Signed Beam ‘Tops Out’ Future Home of Data Science

A crane lifts a steel girder with a Christmas tree on top

Workers for Gilbane Building Company hoisted and placed the last of the high steel atop the University of Virginia’s School of Data Science building, after the beam had been festooned with flags and signatures.

The school’s new home will anchor the University’s entrance corridor on the along Ivy Road.

“This is wonderful,” said Judy Fox, an associate professor of data science, after she signed her name to the beam. “I am so excited and I am looking forward to moving to that building.”

University personnel and data science students clustered around the 20-foot beam, painted white, to sign their names with colored Sharpies before the beam, the last in the construction, was hoisted. Aside from the signatures, the beam was decorated with U.S. and UVA flags and an artificial pine tree.

The traditional “topping out” ceremony celebrates completing the steel work, typically the most dangerous part of any large construction job, with construction workers and school stakeholders signing their names to the last beam added to the building.

About 300 construction workers, data science students and University personnel gathered at the job site Tuesday morning to hear remarks, watch the beam be lifted into place and eat lunch together. Among the speakers were Philip Bourne, dean of the School of Data Science; Kevin McMichael, senior project executive for Gilbane Building Co.; Alice Raucher, the architect for the University of Virginia; and Mark Stanis, director of capital construction for Facilities Management.

A woman signs her name onto a steel girder already covered in signatures
Tesha Westbrook, a staff member at the School of Data Science, signs the final girder to be added to the school building.

The School of Data Science building faces Emmet Street, with an amphitheater and a retention pond between its façade and the street. The four-story, 61,000-square-foot facility will include four “adaptive classrooms” with technology to enhance the learning process and faculty offices, as well as meeting and research areas. The plans call for a simple building footprint with a double-height interior space to host lectures and other events, as well as a glass façade.

In keeping with the University’s 2030 sustainability goals, a green roof is planned to mitigate the heat gain from a south-facing roof, and offices will have windows that open to increase natural ventilation. There will be a continuous terrace at the fourth floor to provide views overlooking the pond as well as the Rotunda and the new Alderman Library addition. The building will connect with Central Grounds structures in its materials and coloring, as well as in its views.

Bourne, the inaugural dean of the School of Data Science and a renowned biomedical and data science researcher, called the construction a landmark event for UVA.

“Those of you who are part of the University know that, metaphorically, we call ourselves ‘The School Without Walls’ to emphasize the interdisciplinary nature of our field and our attitude to that field,” Bourne said. “For this brief moment, it is not only true metaphorically, but also in reality. Even as the walls go up to create the workplace we are all so excited about, we will always think about it in the terms reflected today.”

Bourne said he got a perspective of the project on a recent tour of the construction site.

“The three years of effort by so many was creating a true home for data science at UVA, where generations of students will be trained and so much groundbreaking research will be done,” Bourne said. “It’s a home that looks at higher education through a different lens – a lens of interdisciplinarity, public-private partnership, cooperation and collaboration obvious from looking at the building itself from any angle. The excitement of this, our mission as a school, will only grow as more is constructed.”

And he noted that data science has been applied to the project.

“Lots of data science goes into that, from data and methods in modern architectural design, to maintaining supply chains, to the precision of every prefabricated piece of the building, and so much more,” Bourne said. “We have every intent to apply data science to ourselves, within and for the building, as we think about a sustainable future and our relationship with the communities that surround us.”

A worker in a lift examines a steel post on the corner of a the building's skeleton
Construction workers on the skeleton of the School of Data Science, which will be anchor of the University’s entrance corridor along Ivy Road.

Raucher, the architect for the University, viewed the building in the context of the entrance corridor.

“What we are here to do today, in addition to signing the beam and acknowledging the highest level of structure for the building, is to recognize that this is an important step in the realization of the overall vision for the Emmet-Ivy corridor, and to acknowledge the multitude of individuals, including yourselves, who have given their respective best efforts to make this day a reality,” she said.

She said the current course of action was set in motion in 2016 with the Landscape Framework Plan.

“It wasn’t long before donors with bold visions themselves recognized that this was the place to be for the future growth of the University,” Rauscher said. “A generous gift to fund the new School of Data Science and create a state-of-the-art home for the school soon followed. The fact that the president’s Emmet-Ivy Task Force designated this very site to be the ‘Discovery Nexus’ only added to the allure.”

Raucher said the data science building would be an anchor of the precinct and the educational and cultural achievements that would follow.

“The erection of the structure that you have completed is thrilling to see, enabling us to envision the actual building and all it will bring to this district,” Raucher said. “Indeed, this building for the School of Data Science will serve as a ‘front door’ for the district, and therefore this day not only marks an important milestone in the construction of a single building, but also marks the beginning of the realization of a vision for this new and exciting district for the University.”

Stanis, director of capital construction and renovations for UVA, said the project has faced many challenges, all of which the construction team overcame while maintaining high quality and safety standards.

“No steel top-out ceremony would be complete without the celebration of safety,” Stanis said. “Our industry has come a long way since the early days of iron working, and though our safety protocols have greatly improved, it is still a dangerous process, and so we do not take for granted what an achievement it is to reach top-out without any serious accidents. It should also be mentioned that last month, this School of Data Science team was recognized as the top project within Gilbane based upon safety performance.”

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He also praised the team members’ commitment to the project.

“Through the heat and the severe storms, through the 4 a.m. concrete pours and the weekend shifts, through the supply chain delays and intense trade coordination, you have kept the project rolling forward and you have delivered quality without excuse,” Stanis said. “Your attention to detail and pride in workmanship is appreciated.”

Stanis closed his remarks by thanking the University’s partners in the project, including Gilbane, Liphart Steel, Virginia Steel Erectors Inc., Piedmont Concrete Contractors Inc., Design Electric Inc., Riddleberger Brothers Inc. and Faulconer Construction Company, all working with the design team of VMDO Architects, Hopkins Architects and Arup engineers.

McMichael, Gilbane’s senior project executive, said the topping-out ceremony marked the rough halfway point between the groundbreaking and the ribbon cutting on a structure. He said the project had been very collaborative between the designers and the University and the contractors.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for us to be working here on this project in this precinct,” McMichael said.

The School of Data Science, the University’s 12th school, combines scientific methods, processes, algorithms and systems to extract knowledge and insights from large data sets. It is an interdisciplinary science, combining computer science, statistics, mathematics, information science and specialized fields of knowledge or study, such as medicine, politics and music, transcending traditional disciplines and combining disparate data sets that otherwise would not have been brought together.

The school was approved by the Board of Visitors in 2019 and made possible by a $120 million gift from the Quantitative Foundation, based in Charlottesville and led by Jaffray Woodriff and his wife, Merrill Woodriff, both UVA graduates. 

Media Contact

Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications