OU To Unveil Spectacular New Engineering Center

ROCHESTER — Oakland University Friday will officially unveil its newest classroom and laboratory space — a spectacular new 128,000-square-foot OU Engineering Center.

The five-story structure will add sparkling new laboratories for OU’s School of Engineering and Computer Science. The department’s old home, Dodge Hall, is also being renovated into new classroom and laboratory space.

Walbridge was the construction manager on the $74.5 million building, which was designed by SmithGroup.

But really, according to Louay M. Chamra, dean of the school, “everyone has ownership of this building. We took a year to get input from faculty and student organizations and staff in terms of what they would like to see in the new building to improve the educational experience at Oakland.”

Start with the lobby, a spectacular six-story atrium. But at one end are creatively designed nooks for study and small group meetings. Throughout the building are scattered small collaborative spaces that can be closed off or opened up in creative ways. All feature comfortable seating, plenty of power and Ethernet outlets. Chamra also said designers made sure there was plenty of fast wireless internet access everywhere.

The building is also open, with windows everywhere, including from classrooms and laboratories to interior hallways, offices and labs. Chamra said Dodge Hall in places reminded him of something “Soviet” — closed off, no windows, a fortress. “Here, I want everybody to be able to see everything that’s going on,” Chamra said. One particular point of pride — classrooms for students who may not yet have decided on engineering as a major that overlook the big labs where senior projects are designed and Formula SAE cars are built.

Another point of pride — diversity. Chamra said engineering used to be such a male domain that the original plans for Dodge Hall called for only one women’s bathroom in the entire building. In the new Engineering Center, there are men’s, women’s and family bathrooms on each floor. Chamra said the latter is a nod to the fact that today’s engineering student may be a single parent who needs to change a diaper during a study session.

There are also new spaces for the engineering student organizations, and Chamra hopes there will be more of them soon. And there’s an Einstein Bros. Bagel restaurant, which Chamra said he hopes keeps students “loaded up on carbohydrates and caffeine.”

Overall, he said, “I really want this building to be designed about the student, for the student. Everything in this building is about teaching, labs and space for the student.”

And there are more engineering students on Oakland’s campus that ever before — enrollment in the school has jumped from 830 to more than 1,700 just since 2010.

Chamra said OU remains a perception as a commuter school, even though many of its 20,000 students now live on or near campus.

“Commuter school has a negative connotation,” Chamra said. “People come in their car, go to class, jump back in their car and leave. But if you look at Michigan or Michigan State, most students don’t live on campus. There is no way they can accommodate 40,000 or 50,000 students on campus. So most campuses are commuter campuses — people come in cars and leave in the evening. So we want to cultivate a sense of belonging and get people to stay. I have no problem with people come in their cars in the morning and go home in their cars in the evening.”

The building also features many energy efficiency touches, and will apply for LEED Gold certification. Included are high-efficiency LED lighting with motion detectors in classrooms and laboratories, rainwater capture for landscaping irrigation, and onsite power generation — two 200-kilowatt natural gas-fired turbines, to be precise.

“This building is basically disconnected from the grid, except on a really hot day,” Chamra said.

Chamra joined OU in 2009. He was previously director of the micro-cooling, heating and power and biofuel center at Mississippi State University. He has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas, a master’s in mechanical engineering from the University of Portland, and a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from Pennsylvania State University.

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