Old buildings hinder work

The University has nearly $3 billion in estimated facility needs over the next decade.

by Blair Emerson

Editor’s note: This is the second installment in a three-part series examining the University of Minnesota’s efforts to garner state funds for building maintenance. The first part was published Oct. 1.


Montserrat Torremorell is limited in the research she can conduct at the University of Minnesota.

Torremorell, an associate professor in the Veterinary Population Medicine program, studies infectious diseases in swine and conducts her research in the Veterinary Isolation Buildings, which make up some of at least 37 facilities identified as in critical need of repairs on the Twin Cities campus.

The facility’s inadequate heating and cooling systems, and lack of space for larger animals or groups of animals, restrict Torremorell’s ability to quickly respond to emerging viruses and obtain research grants, she said.

The University has more than 850 buildings, and nearly 25 percent of them are more than 70 years old. Many of those older facilities are struggling to serve the technological needs of the departments that call them home.

To keep up with the University’s aging facilities and provide students and faculty members with modern technology, President Eric Kaler is seeking state support to replace the veterinary isolation facility and a greenhouse on the St. Paul campus. These projects are part of his $77 million 2015 capital request to the state, which also includes a $55 million request for Higher Education Asset Preservation and Renovation funds.

The value of the University’s request for building maintenance funds has increased in recent years, and with each year that passes, the buildings’ needs grow, said Mike Berthelsen, Facilities Management associate vice president.

Buildings that don’t receive funding through the capital request are added to a list of in-need facilities that the University calls a “renewal backlog,” he said. When a building is added to the backlog, Berthelsen said, it means “we acknowledge it should be renewed; we just don’t have enough to fund it all.”

Currently, there is more than $2.8 billion in projected needs for the buildings on the Twin Cities campus over the next 10 years.

In Pillsbury Hall, faculty members and students in the Department of Earth Sciences are having difficulty teaching and conducting research in the building, which was built in the late 19th century.

“We outgrew Pillsbury decades ago,” said department chair and professor Donna Whitney. “[Pillsbury] just can’t be a modern research lab building anymore. It hasn’t been for a long time.”

Whitney said many students and faculty members in the department resort to utilizing lab space in Shepherd Laboratories, a nearby facility where contemporary technology is available.

The majority of Whitney’s department is spread among six buildings on campus, an experience she said can be isolating.

In St. Paul, the greenhouse in Kaler’s proposed capital request features crumbling concrete and one wing that’s sinking into the ground, said Alex Eilts, a research associate and collection curator at the College of Biological Sciences’ greenhouse.

The greenhouse contains a collection of approximately 1,200 plant species that students can use for research.

Although few faculty members currently use the facility, Eilts said, additional funding to replace the greenhouse would give them more research opportunities.

It’s a challenge to house some of the plants because of the building’s condition, Eilts said.

And although he said the college is trying to bring in more rare species, the building’s questionable heating and cooling system couldn’t provide the environments these types of plants require.

“We are really on the cusp of not being able to house that collection in a few years because of the actual facility itself,” he said.

Torremorell, the Veterinary Population Medicine researcher, recounted a similar story of research hardships.

In the summer of 2013, the porcine epidemic diarrhea virus emerged in the United States.

Torremorell and other researchers with the College of Veterinary Medicine had to respond quickly to understand the virus, but the condition of the Veterinary Isolation Buildings hindered them, she said.

“When you have such an emerging disease, you have to be able to respond very quickly,” she said. “And unless you have those tools available, it’s like you are trying to respond … and your hands are tied.”

The buildings were too small to study some animals, she said, and the spotty cooling system made it uncomfortable for the creatures in the summer months.

CVM Dean Trevor Ames said the buildings’ condition has also affected the college’s ability to compete for research grants and attract top researchers.

Torremorell said funding for the replacement of the facilities is vital, and the department will have to be persistent if the project isn’t funded this year.

“People don’t really realize how much these facilities are needed until there’s an emergency,” she said. “But you don’t want to wait until something happens.”