HOK’s Paul Joran and Emily Ostertag design improvements for the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, where they trained and competed as student-athletes.
As a member of the Badgers swim team between 2002 and 2006, Ostertag estimates she swam 500,000 laps and worked out for 5,600 hours at the old Southeast Recreation Facility, aka, “the SERF.” As a linebacker on the nationally ranked Badgers football team (also between ’02 and ’06), Joran’s days revolved around an exhausting schedule of workouts and practices squeezed between classes and study hall.
Although they didn’t realize it then, their demanding lives as Wisconsin student-athletes would help shape their professional careers. Following graduation, both Ostertag and Joran enrolled in graduate school for design—Ostertag pursuing a master’s in interior design at Wisconsin and Joran studying architecture at Cornell University. When it came time to write their theses, both drew from their days as undergraduate student-athletes.
“My thesis was essentially on redesigning the pool at the SERF,” said Ostertag. “It looked like a submarine. It was a long and windowless space. My thesis explored how designers could create a sense of place in natatoriums.”
Coincidentally, Joran wrote his thesis on improving athletic training facilities. It, too, was based on his experience in Madison. “At the time, Wisconsin was notorious for all these underground, bunker-like training facilities,” said Joran. “As someone interested in sports architecture, I wanted to see how design could improve the athletes’ experience.”
Fast forward a few years and Ostertag and Joran, who knew each other tangentially while at Wisconsin but have since become close friends and colleagues, both found themselves working in the Sports + Recreation + Entertainment group in HOK’s Kansas City studio. They have since worked on multiple projects for professional sports and collegiate clients. None, however, has been as special as designing facilities for their alma mater.
In September, the Nicholas Recreation Center (a.k.a., the Nick) opened in downtown Madison on the site of the demolished SERF. Ostertag and Joran helped design the massive new building alongside their HOK colleagues and partner firm Workshop Architects. The Nick includes eight basketball courts, 30,000 square feet of fitness space, numerous cardio studios, a fourth-floor indoor track with views onto the Capitol and an Olympic-sized pool with adjacent diving well and seating for 1,000 spectators.
For Ostertag, who led the interiors work for the Nick, the pool facility is something she could only dream of as an undergrad.
“It’s everything I could have wanted as a student-athlete. It’s light-filled, spacious and state-of-the-art,” said Ostertag. “It’s the kind of place I would enjoy going to each day and be proud to show off to recruits, alumni and competitors from other schools.”
Joran believes the familiarity he and Ostertag have with the University of Wisconsin give them valuable insights as they work to upgrade the school’s facilities. In 2016, Joran used his understanding of the campus and its student body to help draft a master plan for the university’s athletic facilities. Based on that plan, Joran is now leading the design of an addition to the Kohl Center, an HOK project dating back to 1998, which will add a 45,000-sq.-ft. training facility onto the arena that hosts the basketball and hockey Badgers. Ostertag is contributing to the design of the locker rooms and team spaces within the addition.
Joran also provided programming and concept design for a potential upgrade to a building he knows particularly well: Camp Randall Stadium. The proposed renovation of the school’s historic football facility would completely remake the south end zone.
Both HOK designers are also at work on another recreation center on campus, a replacement for the university’s 1960s-era natatorium. That project is slated to include a recreation pool, ice rink, eight basketball courts and 30,000 square feet of fitness space. It will also include numerous wellness offerings such as a teaching kitchen, consultation rooms, a mind/body studio, massage rooms and a relaxation room with nap pods—an increasingly popular amenity in athletic facilities.
“We want these projects to be facilities all students can take pride in and enjoy,” said Joran. “They can help recruit athletes. They can help recruit non-athletes, too.”
Making the projects all the more special is the influence they can have on students long after they leave Madison.
“Everyone tends to think of their alma mater as the greatest place ever,” said Ostertag. “We hope these projects carry that sentiment forward for new generations of Wisconsin alumni.”