Engineering hall partially reopens one week after ‘waterfall’

Media Credit: Paige James | Hatchet Photographer

The $275 million Science and Engineering Hall will reopen Tuesday, one week after it was shut down when construction workers damaged the main sprinkler line. University President Steven Knapp called the building a "disaster."

The Science and Engineering Hall will partially reopen Tuesday, one week after a damaged sprinkler line created a “waterfall” in GW’s newest academic building.

Officials are assessing damages after a construction crew damaged the main sprinkler line while working on the building’s seventh floor last week. But after the week-long shutdown, faculty said they already know of equipment that is damaged beyond repair and one researcher said there was a “lake” in her laboratory last week.

A campus advisory released Monday said restricted access will be available in a “limited number of rooms.” An attendant will manually operate the elevators from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday and the service will only be available to those with accessibility challenges and faculty moving equipment, according to the release. The release also urged faculty and students to be “aware and utilize caution” as some rooms will still have fans operating.

The water damage primarily affected the main stairwell and elevators, according to a letter sent to faculty on Feb. 10 that was obtained by The Hatchet.

University President Steven Knapp said at Friday’s Faculty Senate meeting that the building was a “disaster.”

“All of us are chagrined by this,” Knapp said at the meeting. “This is a rare instance that something broke. We didn’t break it ourselves. That’s the only silver lining on this.”

At the same meeting, interim Provost Forrest Maltzman said “thousands of gallons came out of that pipe,” and the fifth and sixth floors of the building “got an extremely large portion of water.”

“It’s safe to characterize this as sort of a mess,” Maltzman said. “Since then, the building had to be evacuated immediately – fire systems were down in the building. The elevators are still not functional. Water and elevators are not a good combination.”

Maltzman said the damage has created “a very significant setback” to GW’s overall research mission. The $275 million engineering building took about three years to build and opened last year.

University spokeswoman Maralee Csellar said in an email that construction work has been halted on the top two floors of the building, but the University still expects those projects to be completed this summer. Those floors will contain offices from the Milken Institute School of Public Health and the School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

Csellar added that the University will not be able to give an estimate for the total cost from the water damage until GW finishes assessing the damage in individual parts of the building, adding that insurance will help to cover those costs.

“Repair timelines and the cost of the recovery efforts are expected to vary based on the damage assessments in specific areas,” she said.

Officials have hailed the building as the crown jewel of GW’s research goals, and said the state-of-the-art classrooms and laboratories will attract top researchers and engineering students.

The building houses 118 faculty members from science and engineering departments. Most of the lab space is used for biophysical and biomedical engineering research, with the rest of the building being used by researchers in biology, chemistry and anthropology.

Maltzman said that researchers who are leading projects have restricted access to the building until it can be fully reopened. He said in an email Saturday that the University will be working with faculty in the building to fully assess how the water could impact research.

“The academic research being performed by faculty in SEH is fundamental to the University’s research and teaching mission, and, understandably, there may be delays and effects on some of the research being conducted within the labs,” Maltzman said in the email.

In a letter sent to faculty, Maltzman said an initial review indicated “lab spaces have not been affected,” according to a copy of the letter that was obtained by The Hatchet. Still, some faculty have said their research has been compromised by the situation.

Mollie Manier, an assistant professor of biology, said she was shocked when she spotted “a waterfall pouring down the central staircase” after arriving in the building Tuesday morning.

Manier studies the genetics of fruit flies on sixth floor of the building. She said she was able move her research, microscopes and other equipment before exiting the building.

Within a few minutes of first noticing the water, Manier said that there were already “a couple of inches of water on the floor” and ceiling tiles falling down on the sixth floor.

“I went into my lab and there was water pouring down the left side of my lab. It was a lake in my lab,” Manier said. “You get a certain attachment to your workplace when you’ve worked so hard to get to where you are. It was very heartbreaking.”

Manier said she felt “utter panic” when she realized she did not know how far the damages would set back her research. She said that while she has a grant now, she is concerned about extending those funds and her future ability to secure more awards.

“This may affect our ability to secure grants if those funding institutions know that our building is out of commission for an extended period of time,” Manier said. “This is potentially devastating.”

She said faculty may have moved into the building too early, and some labs still weren’t ready for them after the move. Several faculty faced delayed moves into the hall last year because parts of their labs had to be modified.

“It simply was not ready when we moved in,” Manier said. “The seventh and eighth floors are under construction, and the seventh floor caused it. If the building had been completed, this would not have nearly been the issue.”

Robert Donaldson, the chair of the biology department, said he has a list of labs with possible damages, though officials are still assessing the situation. He said it will take several weeks before determining exactly what was damaged.

Donaldson said he knows of two desktop computers and monitors, 10 hard drives, a printer, at least six research-grade microscopes and a Confocal fluorescent microscope that he estimated is worth $250,000 that were exposed to water. He said that electronic equipment, like the microscopes, laid in puddles of water, but he said they won’t be turned on to assess the damage until after technician runs tests on them.

“We need to go through and test all the equipment in order to get an inventory of what experiments, especially with live organisms, were set back by this disaster,” Donaldson said.

He added that one researcher in his department was doing experiments with live bees for behavioral experiments and had to carry six bee colony boxes down six flights of stairs by himself to keep the bees alive.

“I heard another faculty person that went into his lab and picked up one of the keyboards and turned it over and water just poured out of the keyboard,” Donaldson said. “That doesn’t sound good to me.”

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