Last summer was a bad one for the Stony Brook Student Union building. A back staircase developed a mold problem that wasn’t remedied until October. A number of rooms in the basement flooded day after day for more than two weeks. A chunk of fallen ceiling, presumably dislodged by water that dripped on it whenever it rained, remained on the floor for months.
The state of the Union—the Union building, that is—may be improving, but it’s still far from ideal. Tenants and management both agree that the proposed gutting and renovation of the Union building, which is set to begin in roughly two and a half years, is desperately needed.
Rumors about just how bad the condition of the building is have spread as a result of the presence of contractors testing the walls of the building to make sure that it is structurally sound. All the while, new problems, such as flooding on the first floor and a blocked fire exit, have emerged, and while the repairs have been quick, they haven’t always been permanent.
They also serve as a reminder that until major renovations begin, problems with one of the oldest buildings on campus are always a possibility.
“I don’t know if the building is unsafe, but I don’t know if it’s the healthiest place,” said Janice Costanzo, coordinator of the Craft Center and a tenant of the Union building basement for the last 10 years. Costanzo’s office is attached to the ceramics studio, which is located next to the staircase that became overrun with mold over the summer.
“Everybody saw it,” she said of the mold, adding that the problem was not typical. “It was a very humid summer,” she added.
Howard Gunston, the director of Facilities Operations for the Student Activities Center and Stony Brook Union, acknowledged that the Union has had its share of problems in the last year.
“Last year in January, because of the staffing vacancies on campus and the financial strapping of the university, we no longer had a facility manager in the Stony Brook Union,” said Gunston, who attributed the amount of time it took to fix problems such as the moldy stairwell and the ceiling leak to a lack of staff to notice it.
“We were able to get full-time staff in that building again just in time for the opening of school this year,” he said as to why many problems have recently been addressed.
In an interview last Thursday, Gunston said he would play the part of rumor control. He said that a refrigerator in the Union was not responsible for most of the flooding over the summer, but rather a small portion of it. He also said that the roof of the Union building has been closed due to construction at the nearby Campus Recreation Center, and not because of any issues with its integrity.
But the new staff has not been able to make up for some of the old building’s deficiencies or for its lack of funding.
This Fall, when a new flood on the first floor occured, the new staff placed absorbent foam pads on the floor near the courtyard walls, where the water had entered. Gunston indicated that as long as the pads could handle the water, they would probably stay in place. He did not discuss the possibility of a permanent fix.
“They don’t want to put a lot of money into this building. It’s coming down. They just want to patch it up,” Costanzo speculated, adding that it made sense to save money that way.
Another issue briefly emerged when fences went up around the perimeter of the Union building in late November. The fence was put up without one of the gates called for in the blueprints, leading to a situation in which students exiting through the stairwell that previously had a mold problem would be unable to get around the fence. The fact that the only accessible door back into the building locks when it closes meant that some students faced the decision to climb the fence, jump off of a nearby concrete wall or call a friend to open the door for them.
A section of the fence was removed within three days of being placed, but Costanzo was still upset by the mistake.
“It’s a fire exit,” she said of the stairwell. “I have to worry about my members down here.”
The presence of the contractors, who in an email announced that they would be sampling the materials used in the floors, walls and ceiling of each room in the Union building, as well as testing the building’s structural integrity, has also made a few tenants nervous.
“As a reminder, we anticipate the probing in your spaces to only take about 30 minutes each, so we ask that you find alternative plans during the times when staff are entering your spaces,” read the email, which, upon being read aloud by members of the LGBTA, drew laughs from a number of student clubs in the Union building’s basement.
On Wednesday, the contractors determined that the walls in a number of rooms, including The Press’ office, are thick enough to keep the building structurally sound, much to the relief of tenants who had never considered the possibility that they weren’t.
To the new staff’s credit, the Union building is cleaner and drier now than it was at the beginning of the semester. The staircase that was once full of mold now boasts clean white walls, while the leaky hole in the ceiling is in the process of being replaced by a hatch.
Since some mid-summer repair work, the flooding problems in the basement seem to be a thing of the past. When Hurricane Irene hit in late August, the repairs held up. “We didn’t have any problems here,” said Costanzo, who oversees spaces on either side of the Union building’s basement.
Health and safety problems and subsequent improvements to the Union building, which was built in 1969, have hardly been limited to this semester. A few years ago, says Costanzo, the flooding problems were worse.
“We used to have a lot of leaking in here from the ceiling,” she said, attributing the problem to sweating pipes. “That’s stopped.”
And according to Dustin Herlich, an adjunct professor with the journalism department and a Stony Brook Press alumnus, a vent in The Press’ office used to spew dirt into the room a decade ago. Now, only a sign labeling the vent as “evil” remains.
Despite all of these improvements, Costanzo believes that the building could be in much better shape. “It’s a building that needs to be renovated,” she said after being asked about the new flooding problem on the first floor.
Gunston hopes to begin the renovation process sometime in August 2014, though that project won’t begin until a new dining hall is completed to serve the students of H and Mendelsohn Quads.
But until the project begins, less money will be spent on long-term repairs for the Union building. “When you talk about a building that’s going to go down for repair, you don’t want to waste money. So the key is being very intentional with what you want to spend,” he said. If something breaks in a building that is going to get renovated, Gunston asked, “do you need it now or can you live without it until then?”
Gunston provided a broken water fountain, which would cost upwards of $3,000 to replace, as an example. Costanzo said she was considering updating one of her studios to increase its occupancy capacity, but decided against it. “It was just so much money,” she said. “It’s not worth it for the few years we’re going to be here.”
Gunston wishes to assure the students, faculty and staff who regularly use the Union building that most concerns will still be addressed promptly. He has asked that anyone with a concern alert facilities staff so that they will know there is a problem to fix.
“We don’t want people to feel like they have to be [concerned,]” said Gunston, adding that anything that could pose a health or safety threat would be dealt with immediately.
“At the end of the day…” Gunston said, “we should not feel like we’re in a war zone.”