Cal Poly's new science building opens

kleslie@thetribunenews.comSeptember 27, 2013 

An elevator was broken, vents hummed too loudly and the heating in some rooms fluctuated between too hot and too cold, but Cal Poly Science and Mathematics Dean Phil Bailey could not have been more proud of the Warren J. Baker Center for Science and Mathematics when it opened for classes this week.

“It’s a pretty cool building,” Bailey said during a tour Wednesday. “Most of the buildings I’ve seen, they don’t have this kind of stuff, but it’s really the sort of thing a university should have.”

At 189,000 square feet, the Baker Center is the second largest building on campus and encompasses 64 faculty offices, 44 lab spaces, seven studio classrooms and eight lecture halls that can seat a total of 484 students.

And at $119 million, it was also one of the most expensive projects Cal Poly has undertaken in the past 10 years — only Poly Canyon Village, the student residence community completed in 2009, was more expensive, at $300 million.

Most of the funding for the new building came from the state, although $19 million came from private donations, said Bailey, who along with his wife and former chemistry department chair Christine Bailey, donated a small portion.

“I always think, if you want to make the people donate, you have to show them you believe in it,” Bailey said.

The changing face

Believing in the new building hasn’t always been easy, Bailey said.

In 1993, he proposed a new “center for science” to replace Building 52, the so-called “spider building” that had been designed in the 1940s for a university that was predominately male, Bailey said.

At the time, he thought it would be a relatively easy task; after all, the faculty office building he had just proposed was approved and built within two years.

In the end though, it would take 20 years before the project was completed, and in that time the face of Cal Poly changed immensely.

Between 1993 and 2013, Cal Poly undertook 29 major capital projects, 18 of which occurred within the past 10 years, said Joel Neel, director of facilities, planning and capital projects.
These include the Cerro Vista apartment complex in 2003, two engineering buildings between 2003-06, the Alex G. Spanos Stadium improvements in 2006, the University Union Plaza in 2010 and the Recreation Center expansion in 2012.

Among these projects, Cal Poly added or renovated nearly 2.5 million square feet of facilities in the past 10 years, Neel said — approximately 42 percent of the campus’ 6 million square footage.

The Baker Center, however, has been one of the longest-running projects, Neel said.
“I came to work here 13 years ago, and it’s always been on my radar,” Neel said. “We’re very excited to finally see this through.”

A look inside

Right from the onset, Bailey said he wanted to create a space that was welcoming for science and liberal-arts students alike.

To do this, he personally made sure that each floor had enough seating and furniture for students to comfortably meet and rest between classes, as well as providing “study bars” where students could use their personal computers.

Several small rooms were also designated as major-specific meeting rooms. The physics room leads to one of four outside terraces, while the chemistry room has a view of the buildings “green roof” — a roof planted with vegetation to help with water runoff and cooling the building.

In the studio classrooms, more than 60 students work and perform experiments at octagonal tables with computers that link directly to the professor’s. Groups of students can gather around lab areas in the rooms, as the rest of the class works on another aspect of the experiment, and the professor and teaching assistants can wander through, providing help.

Pioneered by Bailey’s wife, these studio rooms are one of the dean’s favorite aspects of the new building.

“This is a much more difficult kind of pedagogy, because (the professor) isn’t necessarily in control,” he said. “It’s all interactive, and collaborative, and often quite chaotic, but it’s still pretty cool.”

What’s next

As of Wednesday, everything was not completed in the new building, however.

Some walls were still bare, though Bailey had taken a personal interest in decorating most with science-influenced artwork, and several lab spaces had yet to be unpacked. A unique periodic table of elements, featuring samples from all but a few of the elements, has yet to be installed in its permanent location within the building.

And a lot more still must be done in the building before its official dedication Nov. 1, Bailey said. But the bulk of the major work is completed.

The Baker Center’s completion also marks the end of nearly three years of continuous major construction on campus.

According to Neel, the next official Cal Poly project will be building a new residence hall and welcome center near the university’s entrance on Grand Avenue, though that is not slated to be completed until fall 2018.

Between then and now, though, a lot of things can change, Bailey said.

“I would actually like, before I retire, to propose the companion building (to the Baker Center),” he said. The companion building would take the place of the remaining southern half of Building 52, facing the Baker Center and backing up to the University Union.

“If we proposed it, and believe in it, in 20 years I think we could have it,” he said. “All it takes is money.”

GALLERY: More photos of Cal Poly's Baker Center »

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