By: Sam Marchetti
If you have ever studied in the H.G. Thode Library of Science and Engineering, you have probably visited the third floor at some point. For many students, it strikes them as unfair that most of this floor is only accessible to students in the integrated science program. However, what most students don't realize is that the third floor of Thode is not a full floor.
The third floor covers only about 50 per cent of the ground space covered by the building itself. Of this, about a third is devoted to faculty office space for the school of interdisciplinary sciences and another third is inaccessible storage space used by facility services. The final third is actually split between two wings.
One of these wings is the ThInk Space, an active learning classroom available for use by anyone in the faculty of science, and the other is the iStudy, a dedicated study space for integrated science students. Thus, not only does this study space account for a very small amount of the total finished space on the third floor of Thode, but the third floor itself is largely unfinished.
A large portion of the space above the second floor, over 30 per cent of the ground area covered by the library, is actually an open rooftop. Windows along the curved portion of the roof look down into the second and first floors around the perimeter, leaving an open area of almost 10,000 square feet surrounded by story-high walls.
Inspecting an aerial view of Thode, you’ll find that there is almost nothing up there. While it is easy to understand students’ frustration given that they are restricted access from what is the most noticeable part of the third floor, what should be more frustrating is this massive area, apparently left unused for no discernible reason. With so much unused space, I think it's fair to consider transforming it into something all students can enjoy.
In November, I wrote an article about the lack of natural elements integrated into McMaster University’s study spaces. This unused space provides a unique opportunity to change that. For example, a rooftop garden could be created, complete with heating elements to keep it useable year-round. The rooftop space already has walls on all sides, protecting it from most wind damage.
A garden in the library could have serious benefits for the mental health of its users, especially during exam season when students spend endless hours there. Imagine, instead of taking a break by walking around the jam-packed Thode study spaces, you could take a walk in a garden, without even leaving the building.
Another possibility for this space could be something that's been attempted at McMaster before: an outdoor classroom. Recently, this was accomplished in the form of the Indigenous circle. This outdoor amphitheater is ideal for the kind of learning that the Indigenous studies program promotes, and has received positive feedback from its students and faculty.
The unused space on the third floor of Thode is large enough to create a small outdoor lecture theatre, and the integration of a canvas roof and heating lamps could easily ensure year-round use of the space. Based on the feedback from the Indigenous circle, it’s easy to see the potential benefits of having a similar space that is adapted to science lectures.
Not only would an outdoor lecture theatre be an interesting addition to our teaching spaces, but it could serve as a point of attraction for future students and guest speakers. McMaster already has a reputation for being innovative thinking, so why not add a teaching space that reflects our progressive focus?
Although Thode’s seemingly ‘private’ third floor is irksome to many students, what should cause greater outrage is the existence of a very unique, inaccessible space to all students. Whether we decide to integrate nature into our study spaces, or choose another avenue to benefit the student population, this empty space should be transformed into something more than just an empty rooftop.
For many students, water-damaged windows and roofs, out-of-order toilets and insulation peeking out of broken ceiling tiles are familiar sights. Throughout the year we experience dozens of minor, everyday inconveniences and brush them off as something that will be fixed, eventually. Until then we do our best to ignore the water dripping from the ceiling into a yellow bucket.
These annoyances are symptoms of deferred maintenance (DM), a problem that’s getting bigger all the time. It boils down to a simple enough idea: things are breaking, and there isn’t the money to fix them. Of course, when you spread that idea out over a 300 acre campus, tens of years, and multiple university, provincial and federal budgets, it gets complex – fast.
DM is defined as “work on the maintenance of physical facilities that has been postponed on a planned or unplanned basis to a future budget cycle or until funds become available,” and its severity really came to the university’s attention in December 2012 when facility services released a comprehensive report called the Asset Management Plan. This 38-page document systematically categorized the issue and revealed a staggering $300M DM backlog.
That figure was a surprise, even to the university administration. “The University knew about a backlog of $150M prior to 2012, which was based on an old Condition Assessment Survey,” said Mohamed Attalla, assistant vice-president and Chief Facilities Officer. “However, there was not a clear and detailed analysis that highlighted the urgency. Also, there was no clear plan and priorities to move forward.”
