Stony Brook University’s campus is caught in an architectural struggle between past and future.
Ultramodern buildings like the Charles B. Wang Center, with its contemporary facade and sleek bamboo garden, come in stark contrast with the brutalist-style Melville Library, which sports barren white walls and crumbling brick.
In keeping with a greater trend among American colleges, Stony Brook pours increasing amounts of money into construction each year, even as existing properties deteriorate.
“The conditions in each building are completely different, in terms of what is necessary to live comfortably,” senior chemistry major Rafael Fernandes said.
Fernandes lived in Wagner College, which was built in the 1950s and is one of the oldest dorms on campus, before moving to the newly constructed Yang Hall his junior year.
“You expect that the older buildings will experience more issues such as no hot water or leaking pipes,” he said.
Stony Brook’s operating budget for the 2015-2016 academic year set aside $111,081,696 for maintenance and operations. In contrast, the newly opened Chávez and Tubman residence halls, two of multiple ongoing building projects that year, cost around $180 million, as reported by Director of Capital Planning John Fogarty.
These new buildings give a preview of the direction the campus is moving toward, yet evidence of years past remains difficult to ignore.
“There are multiple programs across campus, including marine and atmospheric sciences, that are really desperate for a new building,” David Black, professor of marine and atmospheric sciences at Stony Brook, said.
Each year, Black has seen his department drop further down the waitlist for a new workspace. Meanwhile, conditions in Discovery Hall, the building in which he works, only worsen.
Last spring, the building literally hit its boiling point when the cooling system malfunctioned, causing temperatures to soar to 97 degrees. This resulted in setbacks for research projects after many lab animals died from overheating.
The race to keep up with students’ growing expectations of on-campus amenities leaves those in charge of routine maintenance trailing far behind the rapid pace of changing infrastructure. John Alessio is no stranger to system failures such as these. As the director of facilities and services, he is the person responsible for maintaining the buildings on campus, and making sure that when something breaks, it gets fixed.
Although Alessio recognized the importance of acting swiftly in an emergency, he stressed that the most crucial aspect of his job is taking precautions to stop infrastructural issues before they escalate. Since he was hired 10 years ago, Alessio’s prerogative has always been to “go out and find problems and fix them before they break.”
But despite the progress that has been made during his time here, Alessio admits that to an extent, he and his team are not in full control – left instead, at the mercy of their budget.
“We’re not getting more money each year, we’re getting less money each year, and more square footage added on,” he said.
In recent years, colleges and universities across the country have been in fierce competition to see who can build the biggest, most beautiful stadiums, dorms and student unions.
The University of Missouri’s $50 million dollar gym features a lazy river, whirlpool, sauna and hot tub. At Clemson University, football players will have access to laser tag, movie theaters and mini golf when their $55 million football complex opens next February.
Although such improvements may seem frivolous, from a business standpoint they can be viewed as practical investments that help attract more students and generate revenue.
For prospective students on college tours, “Appearance matters, that’s the biggest thing,” Shannon O’Connor, managing editor of College Planning and Management Magazine, said. “Student centers, recreation centers, residence halls – that’s what they’re looking at,” she added.
This sentiment is echoed in a 2013 paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, which found that the majority of prospective students place value in available amenities when choosing schools. The data showed that students were willing to pay more in return for higher quality dorms, recreational buildings and athletic facilities.
This observation is resonating with university officials, many of whom have been pushing for their schools to be outfitted with state-of-the-art facilities. According to a 2015 survey from University Business Magazine, 45 percent of the 319 schools surveyed reported that they had either already broken ground on a new construction project or that they planned to do so later that year.
While drawing in new students may be an added incentive, Fogarty explained that oftentimes putting up new buildings is the only way to help revive a campus whose infrastructure is becoming increasingly obsolete.
“We’re unusual on this campus in that the buildings date from 1962,” he said. “There was an inordinate spurt of building that went on really from 1958 to 1979. So all of those are in the 40 year plus range where in that period, things start to fall apart. Things have to be replaced.”
Fogarty added that financial considerations needed to be made when weighing the merits of construction versus maintenance. “There’s also the problem of – how much money are you going to put into a facility that you really want to tear down and completely replace?” he said.
Despite this quandary, Richard Paradis, program director for the Facility Maintenance and Operations Committee at the National Institute of Building Sciences stated that schools must face a harsh reality – “a new building isn’t new for very long.”
This point is particularly important to keep in mind as universities move toward more environmentally-friendly facilities. Paradis highlighted that buildings such as Stony Brook’s Simons Center for Geometry and Physics, or the Nobel Halls – which have certified LEED ratings for sustainability – require more sophisticated maintenance and repair plans in order to function properly. “When you’re trying to squeeze every kilowatt, every BTU, out of the building’s system, they’ve got to be operating at peak performance or your energy bills go up.”
President Samuel L. Stanley Jr.’s office referred comment on Stony Brook’s strategy for balancing maintenance and construction to Associate Vice President for Facilities and Services Louis Rispoli. “Stony Brook University believes that new construction is a valuable investment and that it is integral in supporting our mission,” Rispoli stated in an email.
Rispoli pointed out that while the school maintains a certain amount of discretion in apportioning funds, the money received from the state, as well as private donors, each has its own set of regulations that the university must abide by.
“Stony Brook uses the resources we receive for the intended purpose of those resources in the best way possible in support of Stony Brook’s overall mission.”
If schools continue to prioritize construction as a way to further their institutions, they will eventually have to answer the question of how to best maintain those new buildings or deal with the consequences further down the line.
“You need to have a consistent look at the budget for operations and maintenance in order to ensure the buildings are going to perform over the life of the facility,” Paradis stated. “You can’t wait until a piece of equipment fails.”