The drywall dust has been carefully washed from the Dale Chihuly blown glass sculpture hanging in the atrium and builders are putting the final touches on the first significant renovation of the Peter Kiewit Institute since its 1999 opening.
Executive Director Michael McGinnis said the $7.5 million renovation will enable the institute to move its research to new levels, particularly with national security-related projects and sustainable construction methods.
The Kiewit Insitute, on the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s South Campus, serves as a joint base for engineering programs provided by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and for information science and technology programs provided by UNO.
Though the renovation did not increase the building’s size, McGinnis said, reconfiguration of existing space resulted in 40 percent more laboratory space and at least 20 percent more spots for graduate students.
The renovation, designed by Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture of Omaha, is intended to foster collaboration between researchers and between the two academic disciplines — engineering and computer science.
“That will move our research programs forward and make our academic programs even better,” McGinnis said.
Graduate students from both disciplines will work together in cubicles in a common area.
Each of the 10 laboratories in a research cluster is linked to another lab via a “team room” with conservatory-style windows protruding into the hallway. The idea is to encourage interaction between scientists and students.
“We’ve broken down barriers between the two colleges,” McGinnis said. “We’re trying to create synergy and serendipity not by accident, but by design.”
For the first time, the building will house a highly secure area where top-secret government research can be conducted. In the past, scientists on secret projects had to find other sites, such as the U.S. Strategic Command in Bellevue.
The need for such space became more critical after NU won a five-year research contract with the Department of Defense last year and established its National Strategic Research Institute.
Construction engineering laboratories that feature environmentally controlled chambers used for testing heating, ventilation and air conditioning equipment are still being finished. They should be ready by July 1, McGinnis said.
Tim Wei, dean of the UNL College of Engineering, said renovating the Kiewit Institute is a first step toward expanding NU’s engineering program in Omaha, both in terms of research and enrollment.
“We’re really looking at major growth in engineering in Omaha,” he said. “We’re going to need places to grow.”
The Kiewit Institute will play a big role in partnerships between NU engineers and scientists at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, Wei said. It also will be central to focusing engineering on three major industries: food manufacturing; buildings, bridges and other civil infrastructure; and high-tech manufacturing using robotics.
“The whole concept is one college, with every element of the college nationally and internationally renowned and to have the facilities to enable that,” he said.
After a year of classes amid the noise and chaos of construction — the renovation work began last July — students already have a taste of the final product.
The former first-floor computer laboratory was dismantled and replaced with a cafeteria, seven rooms for studying alone or in small groups, and a large lounge and multipurpose area that can also be used for group meetings.
Students moved into the lounge to study as soon as it opened. They also gave a big thumbs-up to the cafeteria, which replaced a food cart. But they lamented the reduction in computers available for student use. The big computer lab was replaced by several smaller computer areas throughout the building.
“I kind of miss the computer lab,” said Michael Hatterott of Blair, 23, a computer and electronics engineering student.
“Students lived in the computer lab, from 8 in the morning to 8 at night,” said Ernest Bless, a senior civil engineering student from Omaha.
McGinnis said the number of public computers was reduced from about 100 to about 50. Instead, the building’s wireless Internet access was improved.
The expense of maintaining 100 public computers — at roughly $3,000 each — is prohibitive, McGinnis said, and most students are better-served with good wireless access because they carry laptops, tablets and smartphones.
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