Massive modernization: the money’s committed and the clock is ticking

By Neale McDevitt When C.J. Li, McGill’s Canada Research Chair in Green Chemistry, refers to his students doing “shift work,” he isn’t talking about summer jobs on an assembly line – he’s talking about the way he’s had to configure his Green Chemistry and Organic Synthesis lab for the past several years.
George Rizis, PhD Student in Chemistry, walks through the new 4000-square-foot research laboratory of Drs. Hanadi Sleiman, Audrey Moores and Adi Eisenberg that was funded by a CFI grant awarded to Sleiman and Moores. The glassed-in area houses some 25 research workstations for students. Because it is served by a separate ventilation system from the lab the workstation area provides a safe, comfortable, and effective area for students to do their computer searches and experiment documentation while their experiments are running. / Photo: Owen Egan

By Neale McDevitt

When C.J. Li, McGill’s Canada Research Chair in Green Chemistry, refers to his students doing “shift work,” he isn’t talking about summer jobs on an assembly line – he’s talking about the way he’s had to configure his Green Chemistry and Organic Synthesis lab for the past several years.

“Students have had to take shifts because it is physically impossible for all of them to work in the lab at the same time,” he said. “We have 17 people but only 12 benches. The industry standard is for every researcher to have their own bench.”

Space is so constrained in Li’s Otto Maass lab that he has brand new equipment gained from previous research grants still sitting in boxes because there is absolutely nowhere to install it. “It can get a little frustrating at times,” said Li.

But Li’s frustrations – and those of other McGill researchers in similar situations – will soon come to an end. A very precise end, in fact – March 31, 2011.

That date marks the deadline for the Knowledge Infrastructure Program (KIP) – part of the federal government’s Economic Action Plan aimed at providing up to $2 billion to support infrastructure enhancement at universities and colleges across the country. Every dollar spent by the Harper government is matched by Quebec.

Last September, McGill was awarded about $103 million for four infrastructure-enhancement projects. These include significant upgrades to the integrated life sciences facilities in the McIntyre Medical Building; renovation of chemistry facilities in the Otto Maass Chemistry Building and in the Pulp and Paper Research Institute; and renewal of facilities in support of engineering innovation in the Macdonald Engineering Building. The only new building project is the creation of a new centre for brain imaging at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute.

Beware what you wish for

“To do $30-million work in each of three buildings in such a short time frame is next to impossible from a logistical and technical point of view,” said Bob Stanley, Director, Project Management, Facilities Operations and Development, University Services, when discussing the construction projects being carried out in the three downtown campus buildings. “And that challenge has only been compounded by the fact that in the same timeline we have a number of very important CFI research project renovations that have to be performed.”

While many people would love to grapple with Stanley’s dilemma – to spend almost $84 million of government money as quickly as possible – the reality isn’t quite so appealing.

Deadlines are set in stone

McGill’s KIP projects were only approved in mid-June 2009 – leaving less than 20 months to design, initiate and complete major construction and renovation work in three extremely busy and crowded buildings.

The federal government has maintained that its deadline is immovable. Expenses incurred after the March 31 deadline will not be reimbursed. And although the province will respect its financial engagement (it is a 50-per-cent partner in the project’s financing), regardless of the deadline, the University could incur serious costs. “It is all conjecture at this point,” said Stanley, “but if the project is delayed, the University would be exposed to significant dollar loss.”

One year after the official announcement of the funding, McGill’s downtown campus looks exactly as it should under the circumstances – like a giant construction site. As a crane hoists workers and heavy equipment to the upper floors of McIntyre, work continues at Macdonald on a new central atrium featuring an elevator to improve access to the Workman and Electrical wings; the exterior of Otto Maass resembles a massive heart patient, hooked up to any number of pipes, ducts and other life-support equipment keeping the building operational as its ventilation systems are completely overhauled.

Stanley estimates that within the three downtown buildings, about 50 per cent of the work is being done “behind the walls” – overhauling mechanical rooms and ventilation and heating systems – while the other half of the work is dedicated to much-needed renovations of aging laboratories.

