Hometown U: New engineering facility is a hands-on learning lab

Kathleen McCoy
Construction continues on the new University of Alaska Anchorage Engineering & Industry Building on the campus of UAA in Anchorage, Alaska Thursday, Jan. 16, 2013. Philip Hall

A new building rising along Providence Drive looks a little like a scene from "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." Through trees lining a busy street, the steel bones of a four-story building, shrouded in clear plastic and brightly lit from within, suggest a spaceship just arrived.

But no UFO, it's UAA's newest construction project, the Engineering and Industry Building, which will open in August 2015. The building is needed to maintain academic accreditation for the engineering program and accommodate an enrollment that has quadrupled to 1,200 since 2000.

The new structure will expand classroom and lab space and allow the College of Engineering to consolidate the pieces and parts of an extensive, 11-discipline engineering curriculum. UAA teaches everything from arctic engineering to classic mechanical, electrical and civil engineering, to geomatics (surveying and map-making), GIS and computer systems engineering.

Space has been at a premium for years. The new building, at 80,000 square feet, will complement an older 40,000-square-foot engineering building that will be refurbished.

The added space will allow for new computer-aided-design (CAD) labs. The Prototyping Lab, including 3-D printers, will move from its temporary home in the University Lake Complex.

What really makes the new building unique is the way engineering faculty and project architects have seized upon the chance to construct a facility that doubles as a lab for the students who will study there.

Architects call the result "engineering on display." Some of the building's systems and "bones" will be visible for educational purposes. Students in the new space will literally study and work in a living laboratory.

What will that look like?

Some of it will be passive opportunities to observe building systems at work. The mechanical systems for most buildings -- their heating, ventilation and cooling systems, or HVAC -- are usually tucked away and out of sight on the roof or in a maintenance room. As architect Paul Daugherty of Livingston Slone said, "Every building has them, it's just that most customers have no desire to see them."

Other engineering features will be more active, like the sensors and accelerometers installed to detect seismic activity, tilt or wind load.

"Everyone thinks that a building is a static construction, that it just sits there and doesn't move once it's been built," said Andrew Metzger, a civil engineering professor. Not true. Forces are constantly acting on any building, from wind blasts, to trucks rumbling by on Providence Drive, to the earth's slightest but frequent tremors.

"You won't see any movement by just looking at a building," Metzger said, "but this building's instrumentation will be so sensitive that we can record those movements and then look at the data."

Scott Hamel, also a civil engineering professor, says he's excited because "I teach steel design, and for us, it's great to look up and see the parts that we really care about."

Joey Yang, a civil engineering professor who has just piloted a snowless sidewalk installation on campus and has a patent pending on the design, will see his system installed on 900 square feet of the largest public entry to the building. The snowless sidewalk's electronic components and controllers will be labeled for function and visible through a nearby glass panel.

A "strong" floor on the bottom of the building, complete with a 10-ton crane or hoist for moving heavy equipment, will be solid enough to serve as an anchor for structural testing. This large interdisciplinary lab space will also be where students build projects like "Baja buggies" or concrete canoes used in student competitions nationally and internationally.

"We have tried to work with the faculty to make it as academically relevant to the classes they teach as we can," said architect Daugherty. "They can have assignments where students go out into the building and observe things, take readings and monitor them over time, do whatever they need to do to learn these systems."

Some of the bells and whistles will be phased in, Daugherty said, as funding or industry support becomes available.

The total project cost is $123.2 million. To date, the university has $77.46 million allocated for construction and plans to ask for an additional $45.74 million in fiscal year 2015.

Kathleen McCoy works at UAA, where she highlights campus life through social and online media.

Kathleen McCoy
Hometown U