Failing infrastructure causes big headaches for U.

Education » Part of biology building closed for safety
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An old stairway serves as a mechanical shaft in the University of Utah's century-old Life Sciences building, and the original but leaky heating pipes still carry 150-degree water under high pressure.

These corroded pipes, wrapped in years of patchwork, failed once again three weeks ago, spewing hot water in classrooms.

U. officials decided this week to shut down part of the building rather than apply more patches that are bound to fail.

"It's brittle and fragile," said Michael Perez, the U. vice president for facilities. "When you repressurize it, you cause leaks somewhere else."

Leaky pipes are a symptom of a much larger campus-wide problem of crumbling infrastructure, screaming for a $100 million fix. While private, federal and state money pours in for new construction on campus, little is available to upgrade the vast invisible network of wires, pipes, shafts, generators and servers that make a modern university function.

"This is a critical issue for the university," said Kim Wirthlin, the U.'s vice president for governmental affairs. "We have systems built decades ago and we have never had resources to effectively maintain them over the years. They are worn out, they are breaking more frequently, and the breakages are getting more expensive to fix."

The problem has become so acute that some classrooms can no longer be used. But the Life Sciences closure is just the tip of a colossal iceberg.

The university needs $120 million to replace the high-voltage electrical distribution system that serves about 300 buildings and another $30 million to replace 7 miles of hot water lines, Wirthlin said.

Replacing the Life Sciences pipes will cost at least $2 million, Perez said, but a wiser investment would be to replace the building's mechanical systems at a cost of $5 million, money the university does not have.

The half dozen biology faculty conducting federally funded research in this building experience regular disruptions because of errant water.

"We've been dealing with this for six years since we moved in here," said Matt Curtiss, who manages Markus Babst's third-floor lab where his team studies basic cell biology on yeast. A domestic water break four years ago filled the lab with 3 inches of water and damaged $50,000 in electronic equipment.

"Our equipment is tremendously expensive. Having it at risk is ridiculous," said Curtiss, gesturing toward a ceiling-mounted plastic shield intended to divert dripping water. "If it gets water damaged, we don't know if it will die in a week or a year. Our solution is to put up these [shields]."

The biology department's 42 faculty members aren't alone in grappling with infrastructure challenges. General chemistry labs in the 1960s-era Henry B. Eyring Building are unsafe, and water-line breaks in the Utah Museum of Natural History sometimes close the building and threaten its priceless contents.

"Above the [undergraduate] labs is a concrete patio that is crumbling," said chemistry department chairman Henry White. "We have water dripping down on students while they are doing experiments. They use coat hangers and aluminum sheets to funnel water coming off the ceiling to the drains."

White said facilities crews acted swiftly when faucet knobs began disintegrating in students' hands. But a real fix for the labs would require $10 million.

"It takes an emergency to get things done, but they're band-aids. They are the least expensive fixes to keep things moving," White said. "The administration is on our side. It's really a matter of getting the money out of the state."

The Life Sciences building, which housed the nascent medical school decades ago, is on the south side of historic Presidents Circle behind the Emery building. Like many vintage buildings on campus, it is threaded with old heating pipes that feed off an underground network of hot-water lines. When the pipes fail, scalding water does not merely leak: It can spray, resulting in significant damage and life-safety issues.

So officials have closed four water-damaged classrooms on the ground floor at least through the spring semester, while keeping open research laboratories on the upper floors.

"When you lose these classrooms, students from across campus are affected," said biology department chairman Neil Vickers. And at some point, the university will have to either upgrade the building's mechanicals or replace the building.

"You can't just look at the plumbing and heating, you have to look at all the infrastructure: the ventilation, which we know is problematic in this building, the seismic," he said. "If you want the building to be safe and suitable for teaching, you need to look at all those things. You have to look after the buildings you've got."

This building has been re-purposed over the years and, absent a retrofit, remains a challenging venue for the scientists who work there.

"It wasn't designed to do what it's doing," Vickers said. "That issue has to be addressed. It makes them less competitive because they are losing time when they can be getting work done," Vickers said.