What’s your job? Pamela Barrett, Physical Plant Director of Architecture and Engineering

At the heart of UW-Madison lies a dedicated team working diligently behind the scenes to create and maintain spaces to learn, work and live. What’s your job? is a series focused on the work of FP&M employees. As the largest and most diverse nonacademic unit on campus, it can be challenging to learn everything our division is responsible for. These stories shine a light on FP&Mers and what they do to keep campus safe, sustainable and successful.

person poses by wall exhibit with many small doors the size of a picture frame mounted on the wall with weights and measurements in large letters and photos of cows
Pam Barrett stands near an interactive wall display about dairy nutrition at the Dairy Cattle Center where Physical Plant Architecture and Engineering teams recently completed an interior renovations project. Photo by Veronika Dethart.

Pride in progress

Pamela Barrett, Director of Architecture and Engineering of UW-Madison’s Physical Plant has a multifaceted role and her remarkable 14-year journey at the UW has included everything from designing frog-safe alarm systems to helping design some of the university’s most important spaces.

Behind the title

Pam’s role at FP&M is nothing short of pivotal. She and her team are responsible for orchestrating “small project” renovations of campus buildings, each with a budget maximum of $300,000, to be constructed by the university’s in-house maintenance and operations organization.

This goes far beyond mere blueprints; it encompasses space planning with the Space Management Office, code compliance reviews and a range of related services. Moreover, Pam is entrusted with the Physical Plant Plan Room, a treasure trove of essential documents such as drawings, specifications, and manuals for all the university’s buildings.

A week in her shoes

Pam’s workweek is a whirlwind of strategic management and hands-on guidance. She spends the majority of her time prioritizing projects, tackling high-priority tasks and counseling her team on intricate building and fire code issues. Pam’s days are punctuated by meetings and the meticulous creation of reports to keep stakeholders informed about the department’s workload. The team juggles an impressive slate of projects.

“At any given time, we are managing 175 to 250 requests for renovations on campus, depending on the time of year,” she said.

These projects range from minor repairs to the creation of large labs and classrooms.

two people at a computer with multiple screens
Pam Barrett (Director of Architecture and Engineering) at left and Jon Lourigan (CAD & Revit Coordinator) at right look a 3D scan of a building at 30 N. Mills St, where the FP&M Physical Plant Architecture and Engineering team is headquartered. Photo by Veronika Dethart.

The joy of collaboration

For Pam, the true essence of her job lies in her interactions with her dedicated team. Many of them have been working together since she started at FP&M in 2006. Their shared commitment to enhancing the physical environment is palpable. Even though their projects may be smaller in scale, they always aim to consider the broader context. Pam cherishes the discussions about how their work impacts not just buildings and campuses but also teaching and learning methodologies.

Challenges as building blocks

According to Pam, in the world of construction, three factors reign supreme: time, scope and money. Her team grapples with the delicate balance of these elements daily.

“When one of these three changes, the other two must also, to accommodate the first,” she said.

The challenge arises when mid-project alterations arise, and a decision must be made regarding timelines or budgets. Managing the scope during the design phase becomes their key strategy in minimizing disruptions during construction.

person stands in lit inner atrium of modern building with cow statue and red chairs
Pam Barrett checks the electronic controls for the window shades that are silk-screened with cows at the Dairy Cattle Center as part of the space’s design. Photo by Veronika Dethart.

Pam is especially proud of a few standout projects and accomplishments. As a designer, she was part of the team that crafted the innovative Wisconsin Collaboratory for Enhanced Learning collaborative spaces in the Wendt and Memorial Libraries. These spaces were groundbreaking at the time of their creation.

person in a red shirt pointing at a computer screen with a floorplan displayed in a lit office workspace
Pam Barrett points at a computer screen displaying a floor plan. Photo by Veronika Dethart.

She’s also confident in her team’s ability to design research labs, due to their vast experience and the diverse array of labs they’ve designed. Additionally, they’ve embarked on digitizing the Plan Room’s contents, making them electronically accessible, a work-in-progress nearing 80% completion.

The essence of FP&M

For Pam, FP&M’s appeal lies in two aspects — its vibrant people and the incredible diversity of work. From designing labs with unconventional fire alarm needs to creating rooms in every imaginable hue, every day brings new challenges and opportunities. It’s this dynamic blend that keeps Pam and her team engaged, ensuring that their jobs are never mundane.

“My group has designed so many kinds of spaces from labs where frogs live that can’t have fire alarms that make noise, to an outdoor museum exhibit.” Pam said. “I’ve assisted my designers in designing a pool for robots to swim in and a shark tank.

The people and the variety of the work ensure that the job is never boring.”