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You might not know it, but some of the world’s leading robotics scientists work in downtown Pensacola at the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, or IHMC.

A not-for-profit research institute affiliated with the University System of Florida, IHMC works to pioneer technologies aimed at leveraging and extending human capabilities. Last year, an IHMC robotics team won second place in the DARPA Robotics Challenge with its Atlas robot, outranking 23 other teams from around the world. Next month, team members will take their powered exoskeleton technology to Zürich, Switzerland to compete in the Cybathlon,  a competition for disabled athletes using advanced assistive devices.

Founded at the University of West Florida in 1990, IHMC’s presence in downtown Pensacola has grown over the years to the point where researchers were spread out over four buildings. Not anymore: the $8 million expansion that officials opened Monday will allow IHMC and its 100 or so employees to consolidate into a single campus. The new building is adjacent to IHMC’s existing headquarters at 40 South Alcaniz Street, which the institute will continue to use.

The 30,000 square foot expansion was designed by Quina Grundhoefer Architects and built by Hewes & Company, both of Pensacola. Much of that space is occupied by IHMC’s robotics lab, which will relocate from rented space on East Wright Street. A second-floor observation gallery, modeled after those found at NASA’s Johnson Space Center and elsewhere, will allow schoolchildren and other visitors to watch the cutting-edge research as it happens.

“It’s an exciting moment in IHMC history,” said IHMC founder and director Dr. Ken Ford. “We are so excited to be moving into this world-class facility. This will make it much easier for innovation and collaboration to happen.”

“We are driving research and innovation right here in Pensacola,” said Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward.

Expansion built with flooding in mind

Planned for years, construction on the new building was delayed for nearly a year after April 2014’s heavy rains flooded the first floor of IHMC’s existing Alcaniz Street building, leaving it unusable and forcing expensive repairs. Given the building’s location in a flood-prone part of downtown, it wasn’t the first time IHMC had dealt with flooding, but the severity of the 2014 incident led officials to rethink plans for the new building.

Construction finally began in January 2015 after the building was reengineered and redesigned to be even higher off the ground. The ground floor of the finished building sits 13 feet above sea level.

“If this building floods, all of downtown will have flooded,” said Phil Turner, IHMC’s director of architectural and engineering services.

The project also incorporated pervious pavers — paving materials which allow rainwater to drain into the ground — and a landscaped stormwater pond. IHMC was able to secure $750,000 in the 2016-2017 state budget to help with the additional stormwater costs.

IHMC's $8 million expansion under construction in 2015. (Drew Buchanan/The Pulse)

IHMC’s $8 million expansion under construction in 2015. (Drew Buchanan/The Pulse)

IHMC to finish moving in by Thanksgiving

The building’s second and third floors will house conference rooms, offices, a boardroom, and future lab space, many of which feature modular wall panels which will allow new wiring and other infrastructure to be easily installed as technologies change, effectively future-proofing the building.

Collaboration was a key design driver for the project, with collaborative spaces scattered throughout the building, including on top. A rooftop deck offers excellent views of downtown Pensacola.

Officials said Monday that while major construction on the building has been completed, finishing touches will continue to be added for a few more months. IHMC is expected to complete its move into the new building before Thanksgiving.

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