've always explained it to people: every outdoor thing you do? The zoo? The public park? The golf course? The bike trail you rode on Saturday? That's Landscape Architecture. The path you walked to get from the elephant to the rhino exhibit, and the walkway out onto the fishing pier, and the bunkers in front of the 8th green - those were put there by a Landscape Architect.

I was really bad at it, by the way. That's not a joke. I was a 1.25 Tom Cruise Landscape Architect. Rivals would have given me a 5.3 and 247 would have snuck me into the three-stars at 80 but they wouldn't have been happy about it. I could communicate, and when you can communicate, you can do just about any job, but design-wise, some of the stuff I came up with was LOL-bad.

I have a couple park projects I'm very proud of, and having the assistance of other designers in the office to make it look right while I was on site to get it built right was a great combination, but even with 25 years of experience, if you asked me to design a reflecting pool and paver entryway to your new healthcare facility, the drawing I'd put in front of you might make you laugh. Totally and completely serious. The guy who's very obviously bad at his job but he's so nice that no one wants to tell him? It me.

I don't have to worry about that anymore. That was Phase I of life. This is Phase II. Now I just need to learn college basketball. What's eFG% again?

What I can do is find a set of Ubben drawings and explain them to you. Any University project has to have a public bidding process, and all public bids will put the PDF drawings in various plan rooms around the internet (they have to be public if any public money is being spent), so I figured I'm just the man for the job. I'll find some drawings, pull out parts of the PDF, and put the Ubben renderings in context. It will probably require two or three posts, but hey, my job description now is "impress enough of you that you feel like paying me $30, $60, or $90 per year to deliver you Illini content year 'round." So this is just me using my old job to do my new job.

I just read back through all of this and when I got to this last paragraph here, at the "what I can do" part, I totally read it in Liam Neeson voice. "I can tell you I don't have money... but what I do have are a very particular set of skills. Skills I have acquired over a very long Landscape Architecture career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you."

Let's get to it. First off, I looked for a recent addendum when searching the plan room. Often times, so many finishing details are pushed past the bid date and into the addendum. Get the drawings on the street, then go back and fix things during the bid and just send it out as an addendum. I've learned over the years that if you're wanting to know what it's really going to look like (even if it's some VE exercise where a bunch of stuff gets slashed), you'll get better info from the addendum.

That's not to say things won't change. Every project will have change directives and change orders and all kinds of redesigns right up to the day it gets built. I once changed the routing on a bike trail the day the asphalt crews were there and got the contractor to approve it as a no-cost change about 15 minutes before the asphalt crew got to that spot. (If you're wondering how, it's because the soil needed to be stabilized in this one spot so the rock sub-base was like 16 feet wide for a ten foot trail and I took advantage of that width to smooth the curve). Wait, you don't care.

All of that to say that some of these drawings will be a bit messy. Maybe I'm pulling from the phasing plan the contractor put together, and maybe it's a detail that's bubbled because it was added after the bid date, but that's why you might see some weird stuff on the drawings. Let's get started.

In Part I, we'll just go over the floor plans. In Part II, I'll tie some of the renderings to the plan. And then in Part III... I'm not sure what I'll put in Part III yet. But I have other stuff screen-capped and other photos to share.

I struggled to find existing plans of the facility built in 1998. But I did find a contractor phasing plan (how the contractor plans to partition off certain parts of the building while they renovate the entire building). So we'll use those plans to compare the current floor plan to the proposed floor plan so you can see what's being expanded.

Ignore the colors here - that's just the construction phasing plan - and ignore some of the notes on the new building plans. Again, all construction phasing notes.

We'll start with the second floor, because that's probably easiest to explain. Then we'll drop down to the first floor. The existing second floor plan:

If you've ever gone to an open scrimmage at Ubben, this is the Ubben you're familiar with. At the bottom of that drawing you see the stairs leading up into the building from the parking lot. Then there's a very small lobby and you have two choices - women's gym on the left and men's gym on the right. That will be changing as part of this - the men's team and the women's team will be flipping sides once this is all complete - but we'll get to that later.

When you enter from that end, you're on the second floor. I'm sure you've seen pictures of fans crowded on that second story balcony trying to get a glimpse of Tevian Jones as he works out with the team on his visit. There's a little bump-out crow's nest in the middle which is the prime viewing platform.

At the north end (still looking in the blue area) you'll see the offices. The big office in the corner with the angled door is the head coach's office. Then there's offices for the assistants and other support staff. This is all up on that second level of the facility.

