Construction begins at science complex

The construction process has begun for the build-out of the Science and Engineering Research and Classroom Complex, which is scheduled to be completed in December, according to Vice President of Plant Operations David Irvin.

Erected in 2003, the SERCC building was originally constructed as a "shell" building meant to attract outside research through its potential for flexibility.

"It is a little weird that the building stayed empty for that long, and I don’t think that that’s something any of us were happy about," Irvin said.

The UH System Board of Regents approved $6 million in Higher Education Assistance Funds to be used to build-out the first floor, which is expected to be completed in December, he said. HEAF money, approved by the Texas Legislature in 2005, is only used for construction and renovation projects.

The overall project to build-out all five floors will cost $30 million, which will be subsidized by HEAF, and be completed by 2012, Irvin said.

Faculty members have voiced their concerns on the construction project.

"The Faculty Senate has expressed concern that the facility has not been finished and is currently largely unusable," Dan Wells, College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics senator, said. "I believe I reflect the sentiment of the Faculty Senate when I say we are glad it is finally going to be built out."

Wells also said the Senate does not have an official stand on the issue.

"Personally, I would have liked to see the funds come from private sources, such as donors," he said. "It is a shame that we have to use $30 million in HEAF funds for this project.† My general and unofficial sense of the Faculty Senate membership is that leaving the building unusable is worse than spending the HEAF money to get it finished."

Irvin said he undestands why some people who were critical of the project are happier now that construction is under way.

"I think that everyone (in the Faculty Senate) is excited that we finally have a plan to fund it and excited that we will have state-of the-art research space and excited that it will finally give us the tools we need to start recruiting some top-quality faculty. Not only will that help with research, but with those faculty come great graduate assistants… that will raise this whole level of instruction for everybody. It’s a win-win on all levels," Irvin said.

Associate professor of engineering Dmitri Litvinov will be one of the first to move to the SERCC building to work on his research.

"I am excited that the University invested the money to improve our research," Litvinov said. "The new facility has a cleanroom that is vital to my work."

Litvinov said his current laboratory in the Cullen College of Engineering building has approximately 10,000 dust particles per cubic foot. The new cleanroom should bring the number of particles down to 100 per cubic foot.

He said a low number of dust particles is crucial because they can interfere with research.

"The dust particle itself can be larger than what we are studying under the microscope, which is unacceptable," Litvinov said. "(In the cleanroom) we’ll be able to do prototypes and show that it is possible to build (the integrated circuits we are researching)."

Before the SERCC building was constructed, the original plan called for the 156,000-square-foot building to be completed, but when Plant Operations did not receive the funds requested from the board, the department was faced with the decision of either completing a smaller building, or constructing a larger, unfinished one with the hope that future funding would finish it, Irvin said.

"Knowing how critically short we were on space (for both classrooms and laboratories in the University)… we decided that getting more space was better," he said.

Irvin also said he hoped the empty building would attract new research and funding.

Vice President of Research Donald Birx said the original plan didn’t work out.

"That wasn’t really a workable model," Birx said. "When you go to an agency to get funding, they expect you to have the equipment in place (along with) the researchers. Then, you are in much better position to acquire funding. I fully suspect that (the) building will be full of funded research within three years," he said.

UH currently receives about $200 of research funding for every square foot of research space, Birx said. He also said 50 percent of the research funds for 100,000 square feet will be devoted to funding new research.

"Then you are looking at $10 million in extra funding," Birx said.

Approximately $12 million of the $30 million goal have been approved and the University has committed to provide the rest in $6 million increments, which will have to be approved by the board every year.

"We are short of space all over the University and there are lots of places that could use new buildings," Irvin said. "At the end of the day we decided that before we started a new building, that we should finish this one first. The logic of that rationale was really hard to refute."

The $12 million already approved will be used to hire an architecture firm to complete the design of all five floors, Irvin said.

"Then we will prepare the plans and (specifications) that the contractors will bid on, which will take a couple of months," Irvin said. "The bidding should take place by the end of this semester and construction should begin by this summer."

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