Engineering and Science Building, Innovation Center are Vandy’s newest masterpieces

A two inch gap separates the loading dock from the Engineering and Science Building. It can’t really be seen, but it’s there. It’s purpose is to reduce the vibrations of trucks that may be unloading their contents within the area. This tiny gap is just one of many examples of how this new building was constructed with every detail in mind.

The beauty of the new Engineering and Science Building and Innovation Center is evident.

The halls are vast with high ceilings and open spaces, natural light is abundant and you can look inside almost every lab from outside those rooms. But what makes Vanderbilt’s newest buildings really one of a kind is the amount of detail that had been accounted for that the average student or faculty member will likely never even notice.

“This is state of the art,” Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Susan Wente said.


Plans for these buildings began on March 12, 2012, as the architects, under the lead of Keith Loiseau, met to discuss this project. It took just over four years from planning to opening, as the building officially became in use on August 24, 2016, the first day of classes.

“The university had a lot of foresight,” Loiseau noted about the coordination of this project.

Within two years of that initial meeting, construction broke ground in July of 2014 on an accelerated pace. Before anything was set to be built, the architects, builders and engineers essentially created the building in a complex 3D model. Everything from the layout of rooms to how the miles of various cables would be situated in the building was accounted for.

Overall, the buildings moved close to a set schedule, although the concept phase took a bit longer than expected because of the need for faculty input.

“This is one of the most difficult buildings I’ve ever worked on,” Loiseau said, pointing especially to the depth of planning.

The idea and design for the buildings weren’t just completely original. Those in charge of the project took tours of similar buildings at colleges around the country, including Harvard, Stanford and MIT. But students, faculty and staff at those institutions would be jealous of what Vanderbilt built, according to the project coordinators.

“A lot of smart people came together to make this product,” Robert Grajewski, Executive Director of the Innovation Center, said.

At any given time, construction required upwards of 300 people. Over 1000 people helped put together this project in total. Some people spent just a day, while others had been there for the full two years. Electricians and plumbers were especially present throughout because of the amount of internal work that needed to be coordinated with all the other staffers.

Inside the building

There were a few key aspects that the university had planned for before construction. And these plans were executed perfectly. They wanted easy navigation throughout the building, an abundance of light, both natural and artificial and great visibility of all the activities going on inside the rooms and labs.

“We want it to be easy to flow through the building,” Loiseau said.

Walking down the double helix stairs takes students to the basement, where the building’s three classrooms are located. But the feeling is completely different from that of Stevenson’s basement. Instead, the classrooms in this building appear as if they’re on a main floor or illuminated naturally by the sun.

Two rooms specifically stand out, although each for much different reasons. The large multipurpose room right by the stairs provides more than ample space for classes. Ten large television screens spread around the room allow for students to work in clusters on projects in a very visual sense. Additionally, the room can be manipulated depending on the setup needed and contains a great amount of open space.

Right by this large room is the distance learning classroom, which really makes itself stand apart from traditional rooms not by what can be seen, but by what can’t be heard from the outside. Its design, including the walls, have “sound deadening qualities,” allowing for students inside the classroom to interact with people anywhere across the country or around the world without any disturbance to or from others around the building.

While much of the learning is occurring downstairs, higher level floors hold most of the labs and research areas. But unlike the areas of similar function on campus beforehand, the majority of these provide views to anybody walking past in the hallways. The purpose was to allow everybody to see what’s going on within the building. This perk isn’t one that you’ll likely find anywhere else, certainly not on campus to this extent.

At its full build out capacity, the buildings will hold upwards of 40 faculty members, in addition to 240 researchers. It’s evident that this new facility will be especially focused on research, providing room for expanding upon what’s currently being researched and adding new areas of study. For example, Vanderbilt lacked a large lab for regenerative medicine until this building provided ample space for it.

“We’ll have one of the top programs in the country [for it],” Wente said about this addition.

The Views

The great views that Olin once housed have now been shifted to the new buildings. One side faces directly into Hawkins Field, providing a view that can only be compared to those on the top of roofs at Wrigleyville in Chicago. The Vanderbilt baseball fans who have watched games from the top level of the parking garage just next to the building may want to think about coming over to this building instead. A select few offices will have the best views of games this year.


During the tour of the building, the joke was that these offices should be given to faculty members who don’t like baseball so they’re not distracted by what’s going on just a few hundred feet away. But even those without one of these prestigious offices can still get an incredible view inside the stadium by stepping outside onto the roof. Not only are the views spectacular, but it allows for people working on these floors to grab some fresh air. Additionally, the space can be rented out for events.

