Retooling for Success

By Ellen James Mbuqe

Cornell Engineering has embarked on a multi-year, multi-building renovation project to improve the learning experience and accommodate research requirements for the next 50 years. 

The project kicked off with the gutting of the second and third floors of Kimball Hall to create much-needed “wet” lab space with the utilities to handle fume hoods, specialty gasses, and biological material. Begun last year, the project will accommodate faculty and students from the Department of Biomedical Engineering and the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering when it is finished this summer. Eventually, Kimball Hall will provide expansion space for the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. 

The next phase begins this summer when the college will completely overhaul Upson Hall. The 60-year-old building is the current home of the Sibley School along with faculty from other departments. The departments of Computer Science and Information Science made the project possible when they vacated the upper three floors to move into the newly completed Gates Hall. 

“Having a half-empty building provides an enormous opportunity and cost savings,” says Lance Collins, Joseph Silbert Dean of Engineering. “It was imperative that we start the work just as the building was emptied. The work will transition existing space in order to truly reflect one of the nation’s best colleges of engineering. We are already educating top students and supporting ground-breaking research, but our facilities could no longer accommodate the exciting new frontiers pursued by our faculty and students.”

Collins is quick to point out, “We are restructuring the space so that it satisfies our current needs while anticipating future plans. Indeed, the board of trustees has recommended the university focus on refurbishing existing buildings rather than building entirely new facilities. This is both cost effective and eliminates unnecessary growth in the total square footage.” 

Consultants estimate the total cost of renovating the buildings around the Pew Engineering Quad will come to $300 million and take 10 years to complete.

“But as we embarked on our renovation plan, we knew we needed to evaluate it with an engineer’s eye to understand all the components, what is working, what should be replaced, and how can we achieve our goals in the most economical fashion possible,” Collins said. 

Inside Upson, architects have incorporated environmentally-friendly elements to make the building more energy efficient. Outside, contractors will completely overhaul the stark, utilitarian façade which has weathered Ithaca winters for more than half a century. Larger windows will add to a more inviting appearance while letting in more natural light. The changes will give the Sibley School a sleek and modern entrance with an overall design that connects with the larger Cornell campus, a goal for every unit on the quad. 

In addition to reconfiguring Upson’s offices and classrooms, the renovation will quadruple the size of the Experiential Learning Lab in the lower level, used by many of Cornell Engineering’s student teams. Today more than 1,000 students work on 25 teams and the renovated space will increase their visibility and more flexibly adapt to changing needs. Teams will have more room to collaborate on their award-winning racecars, satellites, Mars rovers, and robotic subs, among others. 

“Our student teams are growing by the year as student interest continues to rise, and they remain a truly distinctive feature of the Cornell Engineering education.” Collins said. “I am excited to see what amazing new designs these students will create when they are given the proper space and support. Upson Hall will become a catalyst for the kind of break-the-rules thinking that we want to encourage.”