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Engineering First-Class Facilities: H.M. Comer Hall Renovated to One-Stop Shop for Students

1803010_Spring_CampusThe new H.M. Comer Hall radiates professionalism and class and is a one-stop shop for students to get all of their engineering needs met in one place.

The newly renovated building provides an appropriate entryway into the Shelby Engineering and Science Quad and has become the portal into The University of Alabama College of Engineering. From advising to administration, the building houses each office students will need to visit throughout their college career.

“We have a really nice place for students to come at a single location,” said Dr. Ken Fridley, senior associate dean for administration, who took the lead in the building renovation. “Also, with the level of detail in the building, we are able to really communicate a very high level of professionalism that’s associated with engineering and computer science.”

The building is a comprehensive space for the entire College and not any specific department. Having these student support offices in the same building is an advantage, Fridley said, because it is easier to guide students to the appropriate offices for their various academic needs.

“When you’re working with students and you need to refer them to someone else, they are all in the same location,” Fridley said. “It really focuses those support services for faculty and students in a single location.”

UA College of Engineering Dean Chuck Karr said the only thing the Shelby complex lacked was an entryway to the College. By renovating Comer, Karr said that need was addressed and created a showpiece facility the College is proud of having on display.

“We wanted to make a statement that you’ve arrived in the College of Engineering,” Karr said.

The two goals of the project were for people who entered the building to recognize that they were at The University of Alabama and that they were at a premier college of engineering.

“For us to be able to have, now, that first impression be really what the College deserves in terms of our quality and the scope of our programs, it was really important to get that sooner than later,” Fridley said about the timing of the project.

The renovation process started in February 2017. At that time, several offices moved from Comer to a temporary home in Hardaway Hall. The goal was to complete the project by August 2018.

“It was very important to the College that we move in prior to the fall semester starting,” Fridley said, adding he was very pleased with how it came together.

Karr is delighted to have a space students, faculty, staff and alumni can be proud of calling their own, and he believes the new building will be a major benefit to the College. In particular, he is especially pleased with the unique signage in the halls because he feels it clearly communicates the mission and history of the College.

Most academic buildings do not necessarily advertise the institution where they are located, and it was important to engineering administrators to make it clear that this college is part of UA. College administrators were inspired by the University’s athletic facilities and worked with the same graphics design company, 49 Degrees, to make this goal a reality.

The second goal was to have open spaces that were accessible and not locked behind closed doors. The large foyer and glass walls throughout the building help draw people in to the activity of the College.

“We really think the architects, contractors, engineers and interior design teams involved hit it out of the park on this one. They really were very successful,” Fridley said.

1808021_Lakeside_Dining_HM_Comer_renovationsWalking through the front entrance to H.M. Comer, visitors are greeted by a three-story entryway, the Leroy McAbee Grand Foyer. To the left, the student innovation lab, The Cube, is surrounded by glass walls where all who enter the building can watch innovation at work. The corridor that runs alongside The Cube is the Nucor Steel Tuscaloosa, Inc. Innovation Hall and displays the name of patent holders who did their research at UA.

To the right of the foyer is the Tom and Carol Patterson Welcome Center. Prospective students visit this area and can receive tours from the College’s ACEs, or Ambassadors to the College of Engineering. Past the welcome center is a 152-seat lecture hall for classes and guest speakers. In front of the lecture hall is the Marczak Student Lounge with tables and a seating area for students to study and relax.

The building, and the first floor specifically, is the first line of recruitment where prospective students and faculty will visit and get their initial impression of the school.

The second floor centers on student support and alumni relations. Nine faculty offices are located in two small corridors on the south side of the building. The Brasfield & Gorrie Engineering Advising Center is also located on this wing of the building. There are 12 advising offices in addition to the director’s office and a centrally located conference room. In Collegiate Hall, a list of degree programs and student organizations are posted.

On the north side of the second floor is the ACIPCO Engineering Career Development Center, which houses the cooperative education and career services offices. Engineering Services and Facilities Management, Financial Services, External Affairs and Development and the Capstone Engineering Society round out the end of Alumni Hall. A display of endowments, outstanding alumni volunteers, CES board members and distinguished engineering fellows are presented on the walls.

Administrative and departmental offices are located on the third floor of H.M. Comer. Department heads and administrative assistants for all seven departments have offices on the south side of the third floor. A student corridor called Honors Hall is decorated with the names of former outstanding seniors and student honor societies.

The Dean’s suite, conference room and Tom and Myra Kilgore Parlor are all located on Leadership Hall, which is decorated with a timeline of the history of the College.

Donor funding from alumni and industry partners made much of the $22 million renovation possible. Fridley said students can see the value of their education when alumni come back and invest in both the College and the current students’ success.

“The building as we see it would not have been made possible without their generosity and their commitment to the College,” Fridley said. “We wouldn’t have the building we have now without their support.”

Karr said donor support was a major factor in the renovation project as well as in planting roots in the College for years to come.

“It’s critical not just for the financial aspect of it, but it’s critical to have names on facilities — names of really prominent people and great companies and organizations,” Karr said. “Certainly, we really appreciate the financial contribution, but more than that, we appreciate the fact that these companies are willing to lend their name to the College of Engineering. That means an awful lot to us.”

1809098_HM_Comer_ribbon_cuttingOver the past few years the progression of upgrading and building engineering facilities led to the Comer renovation. With Comer now complete, Karr is looking at the next piece of the puzzle — Hardaway Hall.

The 1936 building is the oldest engineering facility on campus and houses several faculty offices, labs, student competition teams space and senior design project space. The focus is to now refine those areas over time.

“Investing in upgrading that building, from a facilities standpoint, is our first priority now,” Fridley said.

Fridley said the new H.M. Comer Hall has already started to attract prospective students and faculty to UA. The renovations are one way for the College to keep up with other universities in recruitment. It’s still a little early to know if those students will enroll, but he said positive communication with families visiting campus has already begun.

“The wow factor is significant,” Fridley said. “We’ve really set a high watermark in terms of that first impression they get when they walk into the college.”

From the families’ first stop on their tour at the Patterson Welcome Center, it is evident that the College is a first-class institution, Fridley said, which was exactly the goal of the renovation.

“We don’t have to say it,” he said. “The building communicates it.”

In 1837, The University of Alabama became one of the first five universities in the nation to offer engineering classes. Today, UA’s College of Engineering has more than 5,800 students and more than 130 faculty. In recent years, students in the College have been named USA Today All-USA College Academic Team members, Goldwater, Hollings, Portz, Boren, Mitchell and Truman scholars.