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October 1997

Time for a tune-up: NCAR, NSF mull the state of the Mesa Lab

Built over 30 years ago and meant to last at least a century, the Mesa Lab is approaching middle age--and it shows. From a distance, the building still cuts an imposing figure. It's up close that you notice the cracked concrete, dated fixtures, and other signs of wear and tear. Even more worrisome, the building's infrastructure--most of which dates back to 1966--is limping along well past its predicted lifespan of 20 to 25 years.

Since NCAR budgets have been nearly level in recent years (taking inflation into account), there's little money for the kind of 60,000-mile tune-up the lab needs. This summer NCAR management met with ML architect I. M. Pei and NSF sponsors to get their endorsement of a three-year, $12 million renovation plan that could begin as soon as next fall.

That will be none too soon, according to NCAR associate director Walt Dabberdt. In a memo to NSF, Walt notes that "we are at a critical juncture insofar as [ML's] future integrity and reliability are concerned. In spite of a conscientious commitment to building maintenance, there are a number of high-cost refurbishment items that we are unable to undertake without substantial one-time incremental resources. This is a situation common to virtually all buildings of comparable age."

According to Walt, NSF recognizes the gravity of the problem and has pledged to find money outside of NCAR's regular core funding to support the refurbishment. "Once we have a time frame in hand, Facilities Support Services will start planning in detail," says Walt. In the early 1990s, FSS hired consulting engineers to document the scope of needed ML repairs. More recently, FSS director Pat Harris and engineering manager Julie Emo took the consulting engineers' recommendations and brought them up to date.

The proposed repairs fall into three main categories:

Health and safety

Getting in
Main entrance drive needs repaving; ML access for people with disabilities falls short of new guidelines.

Accessibility. Much of the building falls short of standards outlined in the Americans with Disabilities Act, including building entrances, restrooms, the Main Seminar Room, and the tree plaza. Some ramps are improperly sloped for ADA guidelines.

Fire safety. While the B tower and parts of the second basement received fire sprinklers in 1993, the remaining 60% of ML is unsprinklered. In addition, the integrity of some ML fire walls needs to be ensured, and emergency lighting and exit lighting systems must be brought up to today's standards.

Hill road. "Colorado winters have been hard on the road and its drainage system," notes FSS. Wintertime sanding has clogged the road's culverts, and traffic skirts around cyclists and hikers in numbers unforeseen in the sixties. The project engineers suggest rebuilding the culvert system, resurfacing the roadway, and adding some type of bike/pedestrian path on the uphill side.

Air quality. A monitoring system with improved filtration and ventilation is planned.

Structural integrity

Tree plaza. The well-worn plaza needs a full overhaul, including a new concrete surface; replacements for aging, diseased trees; and improved irrigation and drainage for the tree planters.

Entrance drive. Like much of the concrete around the lab, the main entrance drive is beset by cracking and disintegration. The project includes replacement of the entire drive.

Up top
Nearly half of ML's roofs are due for replacement.

Roofs. Harsh weather, supplemented by extensive foot traffic for antenna and other equipment access, has taken its toll. Almost half the roof surface dates to the building's original construction, making it more than 15 years overdue for replacement. The computer center's underground roof, which is difficult to access but critical to the integrity of NCAR's computing environment, also needs a fix.

On the outside
Concrete walls are cracking; windows need resealing.

Exterior walls. The unique look of the ML exterior is a result of "bush hammering" the poured-concrete surfaces. While an aesthetic success, the technique left the walls vulnerable to water penetration and subsequent freezing, which in turn causes slowly growing cracks. The plan includes placing a surface sealant on exterior concrete walls, along with recaulking of major joints and resealing of windows.


Light fixtures. Original, nonadjustable lights would be replaced by energy-efficient, dimmable ballasts with color-corrected lamps, allowing users to select the light level best suited to the work in progress while saving the institution an estimated $25,000 per year.

