Extreme makeover

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On December 21, 2005

Over piles of paperwork on his desk, through the summer rain streaming down his office window, Ashok Midha, chair of mechanical and aerospace engineering, looks out at an old building now called the Mechanical Engineering Annex. He likes to point out that the annex, which is not long for this campus, was originally constructed in 1902 – a year before the Wright Brothers made their historic flight. Today, he says, the students in UMR’s largest department work on hypersonic vehicles and conduct virtual reality simulations.

Midha’s office, at present, is in the main Mechanical Engineering Building. Larger than the annex, the ME Building was built in 1948 and had its last renovation in 1969 – a year for moon shots, Woodstock and the Amazing Mets, a year when times were changing fast and almost anything still seemed possible. Now the roof is leaking.

Midha is on a mission. The ME Building, which houses mechanical and aerospace engineering, is about to get an expensive makeover, and Midha wants everyone to see why the work is so essential. Leading an impromptu tour through the puddled corridors of the building, he points out various imperfections as he walks down old stairs, around improbable angles, through a narrow maze he knows well. He emerges in the gloomy underbelly of the building. There, seemingly out of place in the middle of a huge bay area otherwise occupied by various projects and work stations, is a two-story Design Loft that resembles a large, modern tree house. Midha walks through the well-lit, spacious rooms, looking for students (it’s about a week before the fall semester and no students are around). He has described the existing facilities in his department as woefully inadequate, but it’s clear he likes the loft.

The Boeing Co. pitched in to equip the Design Loft with new computers, a smart board, teleconferencing equipment and unpretentious furniture. Midha thinks it’s a good place for students to work on projects or just hang out and brainstorm. “It encourages open-ended creativity,” he says with a gleam in his eye. And suddenly anything’s possible again.
The Design Loft is a prototype for what the department is calling the Product Innovation and Creativity Center or PICC, which will be at the heart of the renovated mechanical and aerospace engineering complex to be known as Toomey Hall.

Midha can’t wait. The ME Annex will be razed and the existing ME Building will be renovated and expanded into a complex worthy of the cutting-edge learning that will take place inside. The bigger and even more student-friendly PICC will take the place of the Design Loft, and lots of concrete and brick will be replaced by enough glass to let abundant light in and give the modernized building a feeling of openness.

Before UMR received the largest donation for the construction of an academic building in the campus’s history, the idea of renovating the Mechanical Engineering Building was just a dream, nothing more than an artist’s renderings of what might happen some day. But John, ME’49, MS ME’51, and Mary Toomey and family gave $5 million to the ambitious project in July 2004, and now the leaky roofs and old corridors are about to give way to history.

Ground was officially broken for the new Toomey Hall during Homecoming 2005, about a month after the rainy day that found Midha expressing some of his visions for the future of the mechanical and aerospace engineering department.

In addition to the Toomey family, who gave the gift that made the $25 million project plausible, other donors are helping the cause. David, ME’82, and Melanie Brewer and family, Gary, Math’62, and Judy Havener, and Roger, ME’65, and Sandy Dorf have also provided significant financial support for the renovation and expansion. They are among the 60-plus donors to the project.

New laboratories, conference rooms, areas dedicated to research and student design projects, streamlined corridors and better access for the disabled are all in the plans. Toomey Hall will also house much of the Center for Aerospace Manufacturing Technologies, a partnership with the U.S. Air Force and The Boeing Co. New manufacturing methods for the aerospace industry will be developed at the center, which was established in 2004 through $12.3 million in federal funding.

The PICC will be located in the middle of the modernized and expanded building. Midha is confident that new students from the design teams, and students in general, will gravitate to the creativity center and bounce ideas off each other. The PICC will house virtual reality and rapid prototyping laboratories. It will have multimedia conferencing, presentation rooms, and new computer-aided design and engineering facilities. “The PICC is central to the building and the kind of atmosphere we want to create,” Midha says. “Companies want to recruit students who can work on group projects and solve problems.”

One of those students is Valarie Boatman, a senior in mechanical engineering and a team leader on the UMR Formula SAE Team. She happens to wander into the Design Loft while Midha is talking, and he pauses to introduce her. Boatman’s presence appears to confirm everything he’s been saying about the Design Loft and the plans for the PICC.

Boatman’s going to graduate in the spring, but she says she’ll be sad about leaving UMR and the formula car team. “The Design Loft has worked out really well,” she says. “We use it for all of our team meetings, presentations and computer modeling.”

That’s just what Midha wants to hear. He tells Boatman to have a great semester, and moves a little faster as he retraces his steps through the old building, up stairs, down narrow corridors, through puddles on the floor.
It’s still raining outside as Midha pauses to regard the sparkling renderings of Toomey Hall that are framed on one of the walls near his office. The pictures are no longer just a dream; they are about to come to life. Midha smiles, probably thinking about the generosity of certain alumni and the possibilities of open-minded creativity, and then he heads happily back to the piles of paperwork on his desk.

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On December 21, 2005. Posted in Features, Winter 2005