Plan for New $100M UW Computer Science Building Gains Steam

Plans for a new University of Washington computer science building gained momentum in recent weeks with a $40 million line-item in the governor’s proposed capital budget, a major private gift, and, Thursday, approval by UW regents of an architectural firm for pre-design work.

The UW Board of Regents authorized negotiation of a contract with LMN Architects for design of the proposed 130,000-square-foot building, which would allow the UW to better meet the surging demand for computer science education from students and the state’s technology companies that would hire them.

The Paul G. Allen Center for Computer Science and Engineering, now 11 years old, is overflowing. Two out of three students who complete prerequisite courses and apply to the computer science majors are turned away at a time when Washington employers large and small are clamoring for qualified software engineers and data scientists. Even introductory computer science courses—on pace to attract 5,000 students this year—are tough to get in to for lack of space. Computer science-led collaborative programs, including the eScience Institute and Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering, are located far away from Allen Center.

The new building, with an estimated price tag of $104.6 million, would address these issues and more. Early plans call for room for 30 new fulltime faculty—up from about 50 now—and their associated researchers, 16 labs, three seminar rooms, two classrooms, a lecture hall, and other facilities, according to a Board of Regents agenda item (PDF). Focused on undergraduate education, interdisciplinary research, and collaboration, the new building would allow the UW to double the number of computer science and engineering degrees to about 600 a year.

“Yesterday’s vote is a clear commitment of UW to move it forward (although there’s a lot of money to be raised),” says UW computer science professor Ed Lazowska, an Xconomist, in an e-mail. “It’s super-exciting to be able to grow like this and educate more Washington kids.”

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposed capital budget for the 2015-2017 biennium (PDF) includes $40 million for the new building. Inslee’s budget also allocates $54.6 million for a Washington State University building in Everett that will house STEM programs, including software engineering, and $58.7 million for Central Washington University to renovate and expand its Samuelson Union Building “to serve as an integrated computer science technology center”.

Lazowska says that even before private fundraising has begun, the UW received its first major gift related to the new building late last year.

Jeremy Jaech, a UW regent and startup entrepreneur (and also an Xconomist), and Brad Smith, Microsoft’s general counsel, recently convened CEOs and CTOs of leading employers in the region to gather guidance for the UW computer science programs, Lazowska says.

“The ‘high order bits,’ in my view, were that we need to grow (because computer science is of ever-increasing importance, and because public universities have a responsibility to the students and companies of their region), and we need to maintain the quality of our graduates,” Lazowska says.

If all goes according to current plans, design work on the new building would be completed in late 2016, followed by construction and occupancy as early as October 2018.

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