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Vanderbilt University Children's Way Garage

Surprisingly complex parking garage design serves as cohesive example for Vanderbilt campus

More complex than you would think... Hard problem with a soft response.

This 500,000-square-foot, 12-story parking garage was built to meet the increasing demands at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. The cast-in-place concrete structure extends eight levels below grade and four levels above grade, clad with precast spandrel panels, brick, cast stone, steel and glass. The parking garage design contributes to campus cohesiveness through the use of material, scale, detail, and carefully pulled color from the surrounding buildings.



Children’s Way Parking Garage design received high marks for exceeding the client’s expectations and project complexity. Why?

Jeff Kuhnhenn: This was a deceptively complicated project. When you start thinking about the conditions that arise when you blast a 100-foot hole in the ground through rock and then try to put a functioning building inside of it filled with cars and their exhaust, the challenges just start piling up.

In what way was the project deceptively complicated?

Ann Trent: When we mapped the footprint of the building and got our geotechnical report back, it indicated a bone dry site — not a drop of water in any of the borings. We didn’t believe it. Nashville just doesn’t have that type of geological makeup. You don’t get bone dry sites a hundred feet down. Within the first 10 feet of excavation, we hit a huge set of geotechnical issues: springs, caves, mud seams, etc.

Eric Bearden: You’re basically working along rock seams, changing the pressure differentially, opening up new seams, and creating a basin where there wasn’t previously. We absolutely knew, even before we put the shovel in the ground, that there would be water, and as we altered the site the sources of the water could potentially change. Even though the geotechnical report told us otherwise, we had to convince the client to give us flexibility in creating a system of strategies to deal with these issues we knew would be there but couldn’t see.

Describe the strategies used to alleviate the client’s fears and manage emerging issues.

Eric: We reacted very quickly to each of the various conditions and developed solutions with the help of the contractor.

Alanna Scudder: As natural occurrences and new discoveries developed, the solutions were adaptable. We were able to change directions or adapt to the new circumstances, which helped maintain the client’s trust. They recognized that we had the ability to keep the project moving forward.

Ann: Our client had concerns that we might have been over-thinking some of our solutions. We were definitely questioned along the way, but we knew from previous experience and other lessons learned that this was the right thing to do.

Eric: We also didn’t take the attitude that water on the site was a bad thing. Keeping all the water out wasn’t feasible — the surge of water and pressures would eventually overwhelm any approach developed. What mattered was having an approach that would make the water go where we wanted it to go.
The proof that our strategy worked was clearly demonstrated when we had a record-breaking 14 inches of rain in two days. At that time we had a 100-foot hole in the ground with no roof, so naturally we wondered how much water would get in. As it turned out, throughout the entire site, there was only one foot of standing water that was confined to one of the stairwells.

Did the extremely limited surface area present any challenges?

Jeff: Not only was it a small, confined site, it involved multiple stakeholders and impacted surrounding facilities. Add to that three main arteries of circulation that bordered the three sides of the site which had to remain open for the duration of construction. All of this limited access to the site and prevented having a staging area for materials.

Ann: When we were emptying the site of all the rocks, the dump trucks couldn’t start their activity until after 9 am because of student housing situated 20 feet away. We also had the Blair School of Music and Ingram Performing Arts Center across the street, so blasting near those buildings was difficult.

Alanna: Also, the garage is set in the middle of Vanderbilt University, and Vanderbilt University Medical Center is right down the street. Coordinating the blasting schedule with concurrent surgeries meant we were very limited on the days and times we could blast.

Were there any other issues that required careful monitoring for blasting?

Jeff: There was a 12-foot diameter tunnel nearby that carries the utilities for the campus. In some places, it was 20 or 30 feet away from the bottom of our excavation. When we were blasting, we had to minimize the charges so the shockwave wouldn’t collapse the tunnel or fracture it causing it to fill with water.

Ann: Our mitigation strategy for student housing involved considering the way sound traveled out of the pit, so we could determine which units needed sound attenuation. We designed a temporary neoprene-gasketed window system to muffle the sound for people living closest to the project site.

What does it mean to design an aesthetically pleasing garage, and how did that affect budgeting?

Eric: It was a challenge to overcome the client’s preconceived idea of what they thought a garage on their campus should look like. After we looked at the arts venue, children’s hospital situated close by, and the greater character of the campus, we wanted to do more than just meet the minimum requirement. So we created a building that was more than just a parking structure — it was a continuation of Vanderbilt’s very specific design aesthetic.

