Updated: Dec. 5, 2017 at 3:00 p.m.
Student frustrations about renovations to the main Corcoran School of the Arts and Design building boiled over last week when students publicly demanded greater transparency about how officials are addressing complaints during the overhaul of the building.
About 30 Corcoran students and faculty attended a tense town hall Thursday with senior administrators, where some attendees lambasted the University for what they called an inadequate response to health concerns about noise, dust and pests during the ongoing renovation of the Flagg Building this semester.
As part of the University’s deal to absorb the Corcoran College of Art + Design in 2014, officials committed $43 million to renovate the Flagg Building on 17th Street. The first phase of the renovations began in the summer of 2016 to overhaul the mechanical infrastructure and update the second floor gallery, and the work has continued this semester as classes are held in the building.
At Thursday’s community meeting, Dean of the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences Ben Vinson, Director of the Corcoran Sanjit Sethi and Senior Associate Vice President for Safety and Security Darrell Darnell were among the administrators in attendance to hear student concerns about the building’s safety and discuss how they would address them going forward.
During the forum, students and faculty demanded to know why many people working or taking classes in the building this semester were experiencing respiratory problems – including asthma attacks – while the work was ongoing.
“My body is covered in bugs and I’m itching all day. I literally scratch until I bleed.”
Helen Jackson, a senior in Corcoran, said at the meeting that the construction and health concerns were ruining what should be a positive undergraduate experience for students.
“The only positive spin that I can put on this is that you’ve got a body of students who are fighters, who are resilient, who are adaptable and who have learned an important life lesson far too early, which is trust no one,” she said. “Dean Vinson, GW should be hanging their heads in shame and embarrassment.”
Officials did not respond to her comments at the meeting and instead moved on to the next student.
Darnell said the construction company is following federal regulations and all other appropriate regulatory guidelines. He added that in monthly testing for eight different potentially harmful chemicals, none were dedicated at levels that could affect the health and safety of those in the building.
Officials said in October that they hired an environmental testing firm to test the air in the building and Whiting-Turner, the company overseeing construction, installed 12 air scrubbers to mitigate the amount of dust in the air.
“We took over a building that had been neglected for years and we’re trying to fix that, but we can’t do that at one time. We have to do that in phases,” Darnell said. “What I’m trying to do is make you as comfortable as we possibly can.”
In response to the student uproar at the meeting, Darnell said students would soon begin receiving a weekly email with construction updates and that officials would publicly share the results of the monthly chemical testing. He added that officials would explore ways to make it easier for students to contact administrators with concerns about the renovations.
In one case where the levels of silica dust were higher than usual, Darnell said maintenance teams examined the problem and have since increased the number of dust scrubbers running in the sub-basement and the frequency at which these machines run.
“One of the things we didn’t do is a good job of always quickly responding to complaints and things that you saw,” he said. “That’s why I’m here today trying to be transparent.”
Evan Prucha, the project manager for Whiting-Turner overseeing Flagg Building renovations, declined to comment for this story.
In recent weeks, students have also been alarmed by pest issues in the building. Flyers were posted in the basement of the Flagg Building asking students if they have noticed any “unexplained bug bites” or other vermin and urging them to contact senior officials at the school.
Officials said the flyers had not been posted by staff members.
Other students who spoke out at the meeting said bugs and cockroaches had infested classrooms and workspaces. Students said since construction started, rats have been populating entryways and classrooms.
Yacine Fall, a junior studying fine arts, said fleas have infested the building and have been biting her all over her body and face since students began reporting the bugs a few weeks ago.
“My body is covered in bugs and I’m itching all day. I literally scratch until I bleed,” she said in a separate interview. “Right now my health is the one thing that I didn’t think would be under threat at an institution that I pay to go to.”
Fall said construction was blocking off display areas, preventing students from displaying important projects and that administrators were not providing enough details about how these issues would be resolved.
“It’s blatant disrespect of an entire community that was here,” she said.
University spokeswoman Amelia Thompson said officials are working to address concerns in the Corcoran by looking at each complaint on a case-by-case basis, including reports of pests in the building.
“We understand that these issues are concerning to building occupants and, as with all University properties, we thoroughly inspect and treat as needed all reported incidents,” she said in an email.
Kym Rice, the Corcoran’s assistant director of academic affairs, said exterminators had been hired to sweep the building after the flyers had been posted.
“I have spoken to some of the students and encouraged them to try and report to us any time they experience anything,” Rice said. “I think we may not have found everything yet, but we are working on it.”
“I’ll be graduating in an under-construction building, and I started in an under-construction building.”
But many students felt that officials have done little to address the nagging concerns that have been plaguing the building all semester.
Sarah Craft, a senior and fine arts major, said students did not have access to specifics about air quality testing or how administrators planned to address problems with disruptive construction workers drilling outside of classrooms and shouting loud enough to drown out the lectures of professors.
“Students are getting bitten, by some kind of insect-bug-flea around here recently, we have dead rats in the studio, we have cockroaches, we don’t often have a classroom that is stocked with what we need,” she said.
Adil Siddiqui, a graduate student of new media for journalism, said the pest problem had been so prevalent since the beginning of the semester that it had become a “sort of game” in his class to kill as many cockroaches as possible.
Since starting classes in the Flagg Building at the beginning of his studies, Siddiqui said the building had become “practically a war zone,” with constant drilling, dust and allergies.
“I’ll be graduating in an under-construction building, and I started in an under-construction building,” he said. “That’s kind of sad.”
This post was updated to reflect the following corrections:
Due to an editing error, The Hatchet incorrectly spelt Kym Rice’s last name in one reference. The Hatchet also incorrectly reported that the University committed $80 million to renovations. Renovations are estimated to cost $80 million, but officials only committed $43 million. We regret these errors.