Facilities plans Norris Chemistry renovations

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The Occidental Facilities Management Department will implement plumbing, ventilation and other structural renovations to the Norris Chemistry laboratories as early as this spring, according to Chemistry Professor Michael Hill. Occidental’s Assistant Director of Energy Services Michelle Hill said that the renovations will ramp up after the school year ends and are expected to last into the 2015-16 academic year.

The lengthy renovation proposal prioritizes minimal impact on chemistry classes and research. It also debunks rumors circulating in the chemistry department that some of its research would be halted or transported to Caltech facilities over the summer.

“Originally there was this idea that we were going to have to shut this building down over the summer and that it would impact our summer research program, and it would be a nightmare,” Michael Hill said.

Michelle Hill said that Facilities scheduled renovations primarily during weekends, nighttime hours and during the 2015-16 winter break, aiming to space out renovations so the building is only entirely shut down during winter break.

“We’ve been working here in the Facilities department for months to try to come up with a sequencing of the project that limits the amount of shutdowns for the building, and we’ve come to that point where we’re going to be able to keep the building up for a majority of the time while we do the renovations,” Michelle Hill said.

The Norris Chemistry building was constructed in 1959 and still houses most of its original equipment which, according to Michelle Hill, is nearing the end of its functional life.

She said the top priority is to replace components of the constant-volume air handling system, in which outside air is continuously conditioned or heated and then sent back outside through the fume hoods. Fume hoods are designed to limit exposure to hazardous gases formed in chemical reactions by venting the air inside the fume hood out of the building.

Michael Hill said that it is important to have an up-to-date ventilation system so that the same air vented out is not recirculated throughout the building. She added that the building will be retrofitted with a variable-volume system that turns on and off air exchange based on occupancy, which will improve air circulation and increase efficiency.

Domestic and industrial plumbing will be replaced, and—budget permitting—Michelle Hill will consider interior design improvements.

“I want to do things like put in new lighting in the hallways,” Michelle Hill said. “But that’s a want at this point.”

According to Michelle Hill, the primary goals of the renovations are energy conservation, increased comfort levels in the labs and safety—the latter goal being a point of gossip among students this year, some of whom think the building does not provide a suitable environment for handling toxic chemicals.

“There’s a lot of misconceptions about what’s going on on campus,” Michelle Hill said. “There’s not a safety concern there, we just want to make sure that Michael and the students have the best learning environment.”

Several chemistry professors and students declined to speak about the deteriorating infrastructure and allegedly unsafe conditions of the labs.

An anonymous biochemistry major, reluctant to criticize the chemistry department, said that the building is frequently uncomfortably hot and that they sometimes hear unsettling noises coming from the plumbing.

“I hear things from other people that make it feel unsafe,” the anonymous student said. “It’s not the safest building to work in … it’s been around for a really long time and with the amount of usage it gets and the amount of research people do there, it needs to be repaired.”

Michael Hill said that the administration and Facilities have taken all necessary steps to ensure that Norris chemistry laboratories are up to par with safety standards and, in the more than 50 years that the chemistry department has been conducting research with undergraduates, there has not been a single significant accident. He also said, however, that there have been a few incidents in recent years that necessitate new plumbing.

“The plumbing is so old and inadequate that we’ve had cases where a faucet will spontaneously pop off,” Michael Hill said.

The third floor flooded July 4 last year and caused approximately $600,000 worth of damage to Michael Hill’s equipment alone. He said that accidents involving water in chemistry labs are especially dangerous because some chemical materials react violently with water.

According to Michael Hill, there are longer term plans for a large-scale redesign that would allow the department to operate under the best chemical safety procedures.

He said that in the new design, teaching labs would be separate from research labs, which use more hazardous chemicals. Classrooms and lecture halls would be separate as well. The entire building would be expanded to accommodate the growing number of students, faculty and chemicals occupying the building. The renovations done this year will be preserved and incorporated into these future large-scale redesigns.

“We’ve been working with an architect for the past couple of years and we have a set of working plans,” Michael Hill said. “Whatever engineering design they come up with for a new air-handling system will work with the eventual building.”

According to Michael Hill, the time frame for this major renovation is undetermined, ranging potentially from two to 10 years. The Office of Institutional Advancement is working on a feasibility study and a fund-raising strategy to allow the renovation to take place on the shortest possible timescale. He said that the prospects of both the immediate and long-term projects will be clearer after the groundwork for the renovations is laid this spring.

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