A year after lab closures, renovations ongoing in Norris Chemistry Building

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Melissa Braun (senior) and Christian Clark (first-year) conduct an experiment in the Norris Chemistry Building at Occidental College on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018. Miles Koupal/The Occidental
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In November 2017, Chemistry Department Chair and professor Michael Hill made the decision to cancel wet labs and research in Norris Chemistry Building after the expulsion of unidentifiable black matter from the ventilation system prompted concerns over student and faculty safety. This event — combined with myriad other concerns brought about by years of deferred maintenance in the building — led the Facilities department to undertake substantial renovations over the 2017–2018 winter break, which included the partial reinstallation of the ventilation system, an assessment of the plumbing system and the upgrading of chemical storage facilities. These renovations addressed all major issues and allowed all labs and research to resume in Spring 2018, as Hill said to The Occidental in a March 5, 2018 article. These renovations were not meant to be exhaustive, but instead part of a long-term plan meant to bring Norris up to the standards of other collegiate chemistry facilities, Hill said in the same article.

A year after the lab cancellations, the project of renovating Norris Chemistry Building is still an ongoing process, according to Vice President of Academic Affairs and Dean of the College Wendy Sternberg, who has worked in tandem with the chemistry and Facilities departments to oversee the renovations.

“I feel like we’ve come a long way,” Sternberg said. “But we have a ways to go.”

According to Tom Polansky, director of facilities, no major renovations occurred in Norris Chemistry Building over the summer aside from minor work done to prepare a laboratory space for incoming professor Emmanuelle Despagnet-Ayoub. Hill and Sternberg said that the most significant step taken since the winter break renovations was the college’s decision to solicit plans for a long-term renovation project from architectural firms via a formal request for proposals (RFP). The Facilities department uses RFPs to compare and contrast the prices and planning approaches of firms interested in complex building projects, according to Polansky.

“The Chemistry department, along with support from Facilities, drafted the RFP to ensure that we get a firm with relevant experience on the project. We have a few firms interested, but we can’t divulge their names at this time,” Polansky said via email. “No huge costs to issue the RFP, just a commitment of staff and faculty time.”

The decision to issue an RFP came after c|a ARCHITECTS, the firm with which the college had originally been collaborating after the lab cancellations, declined to take on the long-term project, according to Hill.

“It’s not a huge job, it’s not going to be a new, marquee building, and so I think that a lot of firms that maybe might have otherwise been interested in it aren’t particularly interested,” Hill said.

With several architectural firms having expressed interest, the next step will be the formation of a committee that will interview and assess the different firms, according to Sternberg. This advisory committee will include Sternberg, chemistry faculty, the Facilities department, and Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Amos Himmelstein, among others. The final hiring decision will be made by Polansky, Himmelstein and President Jonathan Veitch, according to Sternberg.

The RFP calls for the development of a modern, interactive teaching and research facility, potentially including the installation of new audiovisual (A/V) equipment, infrastructure required for experiments and demonstrations (including gas and sinks), and an improved flow and layout that enhances student-faculty collaboration. The RFP establishes the timeline for this project as between three and seven years.

“The overarching goal, consistent with curricular innovations, must be the development of spaces that explicitly drive forward multidisciplinary and contemporary teaching and research,” the RFP reads.

The RFP also acknowledges that renovations are currently limited by the size of Norris Chemistry Building and that the subsequent overcrowding and lack of space limit the building’s functionality.

“New construction is therefore necessary; however the restricted footprint of Norris will require innovative approaches to expand the available space,” the RFP reads. “The courtyard in front of Norris provides an opportunity for new construction. Common spaces, offices for adjuncts and staff, and lecture and seminar rooms are all relatively low-cost and can be easily built into this space. New construction can occur before renovation work to provide space to transition into as needed.”

Hill said that, although he hopes for larger-scale renovations to take place as outlined in the RFP, members of the administration have indicated that the current plan is to focus on renovating the building’s current footprint, with the possibility of expansion further down the line.

“We were always still kind of hoping that we might do a major renovation. The building — even if it weren’t shabby, even if it were well-designed — it’s still too small for our program,” Hill said. “And, [Sternberg] seemed to indicate that what we’re really talking about is just renovating the current space. And so that’s what we’re going to be restricting this to.”

Hill said that he believes the administration and the board of trustees are still dedicated to the establishment of long-term renovations, even if the process is moving more slowly than he desires.

The contents of cigarettes are isolated and measured in a chemistry lab at the Norris Chemistry Building at Occidental College on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018. Miles Koupal/The Occidental

Unrelated to the RFP, the chemistry department recently reviewed its chemical hygiene plan, working alongside Environmental Health & Safety (EHS) staff of Occidental College and Scott Brehmer, a contractor hired to act as the interim Chemical Hygiene Officer (CHO), of Citadel Environmental Services Inc. According to Hill, this role will soon be filled by chemistry professor Weidong Wang as the college looks to transition the CHO back to an internal position. Hill also said that the review of the college’s chemical hygiene plan illuminated the need for a designated faculty member that would review all safety and training procedures in teaching labs. This new role of Teaching Lab Coordinator will be filled by chemistry professor Anne Yu, who undertook a similar role at Pomona College, according to Hill.

According to Occidental’s Risk & Insurance Specialist James Andersen, who oversees EHS staff, the transition of the CHO role back to an internal college position will require greater vigilance from the college.

“I think it’ll put the responsibility back on us to manage the suggestions that [Brehmer has] made,” Andersen said.

Andersen also said that the role of EHS moving forward will to be monitor safety compliance as renovations continue and to ensure that no shortcuts are taken.

“The main thing is just making sure that things are thought out carefully and that there’s not a rush to get things done, which could have unintended consequences,” Andersen said.

The chemistry department had also made plans to make full renovations to a lab intended for new professor Emmanuelle Despagnet-Ayoub, who began teaching full-time this semester. However, Despagnet-Ayoub asked that the department postpone the renovation so that her lab would not stick out over others, according to Hill and Sternberg.

“[Despagnet-Ayoub’s] position has been all along that what we really need is to integrate her lab with the rest of the building,” Hill said.

As a result, Facilities cleaned Despagnet-Ayoub’s lab over the summer but did not install new, modern infrastructure, according to Hill.

As the renovations move forward, Sternberg said that she looks forward to seeing this project through to its completion.

“There are many problems at institutions of higher education that have unclear solutions,” Sternberg said. “There’s a very clear solution here. This problem is going to take time and money to fix. It’s not that those are easy things, but this is a tractable problem.” 

Hill also said that he is optimistic, but that the project is moving slowly. All further progress relies on the RFP process and committee decisions over the intended scale of the renovations and which architectural firm to hire.

“It’s slower than what we wanted but it’s kind of what we expected,” Hill said. “It’s just kind of how it goes.”