U buildings brace for winter chill

Limited funding puts some older buildings on the waiting list for renovation.

by Julia Marshall

Facilities Management employees prepare University of Minnesota buildings for winter every year, but they are limited by funding.

University officials say some buildings need improvements to withstand tough winters. But because there aren’t sufficient funds to renovate every building, Facilities Management is forced to prioritize which buildings get fixed first.

An outside contractor assesses University buildings so they can be ranked for renovation, said Rob Tunell, associate director for Facilities Management’s St. Paul district.

“The need is so much greater than the resources that are allotted to the University,” he said, “so it’s always a challenge to stretch those resources as far as they possibly can be.”

Contractors look at wear and tear on the buildings, energy loss from the roofs and windows and the potential to replace them. Each building is given a score based on these factors, and those scores determine how soon a building can be renovated.

Ice buildup in cracks on roofs — called “ice dams” — is one of the biggest winter-related problems for campus buildings, St. Paul district senior engineer Emily Robin-Abbott said.

“When you have ice building up on a roof, it really doesn’t matter how well-built it is,” Robin-Abbott said. “The ice gets into the seams, and it starts splitting stuff apart and breaking things off, and that’s really the biggest problem.”

In addition to physical problems, building use is also a factor.

If a building’s future use is uncertain, Tunell said, the University doesn’t want to spend money renovating it.

“There’s a balance between building need and program need to try to get the best solution in an area of limited resources,” Tunell said.

Some older buildings lack proper insulation, which causes more heat to be lost. Heat loss caused by poor insulation forces the University to spend more money on energy to heat the building, Robin-Abbott said.

Robin-Abbott said if snow isn’t visible on a campus building after snowfall, it’s because the building is losing so much heat that snow melts off the roof.

Facilities Management recently renovated Coffey Hall, and adding insulation to the building was a key part of the project. Robin-Abbott said she hopes to see snow on its roof this year.

Virajita Singh, senior research fellow in the Center for Sustainable Building Research, said the University can also address heat loss by adding insulation to certain buildings and continuously testing heating systems after they’re installed.

“I think the first thing that needs to be done is to make sure that your current buildings are energy-efficient,” she said.