Renovation of the Suter Science Center spread to Park Road as crews install new pipe after locating a missing water main. The missing water main is just one of a handful of surprises that has occurred during the renovation. (Photo by Jon Styer)

As renovations proceed, Suter Science Center throws some curveballs

The third time was indeed the charm when construction crews dug down to find the water main outside the Suter Science Center. The first time, they’d turned up what appeared to be a small, abandoned gas line. The second excavation also missed the 6-inch water main that feeds the sprinkler system in the renovated building. The next time, finally, with the help of city utility workers, they got it.

“We would like to think that you don’t have these surprises, but that doesn’t always happen,” said Jack Rutt, who works on special projects for the provost and is a member of the science center renovation management team. “You have to have a sense of humor about it, or it can really drive you crazy.”

The confusion over the precise location of the underground pipe arose, at least in part, from the sometimes-fuzzy nature of the diagrams and documents of the water and sewer system that was once maintained by the Park View Sanitary District in the days when EMU sat outside the Harrisonburg city limits (it was annexed into the city in 1983). It’s a lesson that’s been learned over the years in the course of other projects on campus.

Some uncertainty is usually part of any dig like this, said Ed Roach, utility coordinator for Harrisonburg. Sometimes real-world conditions force construction crews to deviate from the plans, and sometimes record of this does not make its way back to the file cabinet, and a few decades later, people are left scratching their heads.

Navigating around old buried conduits

After discovering the missing water main, crews began running a trench and new pipe from Park Road toward the science center. They went slowly and carefully, so as not to disturb the underground cables that crisscross the area just beneath the surface. Over the years, new things are buried in the ground; it’s rarely worth the expense to remove older generations of pipe and conduit, though. The dirt starts to get crowded after a while.

Partway between the street and the building, workers encountered some very hard rock used as fill around one of these conduits. It was too hard to break up by hand (one reason why construction standards no longer call for this hard-fill technique). In came the backhoe and careful though the operator was, the conduit was broken and a cable ripped out.

“There are always snags everywhere,” said Phil Reece, job superintendent with Harman Construction, the company overseeing the renovations. “You don’t know what you’re going to run into in a remodel.”

But in this overall bad-luck cable scenario (a literal “snag,” if you will), there was a stroke of good luck. The affected bit of infrastructure was an unused TV cable. A fiber optic cable that brings the internet to the science center – as well as the entire Eastern Mennonite High School campus a bit further down the hill – was also in that same conduit but emerged unscathed.

Working with an eye to the future

It’s all in a day’s work as progress marches on at the science center. There have been other twists, some big, some small. More surprise conduit was uncovered inside the walls of SC 104, the famous “head room.” It wasn’t shown on any drawings.

When the expected unexpected turns up, those involved usually try to get to the bottom of everything. But:

“Once in a while you just have to throw up your hands and say, ‘Well, we really don’t understand why they did things a certain way,’” said Ed Lehman, assistant director of the physical plant.

All of this gives Lehman, Rutt, and others encouragement to document every quirk and twist in the new construction as best they can, for the benefit of whoever’s around the next time the science center’s due for an upgrade – which they expect to be a long time from now.

“I believe that we’re proceeding with this project in such a way that it will be a while again before it needs this type of renovation,” said Lehman.

View the latest renovation photo gallery from the Suter Science Center