KALAMAZOO — A spectacular high-tech building, an
engineering dean who once made concrete out of moon dust,
and computers printed on paper.
Yup, just another day on the Tech Tour at Western
WMU had plenty to show on Day Seven of The Engineering
Society of Detroit’s 2015 Fall Tech Tour, sponsored by
Michigan Technological University.
For starters, WMU’s oldest building will reopen in spectacular
fashion this weekend during Western’s homecoming. I got an
exclusive tour of Heritage Hall Thursday morning to kick off
Day Seven of The Engineering Society of Detroit’s 2015 Fall
Tech Tour, sponsored by Michigan Technological University.
On WMU’s historic East Campus, North and South Halls and
the old Speech and Hearing Building are no more, but East
Hall has been renovated into Heritage Hall in a $24 million
project managed by The Christman Co.’s West Michigan
office in Grand Rapids.
Heritage Hall was where Western was born — the first building
to rise after the Kalamazoo community successfully
competed against 27 other cities in 1903 to have the state
locate its new Western State Normal School atop Prospect
But when Western exploded in growth after World War II — on
a former golf course a mile or more west of Prospect Hill —
East Campus became a backwater, isolated by major streets,
a lack of parking and the hill itself. The Walwood Union, the
original student union, was renovated into administrative
offices in 1992. The last major tenant, WMU’s Gwen Frostic
School of Art, moved out of East Hall in 2007.
In 2012, WMU announced plans to create a new alumni
center and offices for advancement and alumni relations staff
in East Hall. The other buildings were torn down, though parts
of them live on — a seven-ton fireplace from North Hall now
graces Heritage Hall’s 1903 Room, and marble from North
Hall is used throughout. Where the other buildings stood is
now a huge lawn that will be used for university events. The
space between Heritage Hall and Walwood also houses
Christman project manager Matthew Brecker called the
project the most difficult renovation he’d ever worked on. He
said that “the biggest challenge we faced for this building was
that structurally, it was an investigation. We had to do
exploratory demo (demolition) to learn how the building was
constructed. There were no documents from when they built it
on how this building was held up. And even the construction
standards of the day were not followed.”
One example: Brecker said the building’s many chimneys
were actually structural, with floors digging into the chimney
brick, so the chimneys held up the floor. “Literally three
people standing together in the building meant the per square
foot load capacity was exceeded,” Becker said. Christman
solved that problem by placing a steel frame in a third-floor
attic “penthouse,” where it invisibly suspends the building,
doing the job the chimneys used to do — only up to modern
Another challenge: East Hall wasn’t square in any of its
dimensions — it was essentially a three-dimensional
parallelogram. Windowsills could be five inches wide at one
end of a room and three inches wide at another. Christman
had to solve all those challenges in the renovation.
The project’s architectural design came from Tower Pinkster
of Grand Rapids. Helping ensure maintenance of the historic
character of the building was preservation expert Gene
Hopkins of Hopkins Burns Design Studio of Ann Arbor, which
oversaw the renovation of the Michigan Capitol and the Grand
The 53,000-square-foot building’s main features include a
top-floor ballroom with a capacity of 180 (and an
unbelievable view), a cafe and coffee shop, three
boardrooms, interactive display panels, and WMU history
displays throughout. There are historic preservation touches
like reuse of the original schoolhouse-style light fixtures, cast
iron radiators, original stairway railings (raised to meet current
code), and original metal panels and valance medallions from
the building’s gymnasium.
Across the lawn, the project also preserved the front portico
of North Hall as a reminder of Western’s heritage. Land just
north of the hall, which slopes gently down to an urban forest,
is being eyed as the future site of an outdoor amphitheater.
WMU is shooting for LEED Platinum certification for the
building. It features LED lighting inside and out, and uses a 56
400-foot-deep geothermal wells for heating and cooling.
After the Heritage Hall walkthrough, it was off to WMU’s
Parkview Campus, where its College of Engineering and
Applied Sciences has been housed since 2003 in a building
offering 323,000 square feet of teaching and research
space (including 75 laboratories and 20 classrooms).
Running the show is a new dean, Houssam Toutanji, Ph.D.,
PE, who started July 1. He was previously professor and
chairman of civil and environmental engineering at the
University of Alabama-Huntsville.
Toutanji reports increasing enrollment to an all-time high —
2,430 undergraduates and 650 graduate students.
Mechanical and aerospace engineering are the big gainers,
with Toutanji reporting surprise that Michigan has so many
“We are close to capacity,” Toutanji said of the engineering
building. “We have to come up with creative ways to utilize our
building. The building plans call for a third wing that was not
built. Eventually we have to find resources to build that wing.”
Toutanji went to Alabama after a stint teaching at the University
of Puerto Rico. He got his bachelor’s and master’s degrees
from Northeastern University in Boston, and his Ph.D. from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Mass.
While at Alabama, Toutanji spent a summer as a researcher at
NASA. His research interests are concrete technology and advanced composite materials. And he recalled that one day in the lab, “I saw a bag of material that looked like cement, and I asked my supervisor,
‘Is that cement?’ and he said ‘No, this is lunar soil, lunar
regolith.’ I said, ‘Can I use it for research?’ He said, ‘It has
been here for years and if you use it, it will not be missed.’ So
I took it, mixed with some water and mixed it with some
admixtures and I made concrete out of it.'”