DM has the potential to severely affect research and teaching on campus, and is made more problematic by its often behind-the-scenes nature. “It deals with things you can’t see,” said Attalla. It’s hidden in the walls in fraying cables and leaky pipes; it’s hidden in the basement in rusting boilers and dusty transformers; and it’s hidden off-campus in a power substation that is serving beyond its intended lifetime.
Robert O’Brien, a professor of Global Labour Studies, spoke about the difficulties associated with teaching in such an environment. He complained about a lack of Wi-Fi access, A.V. equipment, and proper ventilation. “About half of my teaching takes place in rooms like that,” he said.
With the full scope of the mountain of maintenance revealed, the university moved to begin addressing it. Prior to the report, the DM budget for facility services was $2.2M, just 0.14 per cent of the current replacement value (CRV) of the campus. CRV is calculated by multiplying the square footage of campus buildings by a dollar amount standard for all Ontario universities, and the Council of Ontario Universities recommends a minimum annual budget allocation towards maintenance of 1.5 per cent of the CRV of buildings and infrastructure. It warns that an amount less than this will cause the DM backlog to grow.
In response to the Asset Management Plan’s recommendations, Mac administration intends to increase DM funding by $2M annually until it reaches $10.7M. This means that, for 2013/14, $4.9M has been budgeted for DM. Though an improvement, it’s still a far cry from the $23.4M necessary to reach the recommended 1.5 per cent of campus CRV.
It’s also much lower than some universities similar to McMaster. The Asset Management Plan compared Mac to Ottawa and Western, universities of similar size, and found that even back in 2011, they were budgeting $26M and $11M respectively towards DM.
The insufficiency of the current budget is known to administrators. “Based on what we have here, the current funding we agreed to, we’re not looking at making a dip or a dive in the deferred maintenance. It will continue to rise actually, but it will rise at a slower pace,” said Attalla.
So it’s more, but still not enough. Attalla acknowledges this, but emphasizes the complicated nature of budgeting for a large institution like McMaster. “The university needs to make decisions. There are lots of unfunded priorities […] but you need dollars to fund them. The agreed-to level of funding here takes into consideration the other pressures we have somewhere else in the university,” he said.
“The hope is that after we deal with our current pressure, hopefully five years from now we’ll be able to increase 10M dollars even more to reach some other universities.”
MSU President David Campbell echoed that sentiment. “Very understandably, often deferred maintenance comes up against academic priorities, and sometimes rightly so. The maintenance becomes deferred because there are more pressing priorities. And I think everybody would agree that that is a necessary thing sometimes,” he said.
“But it’s when you start getting into these critical priorities like ‘in the next 12 months this wall might fall down but we can’t find the money to fix it.’ That critical aspect is when it needs to be addressed right away.”
The Asset Management Plan defines components as critical “if they are still in operation and are operating beyond their designed and useful life […] It is important to note that McMaster’s total DM backlog classified as critical amounts to $28.86 million and by definition should be corrected within the next year.” Accounting for the recent budget increase, the difference between needed critical repairs and funding is $24M, not including components that may have decayed to become critical since the report was released.
That means that McMaster is running with at least $24M of its equipment and buildings operating beyond their intended lifespan.
Last year the MSU published a policy paper outlining students’ position regarding DM. “Our first recommendation was that in the short term [the university’s contributions to DM] should go up to $12.5M,” said Campbell. “Our long term recommendation was that contributions should go up to $25M, and that should be a collaboration between the university and the province, since both bear part of the burden on this.”
Attalla is also hoping the university can collaborate with the province, saying that “the hope is that with lobbying the provincial government, it will put more money into this sector.”
But hope won’t double-pane Mac’s windows. It’s important that the university continue increasing DM funding for years to come. “The university’s made a commitment to continue increasing deferred maintenance contributions over the next few years, and I think we should be pushing to have that continue happening, whether that’s through new campaigns or an official lobby,” said Campbell.
Until that happens, though, students will just have to pray it doesn’t rain too hard.
When Amina Khan and Yusra Munawar were told last year that their on-campus prayer room would be torn down, they didn’t hit the panic button.
Khan and Munawar, executive members of the McMaster Muslim Students Association, were assured by the university that they would be relocated before Wentworth House, home of their space, was demolished.
Now, with a few weeks left until eviction, the MSA and other student groups in Wentworth House are still looking for answers.
