By Camille Furst
As students walked through Armstrong Hall in January when it reopened after a year-long renovation, mixed emotions abounded.
While some students, like junior mechanical engineering major Lauren DeSimone, believe the renovations “went really well,” others, like senior computer engineering major Paul Brodhead, feel that “it was all for nothing.”
With the help of an $8 million state bond, the College went into phase three of the STEM complex project and renovated the School of Engineering’s Armstrong Hall — a building that was constructed in 1961 with few updates since. With the first phase of the project consisting of the construction of the STEM building along with the chemistry and forum additions, and the second consisting of renovations for the existing science buildings, the third and final phase — Armstrong Hall’s remodeling— concluded the project in the beginning of the spring 2020 semester.
For as long as Dean of the School of Engineering Steven Schreiner can remember, renovations for Armstrong Hall have always been in mind. Students, faculty and staff feel these alterations were a long time coming — with grungy classrooms and overused labs, renovations felt like, for some, too little and too late.
While it was estimated to cost $20 million to do a complete renovation of Armstrong Hall, the College could only request money from the state for asset renewal needs, according to campus architect Lynda Rothermel.
This cut the funding in half for a bond through the state’s Higher Education Capital Improvement Fund (CIF) — and with the state only giving $8 million of that $10-million request, cuts to the budget had to be made once again.
“While we were disappointed that the $8.0M budget meant that we could not complete a full renovation, we were appreciative that we would be able to address asset renewal needs,” Rothermel said in an email to The Signal.
The increase in students enrolled in STEM-related majors jump-started the cause of the building’s renovations, and, according to the application sent from the College to the state for a $10-million bond, educational opportunities were “being adversely impacted by existing space constraints and building system deficiencies.”
In 2010, the College conducted a feasibility study that confirmed the existence of deficiencies and the necessity for them to be repaired. This is what led to the application citing needs for asset renewal, which Rothermel describes as “renewing an existing asset, not creating a new asset.”
In the application sent to the state requesting funds for the remodeling, the College stated that enrollment in the School of Engineering has increased in the past ten years, so there was insufficient space for work to be done and projects to be completed — something many students had concerns about previously.
“Really the biggest change for me was our lab space,” said Hussain Khajanchi, a senior electrical engineering major. “Now with this new renovation, all three of them have a combined lab space, so the space is much bigger than it used to be.”
This was one of Schreiner’s biggest hopes for the renovation’s effects as well, since gaining more faculty-research space in the building was one of his highest priorities.
The glass walls that appeared similar to the recent construction of the STEM complex were apparent, as well as new furnishings for students’ study space, but most of the renovations took place behind the scenes, and into the walls of the building instead. According to documents obtained by The Signal, remodeling occurred primarily for the mechanical and electrical systems, including heating, ventilation and air conditioning — all of which are in line with the College’s application stating that the funds would be used for asset renewal.
According to Rothermel, 14 labs were renovated in the process, but many of the changes, being under the umbrella of asset renewal, is “often unseen and underappreciated.”
In the application sent to the state for funding, the College noted eight major aspects of renovation, five of which took place behind the walls, such as reconfiguring the HVAC system. Some students, however, wish they were given more opportunities to add input. But according to the application for funding that was sent to the state, the specific aspects were already stated and authorized by the College’s Board of Trustees at their Dec. 5, 2015, public meeting.
Schreiner said that discussions involving the building’s specific renovations were already underway before Phase 1 of the project, which consisted of the STEM Complex’s construction.
“Even back then, we had a basic outline of what Armstrong Renovation was going to look like,” Schreiner said.
With most of the $8 million being put toward behind-the-scenes improvements, Schreiner said that the “footprint of Armstrong Hall did not change at all during this renovation.”
But through a series of emails, Schreiner kept informing the engineering students at the College of the updates involving funds. The renovation of Armstrong Hall essentially lied in the hands of the state and whether or not the College received funds, according to Schreiner. If the College hadn’t received a bond, he informed the students in an email from Dec. 8, 2016, renovations would need to take place over a much longer period of time.
Meanwhile, Brodhead feels that there wasn’t enough communication from administration on which renovations would be done and when. While he didn’t feel misled, he felt uninformed.
“I think they did a really bad job at publicizing what they were going to do,” Brodhead said.
He also feels that the specific renovations that were completed were nonessential and insignificant — a factor that he believes was caused from not including students in the process enough. He equated the new building’s renovations to an “unfocused mess.”
“They took a little over a year to take down some non-loadbearing walls,” he said. And when it came to the HVAC system, he didn’t feel a difference after the year of renovations. “It still feels either way too hot or way too cold.”
Brodhead and Khajanchi, along with other students, feel that the specific renovations weren’t chosen in the best interest of the students. Many wished the bathrooms would get refurbished, but that wasn’t high enough on the priority list of the administrators and architects to get completed yet.
Other students, like junior biomedical engineering major Justina Walck, felt that the renovations were an overall success, and that students were well-informed throughout the year-long project. While she feels as though the schematics and drawings that were sent to the engineering students of what the building would look like afterward didn’t completely correspond with the building’s actual renovations, she said that “that’s what happens with any project.”
Schreiner, on the other hand, said that the items on the top of the priority list consisted of “things you don’t see but the students use every day.” And, while the bathrooms weren’t completed yet, it’s in the plans for future renovations.
“It wasn’t just a decorating plan,” he said. “It really was a functional look at what we wanted to have.”
But senior computer engineering major Zach Warcola feels that, while there were more aesthetic improvements, “the overall functionality of Armstrong stayed the same.”
“After waiting a while to get into the building again, there was really not much difference,” he said.
When Schreiner was informed by The Signal of some negative reactions from students, he felt surprised. He credits some malfunctions with the new HVAC system to the common yet temporary mishaps that occur after a renovation.
“It’s not quite like buying a computer, opening it, putting it on your desk, and everything’s working fine,” Schreiner said. “Say three four weeks before we left campus, I was unaware of any complaints with temperature. Next fall is where I’d like that sort of judgement to come.”
But that next fall for Schreiner wouldn’t come, as he accepted a position as provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs at Manhattan College, which he will begin on July 1. William Keep, the interim provost and vice president of academic affairs at the College, announced his job acceptance in an email on April 1.
In a response to the students’ negative reactions, however, Schreiner said that he feels they will have a different outlook in a year from now. He feels similarly to Rothermel in the fact that the renovations, most of which were behind the walls, can often be left unnoticed.
“I think that … Armstrong is a beautiful example of that sort of balance (between renovations in front of and behind the walls),” Schreiner said. “We could have spent all of the $8 million behind the walls, with the important mechanical systems, electrical systems. Maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration but it’s really not.”
And even though the College’s official news site announced on March 6 that the renovations were officially completed in Armstrong Hall, both Schreiner and Rothermel said differently.
Schreiner said that, while Armstrong Hall opened its doors for students on Jan. 2, spring break was supposed to be a week spent for campus construction to continue work, but the novel coronavirus altered those plans.
“We’re approaching completion,” he said. “I don’t think it’s officially closed out.”
Rothermel also said that the renovations aren’t officially finished. According to Rothermel, a plan is underway to renovate the bathrooms and include a gender-neutral bathroom as well, of which the construction is planned to take place in the summer of 2021.
“The process is long, involved, collaborative, and often challenging,” Rothermel said. “There is never enough funding to do everything you want to do and hard decisions need to be made.”