A couple of years later, he was asked to do formal research
on using lunar regolith to build structures on the moon. The
problem — water is in very short supply on the moon. And concrete is made by mixing cement with water, and then mixing in aggregate. Toutanji said he solved the problem by using sulfur, which melts into a liquid at about 145 degrees Fahrenheit. He extracted sulfur from lunar soil itself, heated it, mixed it lunar soil, and voila, usable concrete. The only problem — until it cures, it smells strongly of rotten eggs. “When we did our research they asked us to
do it outside,” he recalled.
Toutanji said his aims as dean are to strengthen WMU’s ties
to the region’s manufacturing and engineering employers, “to
see what the community’s needs are and improve our
curriculum to meet the industry’s needs.”
In the years ahead, Toutanji said he saw online education and
internships as becoming more important, as well as increased
emphasis on engineers achieving master’s degrees. He also
emphasized WMU’s unique offerings in aerospace, paper
and construction engineering — as well as its very
entrepreneurial industrial design engineering program, in
which students pitch products in local Shark Tank-style
competitions. And, he said, the engineering college is working
with WMU’s new medical school to develop a medical
Speaking of that paper engineering program, I got an up
close first-hand look at it with two professors from very
different fields that are working together on it.
Massood Zandi Atashbar has been a professor at WMU for
more than 15 years now, focused on sensor research, using
technology to detect everything from toxic liquids in land and
water to biomarkers for specific diseases. But he was
originally using traditional microchip fabrication.
But about eight years ago, he started collaborating with Margaret Joyce, on the faculty of WMU’s nationally regarded chemical and paper engineering program.
And since then, he’s been bringing microelectronics, sensors
and printing together — essentially to create printed
electronics and printed sensors — printed with unique
Today, Atashbar’s lab is using Joyce’s printing techniques to
print sensors and circuitry on everything from paper to plastic
to glass, as I saw on the tour.
As a bonus, some of the sensors detect their target
chemicals “several orders of magnitude below FDA limits,”
WMU is part of a $170 million, Department of Defense
funded effort to create flexible, bendable printed sensors and
electronics, led by San Jose, Calif.-based FlexTech. What’s
now called the FlexTech Alliance has more than 40 university
and industry partners. WMU’s effort is called the FEAT
Center, for Flexible Electronics Application and Technology
Center. The funding will lead to a dedicated printed
electronics lab on WMU’s campus that could be open a yaer
Joyce emphasized that the state of Michigan was responsible
for WMU’s participation in this effort — through a $1.1 million
grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corp. 10
years ago for radio frequency identification technology.
“We got a large grant from MEDC to look at printed
electronics for RFID, with four partners in Michigan,” Joyce
said. “As we embarked on that work we realized there were
challenges that were going to require a multidisciplinary
So she reached out to Atashbar, along with another electrical
engineering professor, Bradley Bazuin; a chemistry professor,
Sherine Obare; and paper engineering colleagues Paul D.
“Dan” Fleming and Sasha Pekarovicova.
“We had this collaborative group and we formed CAPE, the
Center for the Advancement of Printed Electronics, and that
led to the FlexTech Alliance, and that led to the Department of
Defense funding,” Joyce said. “We started looking at the
printing of the sensors as we became more and more
familiar with all our capabilities. We branched into other
industries and funding opportunities … That all started with that
one MEDC grant, and I think that should be recognized. It was
through their investment in us that we were able to do all this.
Michigan should get their payoff in this industry.”
WMU should play a big part in flexible, printed electronics,
Joyce said. It has the nation’s only Ph.D. in printing, and the
nation’s only program in ink formulation. Those programs
grew out of the graphics industry, but now are focused on
The applications for printed electronics, sensors and displays
are endless, Joyce said.
“It’s going to go into automotive in terms of sensors, wiring,
any type of wireless communication you might want to do
within the car,” she said. “Also think about electronic displays
within the car. Look at white goods, home appliances, and
what you could begin to integrate in sensors or touch panels.
Remote monitoring is a big thing. We feel that will start
coming on in heavy industries where you improve work safety.
The Department of Defense will use the sensors to help
soldiers sense things in their environment that might harm
them. That has direct application to the work environment,
such as if you’re in a chemical plant and you want to know if
there are any leaks that might be harmful to you. On the
medical side, if you’re looking at monitoring, either of human
performance or health, lower cost medical diagnostics is
going to be another big area for this. We can use it to improve
the quality of life of people living with prosthetics.”
WMU is also working to assemble a workforce that is skilled in
printed electronics. That involves working with community
colleges and K-12 school districts, both in Michigan and Ohio,
Atashbar’s laboratory is also working on applying printed
electronics to fluid analysis that is less invasive, faster and
cheaper than current medical tests, as well as improved touch
screens for mobile devices.
And he’s working on energy harvesting devices that can be
implanted in clothing to generate energy to power mobile
devices, flexible microfluidic structures for drug delivery and
medical diagnosis, and improved electrodes for EKGs that
don’t require conducting gel.
Thus ended my morning and early afternoon at Western
Michigan University. This university is a research gem that, as usual, gave me plenty of gee-whiz ideas to think about amid the practical, hands-on engineering education.
Tomorrow, the Tech Tour ends at Michigan State University. I
hear I’m seeing everything from advanced materials to
advancements in atom-smashing. Can’t wait!
And once again, many thanks to Michigan Technological
University for sponsoring this year’s tour.