UWM campaign for a new chemistry building

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Room 485 of the UW-Milwaukee Chemistry Building shows its age and wear, as does most of the building, with chipped wood around the edges of the lab tables and water damage at the base where they meet the concrete floor .

On March 14, 2019, a press conference was held in this particularly dilapidated organic chemistry lab on the fourth floor.

Former UW system president Ray Cross, along with Milwaukee education officials and business leaders, wanted to urge state officials to approve a plan to build a new chemistry building.

“[Cross] wanted to have a press conference in the chemistry building, … which I thought was clever,” said Joe Aldstadt, head of the chemistry department at UWM. “They wanted to influence lawmakers, that’s where they brought up a lot of points about how the building requires all these maintenance visits, we have ventilation issues, we have code issues, the list is long.”

The chemistry building had reached the end of its useful life, Ray Cross said at the press conference.

Six days later, the Wisconsin State Building Commission approved a new chemistry building for UWM – one of the final steps to ensure a new building would replace the 50-year-old building that now exists.

The current chemistry building, built in 1972, will not be repurposed but demolition plans have been postponed.

UWM began construction on the $118 million state-of-the-art building in December and held a groundbreaking ceremony on Jan. 26, marking the end of an uphill battle.

Planning for a new chemistry building began about 12 years ago, but it has always ranked in the middle and has only recently become a top priority, according to Aldstadt, who has worked at UWM since 1998. arguments had to change.

There was a problem of competing agendas. For the chemistry department, a new building would be a better teaching and learning environment, but for state officials who approve these types of projects, a new building would make financial sense and promote employment in Wisconsin.

“Saying ‘I can do my research so much better if I have this type of lab compared to what I have now’ is important to me, but not as important to the people of Madison,” Aldstadt said. . “Why we really want to do this is because we want a state-of-the-art facility, not that our current facility is falling apart, it just takes a lot of time and money to make things work – to keep them safe and functional.”

Government officials: building code and economic growth

Most of the funding for major facilities projects on UWM’s campus comes from the state capital budget and is a decision that involves the university, board of trustees, state legislators and the governor. The renovation of the student union, the addition of the Klotsche Center and the new chemistry building are all part of the 2019-21 capital budget.

An analysis of the building’s condition revealed that it was financially impossible to renovate the current eight-story chemistry building because the majority of its infrastructure is original and the building is not up to current code, according to a 2020 document from the State Building Commission, which is part of the Department. administration (DOA).

The analysis indicates three places where the building is not up to code.

  1. Fire Safety: (Option 1)”[The building] does not have a fire suppression system, nor appropriate fire compartmentation control areas, such as pressurized stair towers and entry/exit vestibules,” the document states. (Option 2) The building does not have a fire extinguishing system, ie any system used to extinguish a fire using water, foam or chemical compounds. Likewise, it lacks proper fire compartmentalization areas, such as pressurized stair towers and entry/exit vestibules, which use fire-resistant materials to prevent the spread of fire and smoke.
  1. Live load: “The structural system of the building is designed to support only half a live load of the current building code requirements for this type of space.” Live load refers to the weight added to a structure by people or moving objects.
  1. Storage of Chemicals and Equipment: “The amount of chemicals stored at the facility has exceeded current safe storage capabilities and the safe storage of chemicals is both a building code and an accreditation requirement. ” The document also states that some lab instruments and equipment are stored in teaching labs, as opposed to special locations, which hampers data collection and causes premature failure.

The new chemistry building will fix these code issues. The 2019-21 capital budget, the largest in state history, is focused on upgrading facilities with these types of code violations, a DOA document says.

This is normal and accepted for aging buildings, according to Rick Koehler, who oversees construction and maintenance for Facility Services.

“…we use the term ‘grandpa’ to describe meeting code when it’s built but doesn’t follow current code,” Koehler said. ” It is acceptable. It would be unreasonable to expect all building owners to change and meet all codes when codes change, it would be endless.

