Sarah Skinner / Sun Assistant News Editor

Leaked water from the broken pipe pools on tables in a physics lab on the second floor of Rockefeller Hall. The lab is closed until future notice.

January 28, 2019

Burst Rockefeller Pipe Causes Cascade of Problems

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Room 373 of Rockefeller Hall — just last week, a professor’s office — stands empty, stripped of furniture, books and even its torn-up floor, with a handwritten sign on the front door: “Exiled due to flooding.”

When a pipe burst due to freezing temperatures in Rockefeller Hall’s attic last Tuesday night, The Sun previously reported, it kicked off a cascade of events that left professors displaced and materials throughout five floors of the hundred-year-old building ruined.

“We got hit really hard,” Sheila Haddad, administrative manager for the building, told The Sun, sitting in her third-floor office just down the hall from where staff were hauling books by the cartful out of a destroyed office.

“Some [water] went out [an attic window], and the rest came down through the ceilings, walls, etc — third floor, second floor, first floor, and a little bit to the basement,” Haddad said.

After the pipe burst due to the night’s frigid temperatures — which reached -5 degrees Fahrenheit — it triggered the building’s fire response sprinkler system, which continued to pump water down all five floors of the hall for “an hour or more” before it was stymied.

“First the Cornell Police responded, and then they had to call [Cornell Environmental Health and Safety], and then they had to call facilities,” Haddad said. “They’ve been working on it ever since.”

In the wake of the deluge, five professors had to be moved to other areas of the building, including the the chair of the Asian Studies department Prof. Daniel Gold. The second-floor physics lab, located in 280 Rockefeller Hall directly under the northeast attic, was closed from Tuesday night onwards after it sustained major water damage to carpets, walls and computers.

Students enrolled in the PHYS 1102: General Physics II course had last-week’s lab sections cancelled, according to course emails obtained by The Sun. Instructors informed the students Friday that while a decision would not take place until Wednesday, they are “are hoping to be able to reopen the [lab] by the end of [this] week.”

“Usually we use the room to study and review with TAs as well as complete labs,” Sophia Zhang ’21 told The Sun. “Since it’s flooded the tutoring has been moved to our testing center and labs have been cancelled.”

Matt Johnston, coordinator of the cleanup effort and part of the Maintenance Planning division of Cornell’s Office of Facilities Management, told The Sun in an email that despite the ongoing process, 1102 labs were “likely to be held as scheduled” with “minor adjustments” to move students away from the more-damaged areas of the lab that require renovation.

However, other floors of the building sustained more extensive damage.

“The first floor is the writing workshop, which took any extra water and absorbed it into all the paper and everything that they had there,” Haddad said. On the fourth floor, maintenance has “already taken out a lot of the carpets and the sheetrock.”

Water damage to the oak floors on the third floor will require at least half of it to be replaced, Haddad said, in addition to computers, furniture and other materials that were destroyed.

Johnston declined to comment on how much the renovation would cost, but Haddad estimated that the figure would be in the “hundreds of thousands.”

“And time,” Haddad said. “I mean I was optimistic and I said, ‘ah, well, like a month.’ In my house it would be done within a month. But this is Cornell, so I mean they’re saying probably at least a few months. [It’s] kind of considered the semester.”

Despite the damage, Haddad said that they were “lucky” that that the damage had not occurred at the other end of the building, which houses larger classrooms and lecture halls instead of offices.

“It would be another situation,” she said.

Rockefeller Hall was the first building constructed on the top of East Hill, and has been in use as a campus facility since 1904.

“We’ve always been looking at deferred maintenance as being an issue, especially in older buildings,” Haddad said. “Although [maintenance planners] try, this is an area that’s very important.”

Deferred maintenance puts off addressing identified problems, often due to “timing issues or lack of funding,” according to the University’s 2017-2018 budget plan.

Despite this, Johnson told The Sun that the leak was “not the result of deferred maintenance in the building,” but only due to the “significant temperature change” that put stress on the attic pipes.

“A small pipe can create that much damage over five floors,” Haddad said. “With the single digits that are expected for Wednesday and Thursday, I hope they double checked everything.”