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UAF makes plans for engineering facility

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Posted: Saturday, June 9, 2012 10:40 pm

FAIRBANKS — During the next several years, a quiet parking lot at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ upper campus could be transformed into a modern new home for the burgeoning engineering department.

Early design plans for the $108.6 million building — a five-story, roughly 117,000-square-foot facility that will link the Duckering and Bunnell buildings — were approved by the University of Alaska Board of Regents this week.

It’s another step forward for a project that will provide space and updated technology to a department that has nearly doubled in size since 2006. The existing engineering office and lab space is in Duckering, which was originally built in 1964.

“Right now it’s pretty nearly an impossible working situation for a lot of our high-profile projects,” said Doug Goering, dean of the UAF College of Engineering and Mines.

The Legislature has appropriated about half the funding needed for the building — including $46 million during this year — which is seen as an encouraging sign of commitment for the project.

The building is in a preliminary design phase, which will continue through next winter, with construction expected to begin in summer 2013. With full funding, the project would be completed in fall 2015.

The new building would connect the adjacent Bunnell and Duckering buildings, using an existing pie-shaped parking lot between the two structures, said project manager Mike Sheets. The building, which will tower over its older neighbors, would also encapsule Schaible Auditorium.

The UAF building has been requested, designed and funded at the same time as a new engineering facility at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Although the Fairbanks and Anchorage campuses have occasionally engaged in turf wars over new construction, UA officials say the parallel projects aren’t about politics as much as necessity.

“One of the overriding things that’s made this possible is that we’ve worked together as an institution,” Goering said.

A study completed in early 2011 determined that UAF needed about 50,000 square feet more space for its engineering department, with similar results at UAA. Growing demand for Alaska-trained engineers means there is enough demand to justify both facilities, Goering said.

The Alaska Department of Labor projects an average of 50 new engineering jobs will be available in the state through 2018, with another 70 openings from turnover and retirements.

Goering said it’s important for in-state schools to offer such classes because the need for homegrown engineers is greater in Alaska than in other areas. He said a steady theme from industry officials is that hiring outsiders for Alaska jobs is often a hit-or-miss proposition.

“People from California don’t know what the heck permafrost is,” Goering said. “They don’t know what it’s like to work in minus 40 or minus 50 ambient temperatures.”

Since 2006, enrollment in the UAF engineering program has soared from about 500 students to nearly 900, Goering said.

Engineering research money through state, federal and industry sources have climbed from $15 million to $25 million during that time.

The current facilities make it difficult to provide some hands-on engineering projects.

It’s also been one of the factors keeping UAF from adding more majors like chemical engineering, which isn’t currently offered in Alaska.

“It’ll bring our laboratory facilities into the 21st century in a big way,” Goering said.

Contact staff writer Jeff Richardson at 459-7518.

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