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The worst building on campus

Letters to the Editor | Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Stepan Hall is awful – no, not the leaky golf ball at the north end of campus but the one neatly tucked by O’Shag, the Radiation Lab and across from Breen-Philips.

Stepan Hall of Chemistry and Biochemistry is an enormous black eye in the face of a “GreeND.”

Just how bad is it? Well, according to the University’s Utilities Department Stepan hall consumes about 43,788 MMBtu’s of steam (an odd unit of measure for many people – let’s say a fair price for an end consumer is about 8 dollars per MMBtu of steam, so you can put it into some kind of perspective.) That’s a lot of steam to heat a little four story building.

To put it into perspective, Hesburgh library consumes less at 43,200 MMBtu’s of steam – a 13 story building with four times the acreage of little Stepan.

The culprit is antiquated ventilation technology designed in the late 1970s. Stepan Hall houses much of the research in chemistry and biochemistry – it’s an incredibly productive faculty bringing millions of dollars worth of grants to the school and turns out some amazing science, placing Notre Dame in the forefront of several academic fields within chemistry and biochemistry.

The use of ventilation is, quite frankly, necessary to keep people from dying in the building.

If you’ve taken any chemistry lab course, you will have worked in constraining hoods that suck air out so you don’t have to breathe it in. Well, each hood pulls air out of the building and spits it outside. In the winter, that air must be replaced with warm air.

Thus, unlike your dorm or house, the air never really reaches any sort of steady equilibrium – the furnace never turns off, rather it must constantly run full blast, and thus in addition to running ancient air pumps that look like they’re straight from surplus WWII equipment, the building must also constantly heat itself.

Ultimately, the cost of each hood is equal to the cost of running a one story house.

The lab I’m sitting in right now has eight hoods running. The ventilation system is so poorly controlled Stepan is constantly under a vacuum.

The new wing on Stepan must be closed off from the rest of the building, lest ancient and indiscriminately powerful vacuums of the old building override the new modern and efficient ones which were not designed to compete with technology 30 years its senior.

The solution is updating the technology from a mostly analog system to a digital system that responds to the presence of people in front of the hoods. Such devices are standard at Stanford and have largely replaced the ancient equipment at Harvard in recent years. That’s not to mention the cost of electricity, since during the summer months the building must be cooled and humidity drained.

Assuming the building purchased its power from some commercial power plant like every other person, the annual power bill would be $570,000 dollars. And if you ever walked down the dark, poorly lit halls, you know it’s not from an excess of lighting.

Needless to say you can imagine the difficulty in recruiting with equipment and technology that was popular under the Carter administration (complete with bizarre psychedelic colors). While the ventilation system works and great research is done in Stepan, it is time for a massive update if it is to be a competitive recruiting tool for top intellectual talent and environmentally sustainable (not to mention economically!). Technology has advanced a lot since the early 1980s and it’s time to move the building ahead 30 years. Let’s do something to improve the sustainability and economy of research at Notre Dame.

Let’s update Stepan.

Jeremiah J. Gassensmith

grad student


Sept. 30