“Everybody’s scrambling. They’re trying to find spots for us in random places on campus, trying to find temporary solutions. We don’t know how long we’ll be in those spaces and it’s just really frustrating,” said Khan.
The MSA has more than 1,000 Muslim student members at McMaster and has two rooms in Wentworth House that allow up to 100 students to pray at a time.
“We were clear about our requirements – that the [new] space needs to be carpeted. It needs to be a large, accommodating area that’s accessible to campus in order for Muslim students to pray there. Surprisingly, the space we were given is anything but that,” said Khan.
Recently, several tenants including the MSA were told they would likely be moving to a portable unit in Lot O. The lot is about 1.5 km from campus, located past the bridge behind the Mary E. Keyes building. Shuttle buses run from campus to Lot O between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m. Monday to Friday.
“Muslim students pray five times a day between classes,” said Khan. “A place that needs a shuttle bus to reach is completely unacceptable to the Muslim community.”
Khan and Munawar said if the MSA had to temporarily move to Lot O, students would end up praying in various nooks on campus.
“You can’t fit a thousand Muslim students in hallways of libraries and little corners across campus,” said Khan.
About two weeks ago, representatives from four groups located in the Wentworth House came together in hopes of getting their individual needs across with more impact.
“We’re deeply concerned there hasn’t been uniformity in the communication between McMaster and the tenants,” said Norm Pase, vice-president (external) of CUPE 3906.
Pase started an open Facebook group Monday called “Save Our Space: Wentworth House Shutting Down” to create a forum for the parties involved.
The MACycle bike co-op, owned and operated by the McMaster Students Union, finds itself in the same position as the MSA and CUPE 3906.
MACycle director Connor Bennett knew that relocating would be a big project. He did some research on his own last summer, feeling a “slight sense of urgency.” Even so, he assumed a space would be secured by March.
“When you’re told not to worry, it’s nice to hear, especially when you’re dealing with school. I feel silly at this point, seeing how unprepared they are. Now we’re getting to the end of March and they’re saying, ‘we need your help,’” he said.
Bennett said MACycle having to move twice is the worst-case scenario because it has so many pieces of bike equipment.
“This has worried me a lot. I care about MACycle. A lot of people care about it,” said Bennett. He said that moving to Lot O temporarily would discourage cyclists from using the co-op because of the uphill ride afterward.
Roger Couldrey, McMaster’s vice-president of administration, said he was surprised tenants were worried about going to Lot O. He added that, so far, it’s only been decided that the McMaster Children’s Centre will move there by the end of April.
“It seems that what I’m being told isn’t fully understood by the tenants or wasn’t communicated to them,” he said.
Couldrey said an alternate space would be proposed to the MSA at a meeting on Friday. He said finding a space for MACycle would be more challenging but discussions are still ongoing.
However, Facility Services coordinator Robert Craik confirmed that Lot O would be a default solution if no other arrangements are made by the end of April.
For the tenants, getting mixed messages from Facility Services and the university's administration isn't new. David Campbell, the McMaster Students Union's VP (administration), expressed similar frustrations. He’s been advocating for some of the groups and asking for updates throughout the year.
“The first I heard about the Lot O decision was in January, and I was disappointed that that was the decision they came up with,” said Campbell.
The Photo Club's darkroom manager, Myles Francis, has been reaching out to administrators on his own since last spring, concerned about the darkroom being left behind.
“I felt like if I didn’t go out there and tell people that it existed, the building would have been demolished with the darkroom still there,” said Francis.
The Lodge, a temporary space for off-campus students in Wentworth House this year in lieu of the old Phoenix bar, seems to have been scrapped due to lack of space, according to coordinator Jennifer Kleven.
Francis didn’t want the same thing to happen to the darkroom.
Since February, Francis has been researching darkroom spaces in the downtown core, where he says involved students would be willing to go.
“I don’t like the idea of things being done for me that I feel I should have a hand in. I mean, nowadays who knows how to create a darkroom? Who knows what the darkroom needs, other than me?”
While they’re unsure of long-term plans, tenants aren’t giving up on their cause. But they’re not buying university officials’ advice to not worry.
“I think it’s an issue of prioritization on the university’s end,” Khan said. “Each club has different needs, but we’re united in that we all share the same space. Whatever we can do to help each other, we will.”
Photos by Anqi Shen.
