SERC, Part of Science and Engineering Commons, Opens
June 4th, 2012 - Filed under: Cover Story
By Adam Jones
From the vantage of Seventh Avenue, the home of the College of Engineering for more than 80 years, the newest engineering building appears as a big row house, its narrow three stories resting on top a single set of double doors flanked by lamps. Of course, peek round the corner either way, and the South Engineering Research Center is revealed as a massive academic facility befitting its surroundings.
The SERC, as it is abbreviated, opened in January and is the first building dedicated solely to the College of Engineering since H.M. Comer Hall was completed in 1960. The SERC sits across the new Science and Engineering Quad from Shelby Hall and the Science and Engineering Complex — home to numerous engineering and computer science faculty, students and labs — as part of UA’s new suite of research hubs designed to encourage collaboration across scientific disciplines. The fourth and last phase is being built behind H.M. Comer Hall.
“I am extremely pleased that the South Engineering Research Center has been a tangible step in achieving the architectural vision for the science and engineering commons,” said Tim Leopard, assistant vice president for construction at UA. “It is consistent in material and form to the Science and Engineering Complex, yet is understated with respect to Shelby Hall. The sense of the Science and Engineering commons space can now be perceived, and I believe the commons space will be a wonderful addition to the campus community.”
If Shelby Hall’s broad focus is chemicals and the SEC’s focus is biological, then the SERC’s focus is on engineered systems, or putting stuff together to make it do something. Inside are some of the most advanced labs in the region and nation in the fields of structural, engine, energy and electromechanical engineering, all of it situated a basketball pass away from the Ferguson Center.
“The program for this building recognized the collaborative nature of much of the work and putting them on an island” away from the heart of campus “would have certainly hampered the synergies that the University hopes are achieved by the project,” Leopard said.
Designed by Davis Architects in Birmingham and constructed by Gary C. Wyatt General Contractor in Birmingham, the SERC has 175,000 square feet. There are seven large multimedia classrooms: two with 40 seats, three with 50 seats and two lecture halls with 90 seats. There are more than 40 research and instructional labs, including nine flexible-use instructional labs that can seat 36 students each. There is office space for 38 faculty and staff members and about 145 graduate students, along with numerous meeting and conference rooms. Five of the College’s departments have office space in SERC, and faculty from the entire College use the classroom and instructional labs.
The instructional and office space is needed for the growing College, but for all the traditional academic uses of the building. SERC is not traditional, said Dr. John Wiest, associate dean for research and graduate studies. “A lot of academic research is done in retrofitted buildings,” he said. “This one was designed for it.”
The Large Scale Structures, Electromechanical Systems and the Engines and Combustion laboratories — SERC’s three largest research labs — are situated among not just graduate student offices but also undergraduate labs and classrooms. They will be visible as well with windows on the second floor meant to encourage peeking in on research. Besides seeing, undergraduate students will learn and contribute in the research labs. For UA, a student-centered research university, SERC’s research labs serve the role of preparing students for the ever-changing field of engineering.
“We are trying to train students to take jobs that don’t even exist today,” Wiest said. “We are training students to invent tomorrow and solve problems that don’t yet exist. In order to do that, we have to train on the leading edge, and for that we need faculty defining that leading edge.”
SERC and its labs have already attracted professors and students and should continue to entice potential faculty and students, Wiest said. Indeed, the windows into the research labs — two panes of ballistic glass — will be used in tours of the College to potential students. “We’re trying to let the rest of the world see what we do,” Wiest said. “In that way, it’s a very nontraditional academic building.”
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