Navigation Content
University of Wisconsin Madison College of Engineering
You are here:
  1. Home > 
  2. News > 
  3. News archive > 
  4. 2007 > 

Built to last: New Mechanical Engineering Building ready for generations of innovation

Learning spaces for the future

When the Mechanical Engineering Building on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus opened its doors in 1930, sliding chalkboards and concrete floors were among its most innovative features.

Today, more than 270,000 square feet of new and completely renovated space still features concrete floors. This time, however, all of the floors are souped-up to accommodate heavy laboratory instruments—and some of the floors are vibrationally isolated to facilitate delicate, cutting-edge research on a tiny scale that makes minute dust particles look like giant beasts.

Shared by the UW-Madison Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering and the Department of Mechanical Engineering, the stately Italian Renaissance-style building recently underwent a $50.5 million construction and renovation project—the only major overhaul since its construction in 1930—that now will give its occupants technological flexibility for years to come. The College of Engineering will dedicate the building Oct. 26 at 9:30 a.m. in a ceremony in the building atrium.

Solid foundations

Originally, the Mechanical Engineering Building encircled a machine shop that dates back to 1920. To create a facility for 21st-century engineering in the pre-World War II building, the project contractor, Neenah, Wis.-based Miron Construction Co., demolished the machine shop and replaced it with a four-story addition for academic and research programs, adding more than 155,000 square feet of space. Then, Miron gutted and renovated the existing building.

Details from the remodeled Mechanical Engineering Building

Details from the remodeled Mechanical Engineering Building (large image)

The building was constructed during an era in which people valued craftsmanship—the reason the project architectural firm took great care to match the existing materials and complement its structure and architectural style, says Connie Brachman, special assistant to College of Engineering Dean Paul Peercy who oversaw the project.

“What I really appreciate in this renovation is that they kept the essence and the soul of this building, and simply updated the interior components to be competitive in today’s marketplace,” says Harry Steudel, a professor of industrial and systems engineering who chaired the department throughout the planning and construction phases of the building.

The project, funded with about $23 million in state funds and more than $27.5 million in gifts, was a massive undertaking—in part because construction crews had to work around the College of Engineering research and teaching nuclear reactor, as well as other building occupants. The new and renovated space features several architectural upgrades, including state-of-the-art ventilation, power and smoke-evacuation systems, as well as central heating and air conditioning.

Expansions for teaching and laboratory work

Interior of the renovated Mechanical Engineering Building

Renovated with $25 million from the state of Wisconsin and more than $27.5 million in private gifts, the historic Mechanical Engineering Building now is ready to play its role in a new century of engineering research, education and innovation (large image)

In addition to engineering upgrades and technology for teaching, the new building includes much-needed flexible classroom space, including three large lecture halls and seven smaller classrooms outfitted with multimedia technology. The entire building boasts wireless Internet service. Through these services, students are able to access data resources, consult with experts, and simulate systems for problem-solving, says Patti Brennan, professor and chair of industrial and systems engineering.

A hallmark of the building is its flexible design, with teaching and laboratory spaces that can evolve as the field of engineering evolves. Steudel says that before the construction, the building had so little dynamic space that he often taught his team-based class in the lobby. Now he holds such sessions in the four teaching labs: financial engineering, human factors, simulation, and team dynamics. The rooms are arranged to promote teamwork and creativity, but can be easily redesigned to adapt to changes in industrial and systems engineering. “What we’re doing, in making space available for students that can be quickly repurposed to fit new directions in teaching and research, is essential for schools of engineering,” says Brennan.

The building itself is designed to foster interaction and collaboration. Two multistory atria and spacious conference rooms provide places for students and faculty to mingle and work together. Offices lie in close proximity along the remodeled corridors and link faculty and staff with common research interests, including polymers and plastics, robotics, nanotechnology, lithography, health systems, and decision sciences. In addition, office space created in the four-story addition reels in faculty and staff whose offices, classrooms and laboratories previously were scattered across the engineering campus—a welcome development for both departments.

"One of the delights of being a faculty member is being around people who aren’t quite in your area, so you can figure out how to collaborate with them," says Nicola Ferrier, associate professor of mechanical engineering. “There are facilities in the building where we can mingle and find out more of what our colleagues are doing.”

Interior of the Mechanical Engineering building

Interior of the Mechanical Engineering building (large image)

Because the two department main offices are located at opposite ends of a third-floor hallway, they also can take advantage of some administrative efficiencies, says Brachman. Along with the Department of Biomedical Engineering, the Departments of Industrial and Systems Engineeringand Mechanical Engineering now share student services, financial services and human resources.

Flexibility and interaction even were incorporated into the laboratory space. “This is a space that will enable meaningful, cutting-edge research for the next century,” says Roxann Engelstad, professor and chair of mechanical engineering. “The building supports the great diversity in research within our department, yet facilitates opportunities for cross-pollination of ideas and projects.”

The lab spaces were designed to accommodate future advancements in technology or changes in research directions. The research areas are outfitted with increased power capabilities and a state-of-the-art heating, ventilation and air conditioning system—critical features for research, says Ferrier, who directs the Robotics and Intelligent Systems Laboratory. In addition to these provisions for future equipment needs, all four floors can support up to 200 pounds per square foot, giving researchers the flexibility to add or move equipment as their fields evolve. “There really is the sense that I could change or adapt,” says Ferrier. “I could get new equipment and not have to worry about how I would power the room, or whether I’d be able to get the equipment to run.”

The art of engineering

Though craftsmanship is evident throughout the new and renovated space, perhaps the most breathtaking sight is the skylight in the center atrium. Laminated glass panels suspended in an architectural grid depict energy in motion. The artists, Stuart Keeler and Michael Mechnic, created “Driving Force” based on the concept that the research areas within engineering revolve around understanding energy pathways and exploring how to direct them—and that the disciplines housed in the building are working, in different ways, toward that common purpose.

Faculty, staff and students in the two departments are eager to pursue that purpose in their new surroundings. “We have outstanding classroom facilities, research space, good technology—we have an environment where we can be productive people and produce good, quality students,” says Steudel. “It’s been a dream come true.”

Facts and figures


  • 279,429 square feet of space (New: 155,429; remodeled: 124,000)
  • 1.5 million feet of data cable
  • 12,076.25 cubic yards of concrete
  • 407 miles of electrical wire
  • 4 stories
  • 44 research labs
  • 5 computer labs
  • 10 classrooms (7 regular, 3 auditoriums)
  • 645 undergraduate students in the two departments
  • 105 laminated glass panels in the ceiling
  • 24-hour-access student study zone
  • Neenah, Wis.-based Miron Construction Co. was the sole prime contractor.
  • Milwaukee, Wis.-based Zimmerman Architectural Studios, Inc. was the architect.
  • The original building was designed by the state architect Arthur Peabody.