This will be consistent as we go through all of this, but the women's side is mostly just a mirror image. Same balcony. Offices in the same place (although smaller because some of that space is used for other purposes). In the middle, between the two offices, is a staircase with an open lobby. If you've watched press conferences with coaches or players surrounded by media, they typically take place in this two-story lobby.

Now let's go down to the first floor of the existing building:

We'll start with the green area (again, just a construction phasing plan, but it helps me point to things). This is the shared part of the facility right now. The bottom of the green area is the weight room. It has doors into the men's gym on the right and into the women's gym on the left. Above that is the training facility. If, say Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk is rehabbing his foot injury, he'll be working with the trainers and strength staff in those rooms while practice is going on in the gym.

The other main part to the first floor are the locker rooms/showers/lounge areas. This is basically the area under the offices. Locker room for getting ready for practice, shower for after practice, small lounge for hanging out before or after practice. The expanded facility will have all of this, it will just be... bigger. A lot bigger.

That's basically how the facility works. For the most part, the players never really go up to the second level all that much. They enter below, the court is below, the locker rooms, training facility, weight room, showers, and lounge are all below, and it's basically go to class, sleep at your apartment, or be found at Ubben on the lower level. And that's for both the men's team and the women's team. Again, everything is a mirror image.

Now let's look at the expanded facility. Those two basketball courts will still exist. The men's team will move over to the west court and the women's team flips to the east court, but the courts themselves remain. they're just pushing out the walls in all directions. Like, all four directions.

Let's start with the overall plan here. At the bottom is a new building stuck on to the old building. Part of the existing parking lot and that entire entry plaza are being replaced by the new offices. We've flipped things, so Underwood's office will be on the left and Fahey's office will be on the right (and the courts flip too). The theme here is "everything they currently have on the north end of the building, just twice as big."

We'll get into detail on that with blown-up images below, so let's just move around the facility. Both courts lose their outer wall and two half-courts are being added (easier to see on the next image). Each team will still have the main court, but off to the side, two half-courts will be built. So both sides of the facility can have a full 5-on-5 game going on while the rest of the roster (and the walkons) can practice free throws over here and post defense over there. Again, more on this later with a blown-up image below.

At the top, you can see that the old offices will be turned into some kind of academic facility (space like this can really be whatever you want it to be, so don't get tied to "that's where the academic counselors will work with the players"). By early 2022 they might decide to turn this into NIL business offices for the players. (Joking. Probably.)

Then, to the north of that, you see the outline of the new locker rooms/training rooms/weight rooms/lounges. That's yet another thing we'll cover below, but this image gives you the idea of what's happening at Ubben. Push out the walls on the east and west to add two half-courts to the full courts. Tack on a new structure to the south for the coaches and staff to all get brand new offices. Expand the structure to the north to expand the locker rooms, weight rooms, and training facilities.

Let's move down to the first floor so you can see some of this a little better.

OK, so now you can see the courts (one full-court, two half-courts for both the women and the men) as well as the expansive first floor expansion to the north. The area between the courts which used to house the entire weight room and the entire training facility is now just equipment storage and laundry facilities. There's no basement to the new offices to the south, just a few MEP rooms, so really, the first floor expansion is all about the expansion to the north.

Let's just get to the blow-ups so we can talk about what's new. But before we do, raise your right hand and repeat after me.

"I, reader of this incredible article that Robert has put together - I really should give this guy some of my money because his content brings me great enjoyment throughout the year - do solemnly swear to not take every 'that's where the GA's office will be' label below as gospel. I fully understand that by the time facilities are complete, things will be re-worked and what was once a sports medicine exam room might be changed to an office for the new nutrition specialist. I promise to not say things like 'why not have the offices for the assistant coaches closer to the conference room?' because no one knows how they'll divide the offices. I acknowledge that these are just labels added by the Architect and that those labels might change."

Thank you. Let's move on to the courts.

Fairly simple here.

  • Men's court now on the west, women's court on the east.
  • Both walls pushed out to add two half courts.
  • Balcony remains (even the crow's nest).
  • Old weight room is now "court storage" and old trainer's room is now "equipment".

The blue line between the full court and the half courts represents the old wall of the gym. So it's pretty simple. Bump that out, add two half-courts on both sides.

Moving on to the offices:

Pretty much a mirror image. There's a central lobby (this comes in off the new parking lot there by St. Mary's Road), and you'll go left into the men's basketball offices and right into the women's basketball offices. And the layout on both sides is mostly the same.

