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UAF Engineering Building

Unfinished masterpiece awaits final funding


The $121 million engineering building at the University of Alaska Fairbanks needs more than $34 million in final appropriations to be completed. It was designed with a core and shell concept so construction could be started before all the funding was appropriated.

© Ken Graham Photography.com

Every semester, incoming engineering students crowd into Room 252 of the Duckering Building on the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) campus to take their first required engineering class, ES101. The classroom seats eighty, but with more than two hundred incoming engineering students every year it can get cozy, even with multiple class sessions scheduled.

Enrollment at the UAF College of Engineering and Mines has doubled in the past decade to just under a thousand students, says Marmian Grimes, UAF senior public information officer.

“The interest in the degree program among students is there,” Grimes says. “And we know, from Department of Labor statistics, that the demand from business and industry is strong as well.”

The Duckering Building, which houses the program, is “bursting at the seams,” she says, and its facilities are dated.

“You can imagine with a building designed in the ‘50s, just the demands of modern engineering, the types of lab facilities and things like that, we need to train engineers to work in today’s industries. The bar’s a lot higher.”


2013 Ground Breaking

In 2013, the university broke ground on a $121 million state-of-the-art engineering facility designed by ECI/Hyer Architecture and Interiors of Anchorage. Davis Constructors & Engineers, Inc. is the general contractor. The gleaming six-story, 119,000-square-foot structure has a commanding view of the Tanana Valley and the Alaska Range to the south.

Nested between the Duckering and Bunnell buildings on the east side of campus, the Engineering Learning and Innovation Facility has a distinctive curved glass and steel exterior and is designed to provide forty laboratories, a forty-eight -foot high-bay facility, offices, and classrooms, including one large enough to seat the entire incoming freshman class in one ES101 session, according to Cameron Wohlford, UAF Department of Design and Construction senior project manager.

However, only $70 million of the total funding needed for construction has been received and construction was halted in August 2015. The $34.8 million requested for fiscal year 2017 was not included in the governor’s budget and Grimes does not know if, when, or from where the final amount will come. Every year of delay adds about $3 million to the total cost, in addition to the current $500,000 or so annual maintenance costs.

If the project had been fully funded from the start, it would have been completed in July 2015 and hosted classes during the fall semester, Wohlford says. Instead, “we’ve got about 6,000 square feet that is open to the public, including the lobby and a couple of hallways, and that’s it.”


Core and Shell Concept

The facility was built using a core and shell concept by design, Wohlford says. The shell was built first.

The mechanical and electrical systems are in and the building is heated and pressurized, “but there is not a square foot of assignable space in the finished building,” Wohlford says. “The next dollar spent in the building gets you assignable square footage.”

He gave a tour of the unfinished building on a sunny December day. While outside temperatures were hovering about ten degrees below zero, the inside of the facility was warm. Wohlford says the temperature set point is pretty low. “It’s a testament to how energy efficient the building is that it stays pretty darn warm just from a couple of unit heaters in the basement,” he says.

“We want to keep it warm because there are so many important systems that need to stay warm, for instance, the foam fireproof insulation on interior beams and surfaces,” he says. “If that material gets cold and dry, it starts to fall off. It’s very expensive and you don’t want it to fall off. The building starts to shrink in the cold and you don’t want your building to shrink.”

The adjacent Bunnell Building houses the UAF School of Management and the engineering facility’s location is part of the university’s desire to improve connectivity between the related fields, Wohlford says.

Most of the campus buildings were constructed in the 1960s and each was a self-contained “silo” for each discipline.

“This group was in this building and this group was in that building and how dare you walk into another building,” Wohlford describes the mindset then. “There’s no student space for gathering. No common areas. As soon as you walk in the building, boom, it’s office and lab. It doesn’t quite work in today’s world where collaborative learning is more prevalent.”

The same is true in research, Grimes says. “If you talk to researchers, they’re all doing interdisciplinary work,” she says. “That’s the way research is done now, so having a setup that encourages that is invaluable.”


Solar panels adorn the towering outside rectangular area of the UAF engineering building, while large windows form a checkered pattern on the curved office area.