McMaster carrying $150M in deferred maintenance, $50M “critical”
Last week, the Student Representative Assembly approved a policy by the MSU to lobby the University and Province to pay off more of McMaster’s deferred maintenance costs.
“Deferred maintenance” is a fancy term for the backlog of unpaid repairs on infrastructure that have been deferred until funds become available.
According to a Facility Services report released last year, McMaster has accumulated $150 million in deferred maintenance. The report identifies $50 million of those repairs as being “critical” importance and needing to be addressed within the next year.
The MSU’s VP (Education), Huzaifa Saeed, said the issue “has been on the [the MSU’s] radar for years,” and that their concerns are shared by Facility Services.
“Given what’s been reported, our figures are worse than comparable universities,” Saeed noted.
University Hall and Togo Salmon Hall are among the buildings with classrooms that have the highest deferred maintenance on campus.
The MSU policy paper recommends that McMaster invest $12.65 million annually in deferred maintenance requirements and create a long-term plan to increase annual investment to $25 million. In comparison, Facility Services has recommended that the university set aside $11 million annually, up from $2 to $3 million.
The MSU will also ask the province to “drastically” increase its direct contribution toward McMaster’s deferred maintenance to $26 million per year.
“Both parties [the University and the province] are pushing the issue on each other,” said Saeed. “We can talk about how classrooms can be reconfigured for better learning, but we need to keep up our basic infrastructure first.”
In 2011, McMaster University was ranked poorly among 58 institutions for loss ratios on its property and liability coverage because of its “high numbers of sudden equipment failures” between 2006 and 2010.
In 2000, it was reported that deferred maintenance costs among Canadian universities totaled $3.6 billion.
The MSU is bringing back the #WheresTheWifi hashtag after partnering with UTS on a $100,000 Wi-Fi pilot project on campus.
New surveys on the MSU’s website and Facebook page were released Monday to gather feedback on which areas of campus are most in need of Wi-Fi.
Huzaifa Saeed, VP (Education), who sits on the Wi-Fi working group and is spearheading this year’s pilot project, says it’s an important step towards a larger-scale initiative.
The Wi-Fi working group consists of UTS, CLL, Library, Facility Services and the Registrar.
“I will be reporting to UTS later this week, and we will work out where we can spend the money,” said Saeed.
“I think it’s important for students to contribute, especially since Wi-Fi was such a big issue in the last [MSU] election,” he said.
In less than 24 hours, over 600 votes were casted on the MSU’s channels. So far, the Burke Science Building and Student Centre seem to be where most students have identified the greatest need for Wi-Fi.
The survey on the MSU’s website differs from the one on Facebook, providing a longer list of choices and asking for student satisfaction with Wi-Fi on campus.
Mukhtar Galan, current SRA representative (Engineering), ran with the slogan ‘Where’s the Wi-Fi?’ in his presidential campaign this past January.
Galan said he is very supportive of the pilot project and student poll.
“There are a lot of empty tables and study spaces on campus that can’t be used because there’s no Internet connection,” he said. “We have good space, we just need to optimize it.”
“I was surprised to hear from so many first-years last year that they couldn’t connect to Wi-Fi in some common rooms,” said Galan. “I think that’s a problem.”
However, the cost to expand Wi-Fi in residences is closer to $500,000, says Saeed, so it wouldn’t be feasible as part of the pilot project.
“After the project, [the MSU] will be submitting a multi-million dollar proposal to the University for Wi-Fi upgrades on campus,” Saeed said.
UTS’s website states that areas eligible for University funding are public gathering areas for students where there is seating or workspace. This includes lobbies, libraries and lounges.
‘Out of scope’ areas for Wi-Fi funding by UTS are classrooms, administrative areas, and faculty and staff offices. Wi-Fi improvements for these areas can be secured through departmental or project funding if available.
Discussions to improve Wi-Fi on campus, in addition to other technological services on campus, have been ongoing for years.
Last year, MSU President Matthew Dillon-Leitch and executives worked to get UnivMail undergraduate e-mail accounts migrated to Google.
The University’s ERP (enterprise resource planning) project was also announced last year. The purpose of the five-year project is to modernize and streamline McMaster’s outdated business processes.
The initiative entered the ‘fit-gap’ stage earlier this month. During this stage, members of the implementation team will examine how the selected PeopleSoft software fits McMaster’s business process needs, and where there are gaps.