One of the major challenges the construction teams face is to complete their work while disrupting as little as possible the teaching and learning that is the raison d’être of all three buildings – a feat made no less Herculean as a result of McGill’s well-documented lack of space. “McGill has no swing space – even office swing space,” said Stanley. “Lab swing space is virtually impossible to find. I know of one university that built a whole lab building as swing space while renovations were being done, but we don’t have that luxury.”

Instead, McGill professors, students and researchers are being asked to put up with short-term inconveniences – sometimes very significant inconveniences – while the work gets done.

While the new atrium is being built at Macdonald, virtually the entire Department of Mechanical Engineering has been relocated. At McIntyre, whole floors have been moved in order to allow construction workers to begin renovating, with buildings like the Goodman Cancer Research Centre and the Irving Ludmer Research and Training Building acting as temporary homes to wandering researchers. Labs in all three buildings have been shut down at times while ventilation systems are offline so that work can be done. “We’re trying to mitigate the downside of all this,” said Stanley, “but we are very aware of the enormous disruption this is causing.”

Each building presents its own set of challenges for the construction teams. For example, the contractor working at McIntyre initially ran into difficulty removing the exterior wall panels of the mechanical room because he didn’t have detailed plans on how those systems were initially assembled. Work was only able to proceed thanks to series of tests and, in Stanley’s words “some educated guesses.”

While workers are often able to anticipate problems before they arise, not all obstacles appear on the radar screen beforehand. “McGill has one of the oldest campuses in the country with some of the best examples of heritage architecture in Canada,” said Stanley. “But, the price we pay for that is that the documentation on how these buildings have been put together is less than perfect. Contractors frequently come across surprises, such as in the case of Otto Maass.

“We had already done an enormously complex job of musical chairs with the help of Bruce Lennox [Chair of the Department of Chemistry] and Normand Trempe [Building Director],” said Stanley. “Some research labs had moved to UQAM, and others had to double up and compress their activities in a smaller space.

On a wish and an educated guess

Some of the unforeseen snags encountered during demolition of old installations in the mechanical rooms in Otto Maas have had a direct impact upon chemistry students, delaying the use of undergraduate teaching labs until after Thanksgiving – a month later than usual – and resulting in what Stanley calls “a major juggling job for Chemistry in the fall term.”

The compressed timeline means that McGill has virtually no margin for manoeuvre if other major problems arise. “For all practical purposes, if we lose significant time somewhere along the line, the completion deadlines will be extended by an equivalent amount of time,” said Stanley, one eye fixed on the bottom line.

But while inconveniences abound for occupants of the buildings being renovated and pedestrians who must circumnavigate large sites that are cordoned off to all through traffic, there are huge long-term benefits for McGill and the community at large.

Short-term headaches, long-term reward

On the environmental upside, the upgrading of all three buildings heating and ventilation systems will mean a significant reduction in energy consumption – a priority for McGill’s Administration.

Otto Maass has long been known as one of the most blatant energy hogs on campus, consuming as much as four times the amount of energy as other University buildings.

But, thanks to KIP – and some innovative thinking – the Otto Maass energy bill should be reduced dramatically. “Basically, we are making modifications to the Burnside Hall ventilation system to recoup the heat generated from the computer servers [most downtown campus servers are located in Burnside Hall] and piping it into Otto Maass,” said Jérome Conraud, Energy Manager, Utilities and Energy Management, Facilities Operations and Development. “It is the first time we’ve ever used the heat from servers in one building to heat another.”

Despite having to live with inconveniences of major renovations (think of having your kitchen redone over the course of 12 months), McGill researchers understand that the payoff as of March 31 will be well worth it.

“Certainly everyone has been affected by the construction,” said Li, one of the pioneers of Green Chemistry, “but we are adapting and accommodating as much as possible because we know, in the end, it will be wonderful for the department.”

Li credits “new and creative design” for increasing his current research area some 30-40 per cent once his lab is completed. The added space will not only allow for each researcher to have their own work area, it will also provide for more secure and accessible chemical storage areas. “More researchers working in a better environment. The impact will be substantial,” said Li.

But Li also understands that the impact of KIP extends well beyond his research. “[Otto Maass] was built half a century ago and at the time it was the industry standard. But we’ve been lagging behind for some time now,” he said. “Now we will have the most modern facilities – the kind that will attract some of the world’s best young researchers to McGill.”