From that lobby, you'll be able to head to that same balcony walkway on both sides. Looks like there's a new mechanical room and electrical room there, and then you walk between those into what was the old lobby (with the doors to each balcony).

We'll cover a lot more on this tomorrow (answering questions like "how far does the coach have to walk to get from his/her office to the court?"), but for now, let's just zoom in on the men's side of these offices:

I don't think I need to explain much here. Every room is labeled. Tomorrow I'll include some of the renderings to go with all of this. Massive office for Underwood (with his own work room and restroom). The coaches get their own locker room complete with lockers, showers, and sauna.

Lots of windows in Underwood's office. I wonder if this was one of the reasons they flipped the men's side and the women's side? From that angle, I think you'd be able to see past Bielfeldt and gaze at the State Farm Center. I'm guessing that "living room" area with all the windows is designed for the final pitch to a recruit and his family.

Also, "copy room" is Architecture for "better add a small office here in case some future head coach wants his assistant right next to his office door."

Finally (well, "finally" for Part I), let's look at the expansion to the north:

In my opinion, this is THE reason for the expansion. Having two half-courts will be nice, and getting brand new offices is great, but taking what used to be a small weight room, small training facility, and small locker room and expanding it to (somewhat) match the football facility is the whole point here. Football players now get the Smith Center, and basketball players will get...

  • Two-story weight room with windows that face the north. This weight room is... five times the size of the old one?
  • Expanded locker room for both the men and the women. Also probably twice the size of the old ones.
  • Expanded restroom/showers for the locker room.
  • New player lounge (there won't be a bowling alley, but... we'll cover some of that tomorrow).
  • Nutrition facility (a huge part of the football facility, even if it's just putting out supplements for players after their workouts).
  • Trainer's offices with exam rooms.
  • Hydrotherapy facility (again, much like the football facility, just scaled down for 30 athletes instead of 85).
  • Massive Sports Medicine room (has to be 10 times the size of the old one).

This is the part that brings Ubben up to the level of the Smith Center, I think. And I believe that pursuit was at the center of all of this. Basketball got their own facility in 1998. 20 years later, football finally got their own facility, and because it was 20 years later, it was also 20-times nicer. That left basketball behind (athletic facilities across the country have hopped on the wave of cash flowing into college athletics and Ubben kind of missed the wave), so now Ubben is being brought up to the level of the Smith Center.

On tomorrow's episode of Robert Kind Of Uses His Degree, we'll go through the plans and match them up with the renderings. And then on Friday maybe I'll dig into the details and sections and point to some things that don't show up on either one of those.

One thing I know I won't be doing this week: getting asked questions like "so, as a Landscape Architect, do you, like, put snow plows on your trucks during the winter?" Sorry Charlie, I don't have to answer that ridiculous question anymore. I'm a fanalyst now.


'98 on July 28, 2021 @ 11:49 AM

Grand slam piece. Thanks.

DWAIL on July 28, 2021 @ 12:51 PM

Thanks Robert. Very informative.

Do you have a rough idea where the Ubben facility and the IL MBB budget respectively rank in the BIG 10 and where Ubben will likely rank after the completion of the upgrades? I have the same question for IL football before/after the Smith Center and new head coach/staff spending? Thanks again.

JustListen on July 28, 2021 @ 12:53 PM

Great writeup! Perhaps one of the next installments could include a vicinity map to place Ubben in campus context for those of us who haven't been there for a few decades (raises hand sheepishly).

Robert on July 28, 2021 @ 02:57 PM

Will do.

Sean on July 28, 2021 @ 04:21 PM

Good idea. I'm still trying to figure out how big this is going to be next to Bielfeldt

THGuild on July 28, 2021 @ 07:53 PM

B.A. in Urban Planning here. My kind of piece. I’m the one who is currently reading a Holabird and Roche monograph and an oral history from architect John Holabird, Jr. to learn about his father’s design inspirations for Memorial Stadium. I want to appreciate the stadium when I return for a game next month. Thanks Robert. Know so much more about the Ubben expansion now. Love this!

ktcesw on July 28, 2021 @ 08:05 PM

Thanks, Robert!! Superb info!!

16th&mission on July 28, 2021 @ 08:05 PM

Something has been attacking my Spirea. What is it and what should I do?

Robert on July 29, 2021 @ 09:13 AM

I believe you should contact Gary J. Kling my good man.

IlliniJedi on July 30, 2021 @ 05:24 PM

Architects know "value engineering" really means scope reduction because the client doesn't want to pay for the design quality they asked for.

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