This justifies the construction of a new building, he added.

In addition to talking about the state of the building, the 2019 press conference also highlighted the economic importance of the project.

“They had a representative from the Milwaukee Chamber of Commerce and he said something like, ‘Building a new chemistry building is the single most important thing we can do to help with job growth in the southeast Wisconsin” and, again, bam! targeting lawmakers,” Aldstadt said.

According to 2021 statistics from the American Chemistry Council, chemistry generates nearly $1.2 billion in Wisconsin wages and $138 million in tax revenue.

At the groundbreaking, speeches by Chancellor Mark Mone, Dean Scott Gronert, Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley and former UW System Chairman Tommy Thompson all spoke of the economic development the new facility would bring. .

“It’s not just huge for the university, but it’s huge for Milwaukee County and this whole area,” Crowley said. “Chemistry is extremely important when we think of all the fast growing industries we see in this community and across this country.

Aldstadt said code and business considerations are good reasons to replace the building, but he wouldn’t order them that way. Instead, he would focus on the positive aspects of the new building, rather than the negative aspects of the old one.

The construction of the new chemistry building started in December 2021.

“At the time, considering all the political dimensions, those were usually highlighted because we knew people, especially in Madison, would pick up their ears if they heard arguments like that, for opposition to arguments about what kind of lab space would be best. “said Aldstadt.

UWM Department of Chemistry: Teaching and Learning Environment

At the groundbreaking ceremony, UW System President Tommy Thompson called the existing building the “worst science building in the system” and the “worst chemistry building in the state.” This worried the chemistry department.

After years of persuading the system and state government while teaching at the aging facility, the chemistry department saw the inauguration as a moment it wouldn’t need to justify the project, Aldstadt explained. .

“Our concern was if you’re a high school student thinking about majoring in chemistry at UWM and you hear that you’re going to think ‘oh, I’m not going. It will take me two years to get out of this ‘worst building,’” Aldstadt said. “While true, that implies he is substandard; it’s not. The university spends a lot of money here to maintain it.

In 2021, the chemistry building had 572 work orders, costing nearly $107,000, according to a report from UWM Facility Services. This maintenance was both reactive and preventative, Koehler said.

“It’s not that [the building] is dangerous, it’s about all the time and money that has gone into maintaining it, sometimes at the bare minimum, but keeping it in the safe operating zone,” Aldstadt said.

Aldstadt said the building was not the state-of-the-art facility it was when it was built in the 1970s. Education, especially chemistry education, has changed.

“We can do everything we need to do in this building, but we have learned a lot since then. [1972] on the design of classrooms and laboratories,” said Aldstadt. “We’re really, really excited about this to put it mildly.”

The chemistry department had to adjust some experiments to accommodate inefficient fume hoods, a DOA document says. Aldstadt said there were only a few such cases, and experiments were replaced with ones that achieve the same learning goal.

Fume hoods prevent the release of hazardous substances by containing and then exhausting hazardous or odorous chemicals. The current chemistry building has more than 230 fume hoods of various sizes, according to Aldstadt.

Koehler and the chemistry department pointed out that the experimental nature of chemistry makes it difficult for a building, causing it to deteriorate faster than other buildings.

“I think of my son when he was very young and how he was with his toys,” Aldstadt said. “English and other non-experimental subjects are pretty easy on a building. Chemistry is probably the worst.

Throughout the UW system, many chemistry and science buildings were built around the same time: UW-Eau Claire, Platteville, Oshkosh and La Crosse in the 1960s and UWM in 1972, according to each university’s website.

UW-Stevens Point opened a new chemistry building in 2018, UW-Madison opened a new wing in 2022, and UW-Eau Claire began construction of a new science building in 2022.

The new four-storey building will be completed by the end of 2023 and will be equipped for modern teaching and research, according to UWM Campus Planning.

Plans to demolish the existing chemistry building and convert the area into usable green space have not been approved, according to state documents.

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