More than 100 University and community representatives marked the official groundbreaking of the much-anticipated Science and Engineering Hall Thursday evening, ushering in an era dedicated to innovation and rising scientific prestige.
University President Steven Knapp ceremonially kick-started the four-year construction process with the words, “on your mark, get set, turn,” as he and more than a dozen academic and financial supporters of the project lifted dirt with golden shovels.
The $275-million building – located at 22nd and H Streets at the site of the former University Parking Garage – represents the most expensive property in GW’s history. By bringing science courses in the School of Engineering and Applied Science and the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences under one roof, the structure aims to elevate the level of interdisciplinary research and attract high-quality faculty and students.
Knapp recalled images of the “dinosaur-like creature” that tore down the garage over the last six months, looking forward to the eight stories and 400,000 square feet of state-of-the-art teaching and research space that will open in 2015 after more than two decades of planning.
“The building is very carefully and imaginatively designed to support not only the departments that are going in there but collaborative research space where students and faculty will be able to work together in state of the art facilities,” he said.
David Dolling, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, said he felt tongue-tied watching the beginnings of a building he called “a catalyst for change” that seeks to upgrade GW’s outdated science facilities.
“I’ve been here three years and there’s not a day, a moment, that I have not been thinking about this building and what it’s going to do for GW and for the School of Engineering and Applied Science,” he said. “So this is the end of one phase, but it’s the beginning of the most important one.”
Chairman of the Board of Trustees Russell Ramsey asked attendees to take a moment to reflect on how far the University’s most recent construction project, The Avenue, has come.
“I think you’ve all heard me say that the whole idea of vision, without execution, is hallucination,” Ramsey said. “What we’re seeing here today is not the beginnings of execution. This is the culmination of lots and lots of not just months but years and in some cases decades, of planning and thinking.”
After the Faculty Senate voted in 2004 to make the construction of new facilities for science and engineering a priority, the Board of Trustees – the University’s highest governing body – approved the project in October 2010. The D.C. Zoning Commission green-lighted the project in July 2011, after repeated challenges from Foggy Bottom’s primary advocacy groups, which questioned the long-term effects of the project on the neighborhood.
Nelson Carbonell, vice chairman of the Board of Trustees and head of a special committee on the Science and Engineering Hall, said he took members of the Board on tours of campus science facilities, including Corcoran Hall and Tompkins Hall, to demonstrate the need for new resources.
“The one thing that connects generations of GW engineers and scientists is we studied in really crummy facilities and it made us scrappy,” Carbonell said.
As an alumnus of GW’s electrical engineering program, Carbonell urged future science and engineering graduates to “keep that scrappy feeling” as the building brings the University’s science profile to new heights.
Sophomore Winslow Sheffield, a systems engineering student, said the ceremony signaled the culmination of faculty and student-led efforts, especially the work of Campaign GW, an organization of students that helped lobby for the building at zoning hearings.
“The University has been trying to build up science programs for years and today we can see the change in science and engineering,” Sheffield said.
In striving to transform GW into a top-tier research institution, Knapp stressed the importance of making a commitment to excellence in science and engineering as a way to “undergird the strength” the University has developed in policy, the humanities and the arts.
“I think this project is absolutely integral to everything that we are trying to achieve for the University,” he said.
A combination of debt, revenue from The Avenue and fundraising will finance the complex. Senior University officials seek to bring in at least $100 million in fundraising to support the building.
“This will be the largest academic building on our campus. That is certainly true. And I can guarantee you it will be the largest science and engineering building within six blocks of the White House,” Knapp said.
This article appeared in the October 24, 2011 issue of the Hatchet.