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Howard University opens $70 million laboratory building, with hopes for more to come

The Howard University Interdisciplinary Research Building is an 81,670 square foot, state of the art research facility on Georgia Avenue and W Street shown on April 15, 2016 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Kate Patterson for The Washington Post)
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Howard University on Friday celebrated the opening of its first new laboratory building in more than 30 years, a gleaming edifice of glass and terracotta tile at Georgia Avenue and W Street that aims to serve as a gateway to the main campus and assert the importance of scientific research at the school in Northwest Washington.

The Interdisciplinary Research Building, a $70 million project, will bring together scholars in medicine, engineering, dentistry, pharmacy and chemistry to spur collaborative thinking. It boasts a special “class 10” cleanroom for research requiring a highly controlled, non-contaminated environment and 81,000 square feet of space for laboratories, offices and conference rooms.

“This is the kind of investment we need to make in the university,” said Howard President Wayne A.I. Frederick, who joined other school officials in cutting a ribbon at the entrance. “Hopefully, it’s one of many.” Frederick called it “an extraordinarily proud moment” for the university.

Howard had another reason to boast this week. On Thursday, the university announced that a dignitary who lives a couple miles away will deliver its commencement address on May 7: President Obama. Other U.S. presidents have spoken at Howard, but the symbolism of the first black president speaking at the historically black university in the nation’s capital will be powerful.

Founded just after the Civil War in 1867, Howard receives direct support from Congress through annual appropriations of more than $200 million. Next year it will mark its sesquicentennial. The 10,300-student university is known as a top producer of doctoral degrees for African Americans.

For universities like Howard that put a premium on science, technology and engineering, to have state-of-the-art research facilities is crucial. George Washington University, also in the District, opened a major new science and engineering hall last year on its Foggy Bottom campus.

GW opens massive science hall, aiming to rise in college research prominence

Frederick said Howard’s new building will not only attract academic talent, it will also help the university retain strong faculty. Many professors, some in lab coats, attended the ceremony. Often academic buildings are designated for one department or school within a university. This one is not.

“It will increase our ability to collaborate across the campus,” said Kimberly Jones, chair of civil and environmental engineering. “Since we’re all here, we’ll be able to talk with each other.”

Ground broke for the project in spring 2013, with Turner Construction overseeing the building and HDR Architecture leading the design in partnership with Lance Bailey and Associates.

Howard students and alumni pitched in at key points. Marcell Snodgrass, who graduated with an architecture degree in 2014, helped work on the design of the facade in summer of 2012, including some of the first drawings that Frederick reviewed in the early stages of project. The facade is modern but echoes, through the terracotta earth tones, some of older brick buildings at the heart of campus.

Snodgrass, 25, who now works for a Washington architecture firm, joined in the celebration Friday. He said many put their “heart and soul” into the effort. “It’s rewarding to be introduced to a project at its birth and to help carry it on,” he said. “We want this building to set an example. It has to be a catalyst.” He said anyone traveling north on Georgia Avenue at W Street will see the building and know “now you’re at Howard. You have arrived.”