In 2011, then-President Barack Obama announced an initiative to escalate manufacturing in the U.S., with a particular emphasis on higher education. Metropolitan State University of Denver decided to create a customized baccalaureate degree program in order to accommodate Colorado’s growing manufacturing workforce—specifically, the aerospace industry. A 2017 CBNC report, in fact, cites Colorado as the nation’s second-largest aerospace economy behind California. MSU Denver took advantage of this by combining its existing Engineering Technology Sciences, Computer Science and Industrial Design programs into a new Aerospace and Engineering Sciences Building to support this new degree program. To achieve this, the university turned to Anderson Mason Dale Architects of Denver. 

The design team developed a plan where the Aerospace and Engineering Sciences (AES) Building would help the school build on its traditions of inclusivity and community service and serve as a link between local residents and the region’s flourishing aerospace industry. With 118,000 gsf and a total project cost of $56.2 million (cost per unit area: $366/sf), the university explored a broad range of partnerships and tailored arrangements intended to be mutually beneficial to both the school and its industry partner. The plan included a diverse set of lab spaces designed to accommodate a variety of partnership opportunities. 

“A major challenge for the design team was the nature of the industry partnership opportunities. Rather than a single, foundational-level donation from a large company, the opportunities tended to be small-scale involving using a particular space in a particular way,” said Erin Hillhouse, Project Manager, Anderson Mason Dale Architects. “We needed to be light on our feet and able to quickly test modifications to the design to see if the building could morph to accommodate the partnership opportunity without sacrificing function.”

The resulting building houses fabrication spaces on the ground floor. The upper floors house labs and classrooms dedicated to other subjects linked to the advanced manufacturing aerospace industry, such as electronics, computer science and thermal dynamics, plus drafting and design studios. The building itself is positioned along an arterial entry into downtown Denver and the central business district, with the two-story Study Lounge and the Forum—the building’s most active spaces—positioned directly in the line of sight of commuters. The site is located directly across the street from the city’s 18,000-seat event center. A half-scale prototype of the Orion spacecraft, constructed by students using 3D-printed components, is displayed in the Study Lounge, where it is visible from the street. 

A “Beacon to the City.” Image: Ryan Dravitz

This community-centered atmosphere, along with the variety of lab space in the AES building, has been significant in attracting a wide range of industry partners to collaborate with MSU Denver. 

“The project includes three major initiatives,” said Hillhouse. “The top floor of the building was set aside by the university to serve as industry tenant lease space. Start-up businesses get access to expensive testing equipment on the lower floors of the building and the university benefits by getting opportunities to place students with the businesses for hands-on experience. A deal was brokered between the university and a distributor for advanced manufacturing equipment wherein the distributer would loan the university its newest equipment models for student use and in return get the ability to bring clients through to see the equipment in action. Perhaps most importantly, MSU Denver worked with industry to develop, from scratch, a new curriculum resulting in Advanced Manufacturing Sciences. The curriculum is specifically tailored to provide the skills which industry reported needing.”

Advanced Machines and Robotics Hall laboratory diagram. Image: Anderson Mason Dale Architects

Donated equipment from local companies, such as 3D metal printers, are housed in labs framed by large windows so that passers-by can get a glimpse of what’s going on inside. Building systems are also on display, adding to the concept of community and transparency. 

“The building is designed with large expanses of glass on these primary sides so that as commuters enter the city or patrons leave an event across the street, people can look up into the building and see the activity within,” Hillhouse said. “The primary view into the building features a mock-up of a spacecraft. Looking out from this same spot, students get views to Pikes Peak.”

Flexibility is key, with services in the lab distributed from overhead so that equipment can easily be changed out when newer models are available. All labs were planned on a modular basis so that, if necessary, they can be reallocated to adapt to long-range program changes in the future. The building is on track for LEED Gold certification, and is also projected to achieve 18 percent Energy Cost savings over ASHRAE 90.1 2010 baseline requirements.

Laboratories are designed to showcase equipment. Image: David Lauer

One example of the varied lab spaces in the AES building is the Advanced Machines and Robotics facility, which features an open floor plate design and overhead service carriers in order to maximize potential equipment layout and accommodate safe working clearances for the machines. The lab has 150-amp electrical busways, mounted to the overhead carriers to permit electrical devices of varying voltages and amperages to be positioned where necessary for the equipment. The room maintains an open space in the middle due to fixed work benches, storage cabinets and sinks being positioned around the perimeter. A distributor of advanced manufacturing equipment agreed to a partnership with MSU Denver where the distributor will continually re-stock the lab with its most current equipment in exchange for permission to utilize the lab as a showroom. Large windows were therefore included in the design plan so that the distributor can demonstrate the equipment to its clients while it is in use. 

Another example is the Thermal/Heat Transfer and Fluids Flow laboratory, a 28-station facility equipped with 14 moveable yet sturdy tables that can be arranged in lecture format or pushed out of the way for demonstrations or workshops. The tables are fitted with duplex electrical receptacles that can be plugged into overhead service carriers or perimeter raceways. To follow the theme of community and inclusiveness, glass doors and side lights enable visibility of lab activity from out in the corridor. 

Lab flexibility on display. Image: David Lauer

The Laboratory of the Year judging panel remarked that they were impressed by the value of the building, which they called “unbelievable for Colorado.” They praised the design team for their innovative and creative use of funding, and remarked that the AES facility is a good example of how a lab building can contribute to the community. 

“The building brings together several academic departments that had previously been housed in separate buildings. The budget wouldn’t support all of the space that the departments wanted,” said Hillhouse. “One key for overcoming this was MSU Denver’s creation of the new Advanced Manufacturing Institute that facilitates sharing of spaces in the building. Another was designing spaces for double duty: a student lounge also acts as lecture venue; a circulation corridor also acts as a gallery/event space.”

“The biggest cost-saving move was organizing the building into a simple bar with all laboratories clustered on one side of the bar and all offices clustered on the other,” continued Hillhouse. “This minimizes distribution of expensive lab systems and achieves the most floor area for the least skin expenditure.”

Sustainability features of the Aerospace and Engineering Sciences Building. Image: Anderson Mason Dale Architects

Hillhouse noted that the promise of a skilled, educated workforce was key to getting local manufacturing and aerospace companies to agree to partner with MSU Denver on the AES building project. 

“In our local advanced manufacturing industry, there is a vacuum in which companies need staff with a complex skill-set that combines computer programming, managing teams of people and the ability to work with one’s hands, but can’t find staff qualified for the work,” said Hillhouse. “It was easy to convince companies to be involved in the planning of the project because the companies could see that the project would create a pipeline that would fill their needs.”

Labs promote teaching and research. Image: David Lauer

MaryBeth DiDonna is Editor of Laboratory Design.,, Twitter @labdesignnews