Rock climbing and residential isn’t an obvious mix of uses, but when a suburban Milwaukee gym started looking for a location closer to downtown, they teamed with an enlightened residential developer and local firm Johnsen Schmaling Architects to forge a solution that deploys the “big box” necessary for the program without that typology’s typically anti-urban aspects.
The firm started with a remarkable advantage in designing the building, Belay MKE: The developer set no requirement for the number of rental apartments, allowing design to drive the program. The architects positioned the 60-foot-tall blank-walled gym at the site’s northwest corner, facing a main thoroughfare, and configured units on a single-loaded, backwards L-shaped corridor, fitting 46 apartments in all. One-bedroom units along the building’s east side and two-bedroom units on the south overlook the Milwaukee River and provide views of either Lake Michigan or downtown in the distance.
The unusual combination of programs suggested a hybrid structural solution: A poured-in-place, below-grade parking structure is topped by precast concrete planks at the first floor. From this base, the gym’s steel frame supports 80-foot, long-span steel trusses to provide a column-free space. The apartment wings are wood-framed.
The site was once a railroad yard, and the architects wanted to honor that gritty legacy. “We wanted this to be an unapologetically raw building, but with refinement,” says partner Brian Johnsen, AIA. The exterior is clad largely in corrugated panels of naturally weathering Cor-Ten steel, with a flat, bent-plate detail denoting each floor’s framing. Cement board in varying shades of gray wraps the first floor of the gym and clads the north face of the long-span structure, where it is accented by sculpted aluminum fins that nod to the faceted climbing walls inside. “It’s our way to conceptualize natural mountain ranges and the industrial context,” Johnsen says.
Belay MKE’s composition makes the most of its mixed-use typology, and rethinks how a “big box” program can fit comfortably within an urban setting.
Project: Belay MKE, Milwaukee
Client: Mandel Group
Architect: Johnsen Schmaling Architects, Milwaukee . Brian Johnsen, AIA, and Sebastian Schmaling, AIA (principals-in-charge); P.J. Murrill (project architect); Matt Wendorf, Andrew Cesarz, Ben Penlesky, Marty Wicklund (project team)
Structural Engineer: Pierce Engineers
Civil Engineer: Pinnacle Engineering Group
Construction Manager and General Contractor: Greenfire Management Services
Lighting Design: Johnsen Schmaling Architects
Climbing Wall Design: Eldorado Climbing Walls
Size: 88,600 square feet (total); 17,800 square feet (gym); 47,100 (apartment block)
Cost: $9 million (construction)