Physics graduate students across the hall say they don’t mind the noise. Open the door, though, and the jackhammer drilling 100 consecutive holes through concrete drowns conversation. Phillips Hall auditorium undergoes a $900,000 facelift. From what Tom Clegg, chair of physics and astronomy, makes clear yelling above the din, he can hardly wait. Computer cables will snake through the 100 holes, connecting every seat in the house to a modern multimedia classroom. 

A tour through Phillips Hall is like running through the funhouse at the state fair. One lab in the physics and astronomy department holds a giant stainless steel thermos bottle. The superconducting magnet produces a field so strong that merely standing next to it demagnetizes your credit cards as fast as it takes to swipe them at the grocery store checkout counter. The field spreads far enough that staff in the computer lab downstairs complained about interference with their high-resolution graphics. 

In another laboratory, an atomic force microscope lies shrouded on a table like a magician’s accomplice about to be sawed in half. It measures atoms layer by layer. Clegg says the laser beam inside is sensitive enough that a car driving by or someone slamming a door upsets the measurements. So sometimes researchers work at night. 

Sean Washburn, chair of applied and materials sciences, measures electrical current at an extremely low temperature, minus 462 degrees Fahrenheit. He works on a scale tiny enough to measure electrons in one dimension. The elevator next to his lab, however, brought him back to a real-world scale. Every time someone pushed a button to go up, the electrical current frazzled his measurements. 

A highly distinguished scientist from IBM comes here to do research, and we can’t give him a decent lab,” Clegg says. The answer: an expensive steel room was built inside Washburn’s lab to isolate his instruments from electrical noise pollution. 

Faculty will make do. Clegg says he tries to balance their needs for sophisticated lab equipment with a 31-year-old building and limited space. This year, 15 new visiting lecturers and post-doctoral students arrived needing office space. He opens the door on a compromise, a lab containing nine desks. That’s one more lab Clegg wants to use for an experimental-physics faculty member, or maybe a classroom. 

We’re facing a dilemma,” he says. “How do we accommodate cutting-edge research and still maintain quality instructional space for undergraduates?” 

Faculty in the Chemistry department face a similar problem. Recently the department decided against hiring two new faculty members because there’s no room. To hire a synthetic organic chemist would mean finding lab space for 25 to 30 assistants to synthesize new molecules. Tom Meyer, professor of chemistry and vice provost for graduate studies and research, says the space deficit inhibits the university’s ability to recruit faculty, attract graduate students and funding. “It’s taking a huge toll,” he says. 

Renovation is one answer to the space shortage. Phillips audito-rium made it onto a list of capital improvement projects totaling $420 million in 1998. Gordon Rutherford, director of facilities planning, says the university continues to get more money from the General Assembly for renovations. But the need to fund emerging technologies, such as fiber optic cables and “clean rooms” able to handle hazardous substances and viruses, is growing faster. 

The minute you cease to be cutting edge,” he says, “you’re going backwards.” 

Rutherford has directed new and old building maintenance for 28 years at Carolina. His two biggest challenges have been meeting new health-and-safety regulations and requirements of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. 

For instance, a recirculating air system was installed in Kenan Laboratories, built in the late 1960s. “But the day they made benzene a bad boy, lab regulations became that much steeper,” Rutherford says. 

Meanwhile, the amount of space considered unfit for library, office, or lab work grows. Hill Hall’s basement, currently occupied by the Music Library, will be condemned once the library moves out. Diane Pettit, acting head of the Music Library, says a day doesn’t go by without some environmental problem. Brick walls flake bits of dust. Moisture and water seep up through floor cracks after thunderstorms. The library has a wet/dry vacuum on hand, and so far the dampness has yet to mildew manuscripts and book pages. The largest music research library in the South made a short list of departments bound for new destinations for 1997. But Rutherford says it lost out to other priorities. 

Mildew hangs close in Rosenau Hall’s basement, too. Public Health graduate students working in the research lab have to factor in ambient humidity when they run experiments. Now that the basement has been condemned, 15 graduate students have moved their labs off campus, trading the dingy lab for a longer commute. 

These and other needed repairs simply must wait. The state’s General Assembly started allocating funds explicitly for university renovations in 1994. Rutherford says he has a backlog of work that includes everything from nine new roofs to unearthing storm drains dating back to the earliest days of the university. The current request for renovations totals $86 million. But Rutherford figures that’s slightly more than half of the total cost. Repairing brick walkways alone will cost almost half a million dollars. 

As the country’s oldest public university ages, the lack of space will make renovating existing buildings all the more important. Campus square footage has doubled to 12 million square feet since Rutherford started working for the university as a staff architect in 1970. He says he’s amazed to look at old photographs documenting the change.

The diversity of architectural styles on central campus is a treasure that everyone wants to keep,” he says, running down the list: Greek, eclectic, Georgian. All share similar size, texture and respect for open space. “But they also have to meet teaching and research needs,” Rutherford says. 

The other possible answer to solv-ing the university’s space deficit is already under way—new construction. Last fall, the University of North Carolina General Administration hired consultant Eva Klein and Associates to evaluate space needs on all 16 campuses. 

In a preliminary report, the consultants show a small surplus in classroom space at Carolina, although faculty quickly point out that some classrooms are more fit than others. In every other category—teaching labs, offices, study facilities, and research labs—the university lags behind national space norms. Carolina posts a one million square foot total space deficit, two-thirds of the UNC system’s total space deficit. 

One building that may be razed to make room for more science lab space is Venable Hall, home to chemistry, marine sciences, applied material sciences, and the Electronic Office Service Center. Spanning more than a football field in length and width, the building only houses one floor of available lab space. 

Clegg also chairs the oversight committee for a new science complex. He says science faculty recommended tearing down Venable Hall and replacing it with a two-towered building. The new building would include shared lab space, classrooms, faculty offices, even a research library for the physical sciences. In the spirit of shared learning, faculty asked for more common meeting space, something Clegg says he hears people ask for over and over again. 

The faculty was unanimous that instruction and training in Academic and Health Affairs should remain together on the central campus. “Pharmacy, nursing, public health, dentistry, medicine, and all of the academic sciences are within a ten-minute walk of each other,” Clegg says. “We find that problems do often require multiple skills with many different people at the table.” 

And if money were no problem? The consultants posed one last idea: a bridge across South Road linking north and south campus. “We’d like to make some obvious physical link so Academic and Health Affairs might be more closely drawn together,” Clegg says.

Christopher Hammond was a student who formerly contributed to Endeavors.

Horace Williams Property offers room to think big.