The University of Minnesota Duluth is ready to renovate its mostly empty and gutted 70-year-old science building, but that will first require a design plan and financial assistance from the state.

UMD estimates that coming up with design plans alone will cost $2.4 million, which is why it plans to request $1.6 million from the state in a future Minnesota Legislature bonding session. UMD would pay the other third of the estimated cost.

"We're trying to get things up to modern code: building codes, fire codes, which in a building this old is very difficult to do. The biggest issue has to do with the accessibility," said John Kessler, the project manager for construction administration at UMD.

On top of needing to meet current codes, the university needs more space for some of its science programs within the Swenson College of Science and Engineering.

An exposed ceiling in UMD’s original science building reveals a network of pipes and old adhesive that fastened asbestos tiles to the ceiling. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
An exposed ceiling in UMD’s original science building reveals a network of pipes and old adhesive that fastened asbestos tiles to the ceiling. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

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Once renovated, the plan is for the old chemistry building to house the computer science department as well as the earth and environmental science department, and potentially the advising center for the college.

The computer science department, which is one of the fastest-growing programs in the university's largest college, is spread out across three different buildings on campus, and some faculty in the department are in need of lab space.

Arshia Khan, professor of computer science, said the department is already doing cutting-edge research, but in order to attract students from other regions of the United States, the program needs a better equipped facility.

"If you have a better facility, then you have better offices, better labs, better active-learning classrooms," Khan said. "We can apply so many new, innovative teaching techniques and we need a facility to match that."

UMD is in the process of hiring a design firm for the project that will hopefully be on board in the next month, Kessler said.

Swenson College of Science and Engineering Associate Dean Erin Sheets (from the left), computer science professor Arshia Khan, UMD construction projects administration John Kessler, and University Marketing and Public Relations Director Lynne Williams walk by the campus’ original science building during the start of a building tour Wednesday, April 14, 2021. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Swenson College of Science and Engineering Associate Dean Erin Sheets (from the left), computer science professor Arshia Khan, UMD construction projects administration John Kessler, and University Marketing and Public Relations Director Lynne Williams walk by the campus’ original science building during the start of a building tour Wednesday, April 14, 2021. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Two of the building's three stories have already been gutted. That work has so far included abating hazardous material, removing furniture and stripping insulation.

The building was replaced by the $44.65 million Heikkila Chemistry and Advanced Materials Science Building, which opened in 2019. To put into context how long these projects take, Lynne Williams, director of UMD's marketing and public relations, said UMD was requesting bonding money for that project for approximately five years.

"These things take patience," Williams said.

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The University of Minnesota Board of Regents has already approved UMD's request to ask the state legislature to fund the building design.

If the Legislature decided to include the request in a future bonding bill, the design team would have a few months to come up with a building plan. Then the university would have to go through the same process to secure money for the construction itself.

Kessler said they're estimating the renovation process would take about 15 months.

Erin Sheets, associate dean of the Swenson College of Science and Engineering, said the potential renovation of UMD's oldest building on its upper campus is an opportunity to rethink how it serves students and conduct research.

"Teaching has changed so much since the 1950s," Sheets said.