Union announces $100M overhaul of science building

A rendering of the proposed Science and Engineering Center at Union College.
A rendering of the proposed Science and Engineering Center at Union College.

SCHENECTADY — Union College plans to spend $100 million to renovate and expand its Science and Engineering Center, aiming to complete the school’s biggest project ever by fall 2019, President Stephen Ainlay announced Friday.

The new 142,000-square-foot building, outfitted with large glass windows, collaborative workspaces and Union’s top-flight science instrumentation, will serve as the home of college’s core STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – program and caps a 10-year plan to update buildings across the campus.

“(This is) without question the largest, most complex, most expensive project in Union’s history,” Ainlay said. “The most significant legacy of the project… is that Union will be without question the college of choice for physicists who want to dance, chemists who want to be in theater and for art history majors who understand technology is going to infuse the lives they are in.”

He called it the “complete rebirth” of the school’s science and engineering complex, charting the course for the next half century of science and engineering education at Union and opening the door to changes in curriculum, research and teaching the scientists and engineers of the future.

A groundbreaking is scheduled for May 20, though the building plans still require city approval.

 The construction project is estimated to cost around $90 million and $10 million will be set aside for ongoing maintenance moving forward. The school has already raised over $50 million and continues to fundraise and would be willing to dedicate around $10 million from reserves, Ainlay said, borrowing to finance the difference.  

[See a 360 degree view of the proposed new building]

The new complex — which officials said would rank among the finest undergraduate science and engineering facilities in the nation — is planned to be constructed in two phases, with an addition open for the 2018 fall term and with completion the following year. 

The addition will take the shape of a curved building, with massive glass windows that look out onto the campus’ historic Steinmetz Hall. That space could be open to students as early as fall 2018. Three sections of the existing facility will then be ripped out to the walls and completely renovated, opening the following year. The new facility, when finished, will add 25,000 square feet of learning space.

The final phase of work will include the demolition of the part of the existing center that runs north to south parallel to the Olin Center, making room for a new outdoor quad between the Olin Center and Steinmetz Hall.

The school’s current science and engineering building, an L-shaped structure behind the Olin Center, was built in the late-1960s and was dedicated in 1971. During last school year’s convocation, when he announced the plans to the school community, he said the current science and engineering building “quite frankly, is getting tired.” 

As new faculty members have been added to science departments, their offices and labs have been placed far apart from colleagues in their fields. The academic and research labs are separated and dispersed throughout the buildings.

But the new design will integrate lab spaces into more open areas, giving professors the chance to integrate ongoing research into classroom activities and giving students direct insight into research opportunities. Faculty offices and labs will be organized to facilitate collaborate within and across disciplines.

“Students will be able to see what is going on across the whole area, to go from learning about science and engineering to doing science and engineering,” said Scott Kirkton, a biology professor who also serves as a faculty member of the trustees.  “To be successful in the world they will enter, students will need to think broadly and break down the silos within and across disciplines.”

Kirkton said the new facilities will open the door to new research opportunities and serve as a major selling point for both students and potential faculty, who in recent year might have been turned off by the college’s existing science facilities.

“We’ve got great instruments and equipment, we’ve got great faculty, but the facilities aren’t so good,” Kirkton said.  

In an interview last year, Ainlay said the school was planning a renovation to create a space that would last for the next 30 to 50 years. “So anticipating the way in which science and engineering will change, creating a space where you encourage cross-disciplinary collaborations, is all part of the way in which we are designing the space,” he said last year. 

Plan’s for the renovation include open spaces, large glass walls, whiteboard walls and vaulted ceilings that stretch multiple stories. Officials said the design will foster collaboration between students in different disciplines, and the glass walls create areas for “science on display” that sparks interest in students that may not be pursing studies in the sciences.

“For students who have never really thought about STEM fields, the ability to actually see the work of science and engineering going magnetizes that space in ways that will attract people to the STEM fields,” Ainlay said Friday. 

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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