The interior of the building and its functionality are not the only aspects that were considered of the utmost importance. What it looks like from the outside was thought about, as the university sought to make it visually appealing and break the stereotypical look of a lab.

“[The building has a] curved facade to make it stand out more,” Grajewski said. “It’s not like your typical lab building.”


Even beyond all the minute details that will go unseen by every student, the building’s impact on the environment is also one of those externally unnoticed characteristics. However, Vanderbilt’s commitment to keeping this building ‘green’ is certainly something to not just casually acknowledge.

“We tried to be conscience of the environment,” Wente said.

The goal from the beginning was not just to reach any level LEED certification. Instead, the university wanted ‘gold’. Reaching this honor requires that a building is efficient, mainly in water and energy consumption and emissions at levels well above most standards.

Although that certification may take until this upcoming spring to fully determine, there has been “very favorable feedback” thus far, according to Loiseau. Vanderbilt already boasts 16 LEED buildings, nine of them at the gold level. The Commons Center, which was completed in 2008, is the most notable of those.

While constructing a LEED Gold building is difficult because of the strict requirements, an engineering and science building poses a whole new obstacle. General science labs require much more energy than rooms in a normal building, such as classrooms and offices. However, there was an even greater concern: the clean room.

Certain experiments and research require the utmost sterility of surroundings, and the clean room allows for such activity to occur. This one will specifically be used as a nano-crystal research lab. The nearly 10,000 square foot facility has no more than 100 particles per million as a standard. The 300 air changes every hour ensure that there will be no contamination. A pre-gowning area by the entrance further keeps any possible outside particles from entering via people. The cleanliness is crucial for certain experiments.

“The clean room will use about as much energy as the rest of the building,” Loiseau said.

Bringing together all of campus

If there’s anything that those in charge of this project want to push across the most, it’s this message: the Engineering and Science Building and Innovation Center are open to all students. It’s evident in the materials in the buildings, its location and how those in charge of its construction are trying to market it.

The building is comprised of brick, stone and glass among other materials. The brick represents some of the older, traditional buildings on main campus, the stone ties in with Olin right behind it and the glass symbolizes the medical center. The brick is even the same type used in Kissam, the most recently built residence hall on campus. This was all thought of beforehand and purposely crafted.

“It tries to mix in all the environments,” said Grajewski.

Although its predecessor, Olin Hall, was primarily for engineering classes and research, the push is for all students and faculty to take advantage of what this new facility has to offer. Whether its for class, a club meeting or just for exploring one’s curiosity, there is plenty of space and state-of-the-art technology to let the imagination turn into reality.

The Innovation Center will be especially useful and open for those in non-engineering majors, even those outside of the STEM fields. The three story building provides open space and individual meeting/conference rooms that can be reserved in advance. Large projection screens/televisions allow for great functionality not readily available on most places on campus.

Additionally, the main spaces in the Innovation Center can be easily adjusted to accommodate any number of events, no matter the size of attendance. All the furniture can be moved around, which was a key part in the overall design and purchase of chairs, desks and more.

On the third floor of the Innovation Center is a makerspace, which was built in order to centralize all the shops on campus. In it are tools for creating projects of any kind, as the room also holds the capability for 3D printing. Acoustic panels help absorb the noise from this space so that others around the area can work uninterrupted from the noisy instruments inside of it.


On Thursday, it was announced that the Innovation Center would be named the Wond’ry and will serve as “the epicenter for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Vanderbilt University,” according to its website. The goal is to bring all the maker activity into one specific area in order to centralize resources and best connect students, faculty and other professionals.

What’s next

The Engineering and Science Building and the Innovation Center have been open and functional since school started, but there’s still more to come. The top three floors are currently shell space and will be converted sometime in the future to suit whatever need there is.

The clean room will open in multiple phases with the first part ready for use by the beginning of the spring semester.

Other areas around the building will also pick up more capabilities later this year and down the road, including the Innovation Center. For example, it will add a virtual reality portion, which has become increasingly popular technology recently. 

Planning for these buildings helped fill many crucial needs on campus, while the university also made sure to allow for plenty of space that can be adapted for whatever future research may arrive. It will eventually be completely packed with research on all the floors, but for now it’s added a whole new expansion of experimentation and innovation.

Story by Josh Hamburger, Editor in Chief
Photos by Haley Dotter, Tiger Mou, Gabriella Noreen, Madison Whiteside and Ziyi Liu, Multimedia Director

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