Air distribution and humidification. The original dual-duct air system mixes hot and cold air continuously, wasting energy. Large zones are regulated by single thermostats serving multiple spaces. The refurbishment would include a more efficient, variable-air-volume system with smaller zones, saving some $85,000 a year. Also planned is the reintroduction of a humidification system. The original system was decomissioned in 1978 following the U.S. appearance of Legionnaires' disease, when it was found that air delivery systems inside large buildings could harbor the responsible bacteria. Instead of the old drain pan with standing water, the new humidification system would use steam, which kills bacteria before they enter the air stream.

Electrical infrastructure. Several disparate components of the ML electrical system are slated for upgrades. Feeder cables running through the mesa road's utility tunnel system would be removed from the tunnels, upgraded, and directly buried, thus reducing the risk of their failure during spring runoff. The building's electrical distribution system needs radical renovation to meet the demands of modern workstations, even after this summer's ML rewiring project. Finally, an electronic building automation system would be added to monitor operations and minimize risk from electrical system failure.

Down below
ML's aging dual boilers are prone to breakdown.

Heaters and boilers. The dual boilers that now heat the entire Mesa Lab-Fleischmann Building complex are 6 years past their 25-year life expectancy and subject to increasing problems. A greater number of new, smaller boilers would increase efficiency while greatly reducing the risk of a complete system failure. Also, the ML's heat exchangers and pumps are past due for replacement.

Kitchen. The original ML kitchen falls short of recently strengthened building codes. The refurbishment plan includes a new exhaust system and a grease trap for the sanitary system.

So far, so good

Thus far, the ML repair plans have gotten thumbs-up from interested parties. The meeting with I. M. Pei in August to discuss the plans went well, according to Walt. "Pei is fully supportive of what we want to do and he offered to help in conceptualizing changes." It will be at least the next fiscal year (1999) before any actual renovation begins, and most of the impact on interior spaces would be felt in the second and third years of the refurbishment, according to current plans. "We want to handle this in an orderly fashion, in a compressed fashion to minimize physical disruption, and in a way that minimizes any impacts on scientific programs," says Walt.

"It's like a house or a car that you have to maintain. You know you have to put money into it at regular intervals, and if you don't, you'll have to suffer the consequences. Here at the Mesa Lab, the consequences could be a boiler failure in the middle of winter that could literally shut this place down for weeks or months." •BH

A new honor from architects

The Mesa Lab has won the 1997 AIA Colorado 25-Year Award. AIA Colorado, a chapter of The American Institute of Architects, created the award in 1994 "to recognize a Colorado project completed 25-35 years ago that has withstood the test of time and still functions in its original capacity." The award was presented 18 October during AIA Colorado's annual design conference, held this year on the grounds of Denver's former Stapleton Airport. NSF provided construction funds for the Mesa Lab, which was completed in 1966. Walt Dabberdt accepted the award at the AIA meeting.

Architect I.M. Pei, who went on to design the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Pyramid at the Louvre Museum in Paris, among other projects, was inspired by the Anasazi cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde. "Their buildings are always comfortable with the land itself," says Pei, who echoed the Anasazi's elemental, geometric forms in the NCAR design.

"When I first saw the NCAR site, I was so excited," Pei recalls. "All my work to that point had been in cities. Then suddenly I was offered the opportunity to create something in this spectacular setting."

Two AIA Colorado chapters, Denver and Colorado North, independently nominated the Mesa Lab for the 25-year award. Stephen Loos, incoming Colorado North president, looks to award winners as "exemplars of what we ought to strive for in every project." The three previous recipients are the Engineering Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder (1994), the Hyperbolic Paraboloid at Denver's Zeckendorf Plaza (1995; another Pei creation, since torn down for the Adams Mark Hotel addition), and the Boettcher Memorial Center at the Denver Botanic Gardens (1996). •Zhenya Gallon

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Edited by Bob Henson, bhenson@ucar.edu

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