VCU College of Engineering holds groundbreaking ceremony for new collaboration, research and makerspace facility

(From left) Mayor Levar Stoney, Dean Barbara Boyan, Ph.D. and VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D.
(From left) Mayor Levar Stoney, Dean Barbara Boyan, Ph.D. and VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D.

By Rebecca E. Jones

University, business and government leaders gathered Tuesday, June 5, to officially break ground for the VCU College of Engineering’s new Engineering Research Building (ERB). Slated to open in 2020, the 133,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility will transform the northeast corner of Cary and Belvidere Streets and serve as a collaboration hub to support advanced research, economic development and hands-on approaches to engineering.

“This is a milestone for the VCU College of Engineering, and it continues our great tradition of working closely with industry. This college was founded as a public-private partnership, and it has more than realized the promise we made to the business leaders who were trustees of the College of Engineering Foundation 22 years ago.  Most of our students come from Virginia and most remain here after graduation, providing a critically important engineering workforce for the commonwealth” said Barbara D. Boyan, Ph.D., Alice T. and William H. Goodwin Jr. Chair and dean of the VCU College of Engineering. “This building will support cutting-edge research and help us continue to prepare students to solve 21st-century challenges.”

Boyan said the ERB’s 9,000 square-foot makerspace will immerse students in the collaborative problem solving and prototype development skills essential to meeting those challenges, adding that the building’s proximity to the School of Business is significant because “we’re already working together to form new companies and contribute to the new economy.”

VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D. called the groundbreaking “another step toward achieving our vision of a university committed to solving problems and saving lives” and pointed to the college’s “solid track record when it comes to innovation and commercialized research.” Rao attributed these achievements to the college’s creative, visionary and entrepreneurial faculty and students, and to Boyan, whom he called “an exemplary leader who has exceeded my expectations — which is rare, because I dream big.

“I look forward to celebrating the opening of the ERB and the amazing things that will be accomplished within its walls,” Rao said. “I can’t wait for the breakthroughs that will happen here.”

Richmond Mayor Levar M. Stoney told the crowd that “breaking ground for any VCU project is a good day for Richmond.” The mayor said he would be traveling to Wall Street the next day to talk about economic development in Richmond. “Central to my presentation is the kind of talent and economic development this groundbreaking represents,” he said, promising to return in 2020 to help cut the ribbon.

The ceremony closed with Boyan, Rao and Stoney plunging yellow-and-black-ribboned shovels into the earth to cheers and applause. At a reception in East Hall’s Qimonda Atrium, guests reflected on what the ERB project says about the university’s culture — and future. Ed A. Grier, dean of the VCU School of Business, believes the building’s flexible gathering spaces will be a game changer, something he witnessed when he was an executive with Disney.

“The Pixar space had an atrium with a cereal bar where people from different branches had an opportunity to mingle. People were drawn together by this space and began gathering and collaborating regularly. It really became a hub and it sparked a lot of innovation. These were not incidental connections. The collaborative nature of the space made it a powerful spot that drew people together,” Grier said.

Shawn Brixey, dean of VCUarts, is enthusiastic about the building’s makerspace and thinks it will capitalize on the interdisciplinary culture he sees as VCU’s stock-in-trade.

“I’m an artist with a technology background, Dean Boyan is a scientist with a humanities background, the dean of the medical school is also a creative writer — we are creating true hybrids at VCU,” Brixey said. “It’s not a case of ‘artists making bad science.’ We have students and faculty who really want to think in new ways.”

Mark Cruise, vice president, applied technology with Altria Client Services and president of the College of Engineering Foundation Board, also singled out the importance of the ERB’s commitment to maker culture. “We believe our interns are more successful if they have hands-on experiences in classrooms, labs and machine shops. VCU interns come to us ready to contribute from day one,” Cruise said. “For this reason, we are very excited about the new makerspace, and we hope to see maker culture become a decision point for prospective students.”

Richmond-based architecture firms Baskervill and Smith McClane Architects and Boston-based firm Goody Clancy designed the $93 million ERB, which is being financed by investments from the state, VCU and private support. Washington, D.C.-based Page/SST Planners designed the ERB’s laboratory spaces. Student maker culture engagement and operations of the building’s 9,000 square-foot Innovation Maker Facility (IMF) is supported by a generous gift from Altria.