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‘Huge Improvement’: Work Continues Apace on UAF’s 21st Century Engineering Building

Tim Ellis/KUAC

The University of Alaska Fairbanks will open the doors of its new engineering building Saturday to give the public a peek inside the gleaming glass and steel structure. Visitors can check out the engineering-on-display lab on the first floor, where construction work has been completed. But the rest of the six-story structure is still a work in progress. And workers are hustling to complete the project by the end of the year.

Workers were going at it full tilt earlier this week inside UAF’s new engineering building. And project manager Cameron Wohlford says that’s pretty much how it’s been they got back to work on the structure in October.

“So, we’re about five months into a 12-month construction. We hope to be wrapped up by the end of September,” he said. “And our first classes will be January 2018.”

The pace of work almost makes it as if the university is trying to make up for lost time on the project. In fact, construction was put on hold for about a year in the fall of 2015, when the state halted funding due to plummeting revenues brought on by a free-fall in oil prices. Wohlford, a 1997 UAF civil-engineering graduate, says that disappointed everyone involved in the project.

“It’s very frustrating to see such a big project with so much momentum, at the state level to be cut off from funding,” he said. “Yeah, it was very frustrating, and as an alumni, I hated to do it.”

Credit UAF file photo
After state officials announced in 2015 they wouldn't appropriate money to complete construction of the new building, UAF officials and contractors finished the exterior to protect it from cold while university officials explored ways to fund completion of the structure.

Wohlford said he and the contractors worked out plans to finish the outside of the building and keep it warm until the university could find more funding. That came last year, when the Board of Regents worked out a plan to raise $37.5 million in bonds to finish the job. He says the delays pushed the total estimated cost of the project from $108 million to $121.6 million.

“The building design has not changed since that first number was put out there,” he said. “It’s strictly inflationary costs – about 2 to 2½ percent per year – the multiple mobilizations and all that temporary heating, lighting and everything else we had to do to put the building to bed.”

Wohlford says bond-generated revenue, along with corporate donations and cash kicked-in by the university was enough to allow it to get back to work on the building, which was intended to enable UAF to meet its goal of doubling the number of engineering graduates to 100 per year.

Credit UAF file photo
The main entrance to the new engineering building faces UAF's Cornerstone Plaza. The project includes closed-in corridors connecting the structure to the Duckering Building, left, where the College of Engineering and Mines is now housed, and the Bunnell Building, right.

“We did that pretty much right away, and our program ballooned, in terms of the number of students,” he said. “So we ran out of space real quick.”

The new 119,000-square-foot building will free the program from the limitations of the Duckering Building, where the College of Engineering and Mines is now located. The as-yet unnamed building will house the college, the Institute of Northern Engineering, and the Alaska Center for Energy and Power. And it will provide state-of-the-art facilities for learning about new technologies such as those used in remotely piloted drones, robotics and 3D printing. And there’s the towering apparatus called the high-bay test lab that’s literally the centerpiece of the new building.

Credit KUAC file photos
From left, project manager Cameron Wohlford, Kristoff Nystrom and Catherine Estus

“It’s about a 100-foot long, 30 feet wide and four stories tall. So it’s a pretty big facility,” says Catherine Estus, a senior in UAF’s civil-engineering program. “We’ll be able to do structural testing, seismic testing – whatever testing we want to do.”

Kristoff Nystrom, a 2016 UAF civil engineering graduate, says the high-bay test lab will be great teaching tool.

“Yeah, I think it’ll help student really be able to visualize and see what’s going on when you apply a load to a beam, instead of just seeing it in a computer model or running the calculations on paper,” he said.

Nick Middelstadt is a UAF contract manager and 2010 mechanical-engineering grad. And he says he wishes he’d  had access to such facilities when he was attending classes in Duckering.

“Most of our testing apparatus was from the ’70s,” he said. “I mean, it’s going to be a huge improvement for the students.”

Editor's note:  The new engineering will be open to the public Saturday during the UAF College of Engineering and Mines annual celebration of Engineers Week Open House. The events runs 11 a.m.-3 p.m. in the new building and the Duckering Building nextdoor on the UAF campus.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.