On your mark. Get set. Renovate.

Named after a prominent Chairman of the Department of Chemistry who was active in research during World War II, the Otta Maass Chemistry Building was built betwen 1964 and 1966. / Photo: Claudio Calligaris
Named after a prominent Chairman of the Department of Chemistry who was active in research during World War II, the Otta Maass Chemistry Building was built between 1964 and 1966. / Photo: Claudio Calligaris

By Neale McDevitt

These days, Ron Proulx sounds an awful lot like everybody’s favorite cartoon handyman, Bob the Builder, who, when faced with a daunting construction project, asks his team the rhetorical question, “Can we fix it?” to which they emphatically reply, “Yes we can!”

Can Proulx, Executive Director, Facilities Operations & Development, and his team take the aging Macdonald Engineering Building, modernize and amalgamate the many disparate systems that have been tacked onto it over the years, and create a highly efficient, centralized control network?

Yes they can.

Can they give the chemistry facilities in the Otto Maass Chemistry Building and the Pulp and Paper Research Institute a much-needed upgrade so that researchers are equipped with world-class labs that match their world-class talent?

Yes they can.

Can they renew and renovate the facilities of the integrated life sciences facilities in the McIntyre Medical Building to better support the cutting-edge work being done there?

Yes they can.

And they will, thanks in large part to the $103-million awarded to McGill by the federal and provincial governments under the $2-billion Knowledge Infrastructure Program (KIP) designed to provide economic stimulus and infrastructure enhancement at Canadian post-secondary institutions.

“It is a great time to be at McGill,” said Proulx. “But there isn’t any time to sit around patting ourselves on the back. There’s a lot of work to be done.”

Proulx refers to the work in question as being “holistic” in nature in that, given the substantial amount of the government funding, renovations will be undertaken with the whole buildings in mind instead of the “only fix what’s broken” piecemeal approach.

“We’re no longer mixing old and new,” he said. “If, for example, we’re going to change the controls in three of four blocks of Otto Maass, why not change everything? Then we can put a check mark next to it and say ‘this one now meets current codes.’ That way, all we will be doing is preventative maintenace to keep it moving forward.

“If you get $1 million, you have a limit to how much you can dream, but this is an opportunity to do things right and really hit a lot of targets.”

And while most of the finished product won’t be visible

(“we’ll be doing a lot of plumbing and ventilation, not floor tiles and countertops,” said Proulx), the end result will affect researchers in a profound way. “We’ve asked ourselves ‘what are the obstacles we’ve met in the past in providing great labs for our researchers?'” said Proulx. “And we know that often the building system on top of the roof can’t fully meet the demands of what is being done in the labs. This will change all that.

“We’re going to reap these benefits for a long time. Not just the next few years. It will be a joy for people to do their jobs.”

Of course, there is a caveat – although it is one most of us would love to be faced with; the money must be spent quickly. For projects to be covered by the KIP program they must be finished and invoiced by March 2011.

“The timeline is definitely an issue,” admitted Proulx. “And the biggest challenge is co-ordinating things with the end users. If we had what we call ‘swing space’ – an empty building, for example – we could relocate a group of people for a year or two and renovate their space. But we don’t have that luxury. We have to provide people with temporary space or simply accommodate them while our contractors work nights and days. If we’re going to be successful, the users, investigators, and our staff have to come together as a team and work as partners.”

And while he is bracing for the whirlwind of activity that looms, at the moment Proulx is relishing being McGill’s ultimate Yes Man.

“The nicest part of this is being able to say ‘yes,'” he said. “People are saying, ‘look, we’ve had problems with this mechanical system for 10 years and we’re tired of Band-Aid solutions. Can we fix it once and for all?’ And I say, OK.

“If, in the past you had great ideas that nobody was able to act on, bring them back to our attention. Tell us what you need,” said Proulx. “We’re no longer in the past.”