For Milwaukee’s New Baird Center, It’s Literally Full Steam Ahead!

May 2024 saw the grand opening of the long-anticipated $456 million expansion/renovation of Milwaukee’s Baird Center, said to be the largest convention center in the state of Wisconsin. The grand opening was a stupendous event as civic and community leaders, facility management, and others came together and celebrated the facility’s overall footprint – one that was doubled to 1.3 million square feet. While the general public might only be interested in the finished project, meeting planners and convention organizers should know what goes into making a convention center of this magnitude, whether it’s a new build or an expansion. 

The Employee-Owned
Henderson Companies
Let me lay some groundwork first by saying the builder on record is Henderson Companies. What’s significant about that fact is that Henderson Companies is the 100 percent employee-owned parent company of Henderson Engineers and Henderson Building Solutions, which is commendable. To explain further, Henderson Engineers is a national building systems design firm focused on various core sectors: business, community, health, and venue, among other considerations. Henderson Building Solutions is a national design-build construction management and commissioning firm that provides a seamless bridge between design, construction, and ongoing maintenance. Licensed in all 50 states, its team members literally bring buildings to life through the efforts and determination of more than 1,000 employees located in offices across the country.

Can Run Multiple
Shows Simultaneously
Spread across a two-block radius, the expansion features a new grand entrance that faces the Deer District’s mixed-use development and connects the convention center to a key entertainment and social corridor in the downtown area. In addition to extending the facility’s exhibition hall to 300,000 contiguous square feet, the redevelopment increases the number of meeting rooms from 28 to 52, bumps up the number of loading docks from 16 to 22, and adds more than 400 enclosed parking spaces. There is also a rooftop ballroom and extensive terrace for corporate receptions, client appreciation events, private parties, and more. Plus, the ballroom’s outdoor terrace offers breathtaking views of the city, making every event so much better.

“The Baird Center has been serving Milwaukee well for the past 26 years, and it’s an honor to have been entrusted with shaping its future for decades to come,” said Russ Murdock, Henderson’s convention center practice director. “Flexibility is a priority for modern convention centers as these facilities are increasingly focused on serving multiple functions at once rather than the traditional approach of mainly booking large single exhibitions. This expansion allows the Baird Center to seamlessly run multiple shows and events simultaneously thanks to the diversity of meeting spaces that are now available, providing them the opportunity to utilize the building’s footprint to its full potential.”

A Downtown Steam Loop
for Heat & Hot Water
Always with the patron experience in mind, the Henderson group gave special attention to ensuring user-friendly public spaces that are fully equipped with building systems to support varying crowd capacities without interfering with the aesthetic feel of the surroundings. The most significant of these systems include the facility’s fire and life safety apparatus, which features massive exhaust ventilation systems to prevent smoke accumulation within assembly areas in case of emergency.

For instance, in collaboration with project architects EUA and TVS, Henderson hid exhaust fans and grills behind beautiful, custom-designed air intake screens to make them virtually unnoticeable. On the sustainability front, and this is particularly newsworthy, the Henderson-designed infrastructure takes advantage of an existing downtown district steam loop to generate hot water and to provide heating. Excess heat produced from this process is designed to be used for the facility’s snow-melt system during Wisconsin’s colder months; by incorporating steam, the expanded Baird Center is 23 percent more energy efficient than a typical new convention center. 

Sustainability That
Benefits Business & Community
Henderson also spearheaded other sustainable approaches, including a solar roof, low-flow plumbing fixtures, and LED lighting. The project is designed to meet LEED Silver green building standards.

“Steam is not a common power source for new facilities but, by using infrastructure that the city had already invested in, made sense from a sustainability perspective because we not only needed less materials, but steam also has a lower environmental footprint than fossil fuels,” explained Murdock. “All our sustainability approaches ensure that the Baird Center is not only a benefit for the community from a business and tourism perspective but also when it comes to the long-term health of the surrounding environment.”

Henderson’s full scope of work for the project was audio-video, electrical, energy modeling, fire and life safety, mechanical, plumbing, technology, and security. More than 30 percent of this work was delivered in partnership with Wisconsin-based businesses BCL Enterprise, DK-39IBC Engineering, Oneida Total Integrated Enterprises, and Pro Audio Systems. Gilbane | Smith served as the general contractor.

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