© Ken Graham Photography.com


Four Distinct Areas

The new engineering building is made up of four distinct areas: a curved area with large windows wraps the eastern side of the building and will be used mainly for offices. Classes are held in the middle of the building and labs and research take up the rectangular portion. The fourth part is a glass-walled high-bay area.

In addition to engineering classes and a couple of classrooms open to general enrollment, the building includes a machine shop and two student machine shops. The SpaceGrant Program and chemical engineering department also have space in the building. The entire fourth floor will become the new home of the Alaska Center for Energy and Power.

In December, the piping and ductwork was clearly visible in many areas, not unexpected in a construction zone, but Wohlford notes that in many of the finished areas, the mechanical structures would continue to be visible, by design. The building itself is a learning tool.

“One of the things we wanted to do in the building is to leave stuff exposed,” he says. “That’s just to help engineering students understand what really goes into a building. A lot of times, we find they’re so focused on the design theory of a structure that they don’t actually see what that means.”

The whole structure, including the floor and windows, contain sensors so students will have reams of data they can play with and learn from, Wohlford says.

“We’re also trying to get this building to be the first in Fairbanks to have seismic sensors to measure in all three directions of the building’s movement during an earthquake,” he says. “Currently, there’s no data coming from Fairbanks in terms of earthquakes moving a building.” A professor is seeking a grant to pay for the equipment.

The high-bay test lab is designed to test large structural elements. The floor, which is four feet thick, has metal plates embedded in it that will allow students to bolt down large beams and columns and test the effects of stress on them.

“That’s one of our primo spaces,” Wohlford says. “We can build a thirty-foot-tall wall and we can push on it, we can pull on it. It will help us estimate the stresses and strains on a column, such as during an earthquake.”

It also will allow the state to test bridge girders, he says. “The state is just starting to build their own bridge girders, but they don’t have any place to test them. In the high-bay lab, they can bring those girders in and bolt them to the floor and see if they can break them.”


Room with a View

Huge ducts wind through the fifth-floor, which includes what Wohlford says is the first penthouse mechanical room with a window. “The architect said, ‘Look, we have this opportunity. It would look odd if we didn’t have a window on the fifth floor.’” The window offers a breathtaking view of Denali and the Alaska Range. A couple of feet away, two side-by-side meters show the output from a wall of solar panels.

Students funded the solar panels, Wohlford says. Asked for the cost of the panels, he says, “Let’s just say the payback is probably somewhere in the fifty-year range.” Checking the readouts, he notes one bank had tallied $6 worth of energy, the other $4, so far that day.

On all floors, piping sticks out of the wall and blue tape marks the hangers for all future ductwork and piping.

“That was all pre-planned,” Wohlford says. “So when I say it’s plug and play, you can see the ends of the pipe there. We had to decide where to stop and how to cap it off. It couldn’t be done until the last minute. We kept going under the preface that we were going to get funding. Finally, last year, we started planning for phasing.”


Looking for Private Donors

Large piles of drywall and studs were scattered throughout the fourth floor, the planned future home of the Alaska Center for Energy and Power.

Grimes says the floor was initially included in the project as a TBD.

“We know engineering is a high-demand field in Alaska for both research and education and we wanted the capacity to grow,” she says.

Several programs and organizations were considered as tenants for the floor before the Alaska Center for Energy and Power stepped up, Wohlford says. The total cost to finish the floor is about $6.5 million, and the center and the university are turning to private donors to raise it. So far, they’ve been promised about $1 million, but Wohlford says they’re hoping for more commitments soon.

“It’s not as optimistic—it was very optimistic last fall when oil was still $80 per barrel, but as oil prices went down, it was interesting that less and less oil executives were showing up here for the tour,” he says. “It’s getting harder and harder for Emily [Drygas, UAF Director of Development] to get people in the door to come experience the space and want to be part of it. But they’re still working hard and I think they’re optimistic.”

With the funding shortfall, and oil prices still in freefall, the building is likely to remain unfinished for at least a couple of years.

“The worst-case scenario is if the building is vacant for a few years until new funding comes in; the building is still safe. It won’t deteriorate,” Wohlford says.

In the meantime, “the state isn’t getting any return on that $70 million investment,” Grimes adds. “We’re not getting the benefit of more engineers.”



This article first appeared in the February 2016 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly.

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