Higgins Laboratories, while adequate for a mechanical engineering program of the 1940s, was unable to fill the needs of the much larger and technically advanced program of the 1990s. Undergraduate enrollment in mechanical engineering had quadrupled over that period, and the faculty had grown threefold. The department's graduate program had increased by leaps and bounds, a reflection of a major increase in sponsored research (the department's $3.5 million in external funding places it among the top 20 departments in the nation). This growth left Higgins severely overcrowded. In fact, a 1989 study ranked WPI's ME Department last among 14 similar institutions in space per faculty member, a common basis for comparison.
The need for more space hampered the growth of many vital research areas, including applied and stochastic mechanics, biomechanics, biomaterials and rehabilitation, computational mechanics, materials science, structural control and earthquake engineering, thermo-fluid and thermal processes, and vibrations and controls. With the creation a quarter century ago of the WPI Plan (the Institute's innovative, project-based undergraduate curriculum), student projects (more than 60 percent of which are now sponsored by corporations) became a vital element in the department's educational efforts. However, there was no dedicated space in Higgins for student project work, and students found themselves laboring in closets, in garages, and on a loading dock. The department's plans to implement a completely new undergraduate mechanical engineering curriculum, one designed to prepare students for the demands and opportunities of the profession well into the 21st century, were stymied by a lack of modern classrooms and teaching labs.
Higgins was also showing its age. Its exterior needed refurbishment and the interior was becoming threadbare, making a poor impression on prospective students and faculty members. The building's electrical service and heating, ventilation and cooling system had also become inadequate for the growing demands of a modern research program, and a number of the building's structures and systems (including its lack of an elevator) were not up to current building codes.
To remedy these problems, a major renovation and expansion was planned, to start in the spring of 1994. The project would include
- the top-to-bottom refurbishment and reorganization of the interior spaces of the 85,000-square-foot building.
- the construction of nearly 20,000 square feet of new space in an addition and through the use of part of the attic.
- the complete upgrading of the building's utilities.
The result would be an entirely new Higgins Laboratories.
George C. Gordon Library