The university’s Board of Trustees is reviewing plans to renovate and repurpose Bennett Gymnasium as an engineering laboratory in response to considerable growth in the Department of Engineering and Physics over the past two years.
Dr. Rusty Towell, chair of the engineering and physics department, said although the idea of refitting the building has been around for several years, it only gained traction in the past two months. He said the additional space would offer opportunities for the burgeoning program.
“We’re thrilled that we’re going to be able to meet the needs of our growing program and preserve the appearance of this historic building on campus,” Towell said.
Constructed in 1929 to support academics and athletics needs, Bennett Gymnasium was one of the first buildings on the university’s second campus. In recent years, it has been used to host a number of Student Life events. However, at the beginning of December, club sports using Bennett were told they needed to find a new place to meet as crews measured and prepped the building for possible rehab.
Dr. Jeff Arrington, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, said Dr. Jan Meyer, interim vice president for student life, and Tom Craig, director of student activities, have played a role in finding new locations for groups that had previously used Bennett.
“Tom Craig and Jan Meyer have been instrumental and gracious partners in considering these two sorts of needs: academic program needs, student activities and support needs,” said Arrington, associate professor of engineering and physics. “Working with them and others, we found that this was the alternative on campus that could provide support for a growing engineering program.”
However, the new lab won’t be exclusive to the engineering program, Towell said.
“It’s being motivated by the engineering program, but it’ll also be used by physics students and professors for research space,” he said.
The renovated building will include a number of large, open areas for project construction and equipment, Towell said. The renovations will support some engineering courses and activities and allow department faculty to perform on-campus research.
“The things that will be housed in the new building will be big and loud and create vibrations,” Towell said. “It’ll have areas for large research projects like senior capstone projects, where a student needs access to tools and space to build something and the ability to work on it throughout the week.”
Towell said because of the machinery in the shop area, the use of advanced tools will be limited and supervised.
“We don’t want someone going in and using a welder or a cut-off saw that doesn’t have the proper training for it,” Towell said. “So there will definitely be safeguards in place to ensure that people that don’t have the right training, whether they’re engineering students or not, don’t get hurt.”
Arrington said if the project is approved by the board, the first phase will be to remove any asbestos in the gymnasium.
“The only thing staying there is the shell of the building,” Arrington said. “All of the bleachers and plumbing – everything inside that shell will be taken out.”
Once work is started on the building, it will continue swiftly.
“Our objective is that this facility will be completed and ready for use by the Fall 2014 semester,” Arrington said.