Chemistry building closed for HVAC renovations

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The Norris Hall of Chemistry will reopen Sunday following renovations, according to Chemistry Department Chair Michael Hill.

The building has been closed since the end of last semester so that Facilities Management can update the building’s heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) system, Director of Facilities Tom Polansky said. Workers are also replacing several isolation valves and are installing new eyewash stations in selected spaces.

According to Hill, the biggest changes were to the air handling system, which is responsible for circulating air throughout the building and sending it back outside via fume hoods. Fume hoods are intended to limit exposure of students, faculty and staff to hazardous chemicals used in the lab.

Polansky said the new air handling system will be more effective and energy efficient than the old system, which used 54 fans on the roof to expel air from the building. The new system, by comparison, will utilize just five fans and use monitors to automatically adjust airflow to different rooms depending on whether or not they are occupied.

With the new HVAC system, the building will also be easier to heat, and individual offices and laboratories will have control over their heating, according to Hill. It will also be less noisy and smell better.

“If anyone has ever spent time in that chemistry building, it was notorious for smelling like a sewer,” Hill said. “There were odd smells; your eyes would burn. It was just notorious for being an unpleasant place to be, and all that stuff should disappear.”

But Hill said that the main reason for the renovation was to improve safety standards. Prior to the upgrade, toxic gases vented out through the fume hoods had the potential to reenter the building. And because the building does not comply with chemistry-construction standards, Hill said chemicals cannot be stored as they would in a modern chemistry facility, because they could lead to the build up of hazardous compounds in the atmosphere. The new HVAC system safeguards against both of these problems.

A survey conducted fall 2014 by several engineering firms at the behest of Polansky and Amos Himmelstein, vice president of finance and planning, first brought the building’s mechanical issues to light. Shortly after the release of the report, Facilities began working with engineering firm EMCOR to develop solutions for the problems.

According to Hill, the earliest work could begin on the building was winter break, because so many custom parts and materials had to be ordered for the update. The members of the chemistry department spent much of last semester preparing for the building closure, which included securing labs and safely storing chemicals.

Chemistry Professor Derek Ross said that while the building closure has not affected class lectures, it halted most student and faculty research, which must be conducted in the labs.

The department has also had to cut several experiments from the general chemistry lab curriculum, Ross said. The organic chemistry labs were less affected, since several of them involve workshops that can be held in a lecture hall.

Despite the disruption, both students and faculty applauded the renovations. Nick Foy (junior), who works as a student researcher and a teacher’s assistant in the labs, said that upgrades to the building are necessary to keep the facilities from becoming obsolete. And since many students conduct research over the summer, he said winter break is the ideal time to schedule construction.

Both Hill and Ross see the improvements as the first in a larger series of much-needed renovations. Ross noted that many of the department’s facilities are adequate but outdated, and need a major redesign to bring the building in line with peer institutions. According to Hill, this recent retrofit was designed to be compatible with future upgrades. He does not know when those upgrades will be implemented.

“We have a preliminary set of conceptual design plans, but at this point, it’s just a matter of trying to figure out a pathway for funding the project,” Hill said. “It’s a matter of trying to figure out how funding this project fits in with overall college priorities.”

Ross believes the school ought to prioritize an overhaul of the chemistry building, given the importance of the chemistry department on campus.

“There’s I think a huge opportunity for the college to invest in the chemistry department and make it something that we can show off to prospective students,” Ross said. “Because a lot of our students are interested in pre-med and pre-health. A lot of our students are interested in the sciences. And I feel like we’re not giving the experience we could and should be doing.”