Middle Earth Gets Precious $98M Expansion

Named for "The Lord of the Rings," the student housing project at UC Irvine will comprise construction of two brand-new towers and the renovation of a dining hall.

By Jeffrey Steele

UC-Irvine Middle EarthThe University of California, Irvine (UCI) has awarded the second phase of its campus undergraduate housing program to the design-build team of Hensel Phelps and Mithun. The first phase of the $98 million, 215,000-square-foot UCI Middle Earth Expansion project is a new student-housing building on the site of two buildings that will be razed. The second is the renovation of Pippin Commons.

The new development will provide housing for almost 500 students. It will also include a new dining facility, along with amenity and classroom spaces.

Student Housing Based on Literature

The name “Middle Earth” for the 1960s-era student housing community is a tribute to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. The design of the project was influenced by local ecology and landscape.

Two five-story residential towers will emerge from a two-story podium base echoing the natural form of the surrounding region’s limestone canyons. A “Link Lounge” will offer space for socializing, media viewing, group kitchen activities and laundry facilities. Classroom and amenity space entries are at the courtyard level.

Student housing is in high demand at U.S. colleges and universities,” Seattle-based Mithun partner Bill LaPatra told MHN. “UCI’s expansion is part of a mandate by the University of California system to provide more student housing capacity on each of its campuses, and UCI developed a way to deliver the Middle Earth Expansion quickly and early using the innovative design-build delivery method. Our team, with Mithun as designer and Hensel Phelps as contractor, has successfully collaborated on several design-build projects. The design-build process for the Middle Earth Expansion started with a three-month competition to design a $100 million student housing project with quite a bit of technical detail and visual exhibits. This competition is intense, complicated and takes an immense amount of work, but it also brews a tremendous amount of creativity and team dynamic that produce great design solutions.”

There is an ongoing check and balance of design and costs within the design-build process, he added. “Meeting the program and campus standards are fundamental to our solution, but what makes a great design is the enhancement of the basic requirements through creative solutions, materiality, composition, functionality and giving a project a clear sense of soul and placemaking for the campus,” he said.

One of the biggest challenges is to have an accurate estimate on very preliminary drawings. This requires an astute estimator and a clear vision set by the design team. The early estimates are used to steer the project in the right direction and make ideal creative choices.”

Honed over five large Southern California student housing projects, the Hensel Phelps/Mithun collaboration “sets vision and design expectations more clearly and has allowed a successful alignment of budget and design,” LaPatra concluded.

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