Jeff: We have a lot of in-house knowledge and were able to show the client a clear understanding of the costs involved. Circulating fresh air throughout a building filled with gas-powered vehicles is a challenge, and you can take up a lot of space providing for the movement of that air. When you build an underground building, you over-excavate so that you have enough space for the jacks, tension cables and the post-tension structure. Rather than leave the space that existed between the edge of our functional building and the edge of the hole in the ground — or cover it with concrete block — we utilized the space to provide the airshaft to move air in and out of the building. This saved parking spaces, made the building more efficient, and allowed us to allocate more money toward making a nicer building.

It’s a great design. The client didn’t believe they could get an aesthetically pleasing parking garage design for the money they spent.

Did the client have any sustainability requests?

Jeff: Vanderbilt is a sophisticated client when it comes to sustainability. Despite the fact that this was a parking structure, we did studies on efficient lighting and ventilation and tried to make the building “smarter.” By using CO sensors that activate fans, we were able to address air quality issues on an as-needed basis through usage peaks and valleys.

Ann: The design team encouraged lighting controls as another way to achieve energy efficiency and save money. Along the perimeter lighting on the above-grade levels, we placed built-in light sensors that would turn off when enough outside light was coming into the space.

Jeff: Typically, you see lighting efficiency in office buildings, not a parking structure.

Eric: In fact, some of our ideas came from our past experiences with office buildings. By simply applying logic learned from different projects and shifting it to a new application, it makes people blink for a minute and think, “Why not? Why shouldn’t we do that?”

Ann: Another example of that is the emergency phones. By having a simple conversation early on, we discovered that the owner didn’t want to see exposed conduit on the outside of the block coming down to feed the emergency phones and blue lights. They wanted those concealed behind the walls and floors and, in fact, decided to seal all the conduits in the wall. I think that’s when we realized that this garage environment would be very different. The only thing you see in our garage is the sprinkler system and rainwater leaders.

What strategy did you develop to handle the complexity of the overall project?

Jeff: It was extremely important to work closely with the contractor. Alanna spent a great deal of time working through the coordination drawings to make sure all conduits were accounted for and wired to the appropriate devices. This prevented us from leaving anything out and having to come back after installation.

Alanna: We went through a series of coordination meetings with our consultants and our design team, which included extensive planning for the water system. When water is collected in the sump pit on the site, it is then pumped out to campus irrigation wells. So, the campus benefits from the ground and rain water runoff that’s being captured on our site.

Ann: We not only pump the groundwater into the irrigation well, but we also feed two irrigation systems — one at the Blair School of Music and one at the South Garage that once used city water.

What aspects of this project are most gratifying?

Eric: For me, the most gratifying aspect was the combined strength of our design team. Working together as experts, we gave the client exactly what they were looking for, maybe more. We also worked really hard to keep the lines of communication open between the client and the contractor to ensure they were meeting our design intent on the project.

Ann: The combined talents and strengths of this team were spot-on in terms of developing a very technically complex project, making it real, and having it respond to both our and the owner’s objectives from a design perspective. We had many valuable lessons from past projects that enabled us to handle problems and issues associated with a 100-foot-deep hole. It’s something we are very proud of.

Alanna: Personally, this was my first real project out of school. Seeing the imagination, function, and practicality come to fruition, combined with our ability to be creative and work with the design throughout the process has been a really amazing experience. Our team worked so well together earning our client’s trust early on so that when we did come across unforeseen issues, we were able to act quickly and with smart solutions. It’s a highly functional building, but it’s also a pretty cool parking garage design. I feel very proud and honored to be on a team with such creativity.

Jeff: Every time you go out in the field and you alter the existing circumstances, it’s an opportunity. We were able take a deceptively complex project and focus on key design issues, which in turn established a level of trust with our client that carried over into other areas of the design. We not only exceeded the client’s expectations, we brought the client to a new set of expectations of what their building ought to be, not just in terms of fulfilling its role, but also how it needed to provide consistency and connectivity to the greater campus fabric. If you’re going to spend millions of dollars, you should make the most of that opportunity. I know we managed to make the most of this opportunity.


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Project Info

  • Client: Vanderbilt University
  • Location: Nashville, TN, USA
  • Market: Corporate + Urban Design
  • Services: Architecture, Engineering, Civil Engineering, Traffic Engineering
  • Team:
    • Steven P. Johnson, Principal-in-Charge Principal-in-Charge
    • Ann Seton Trent, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP Project Manager
    • Eric Bearden, AIA Project Professional
    • Alanna Scudder, LEED AP Project Coordinator
    • Jeffrey W. Kuhnhenn, AIA, LEED AP Project Designer
    • Joseph A. Johnston Project Engineer
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