Sterling Lab to undergo $130 million renovation

A $130 million renovation of Sterling Chemistry Lab, slated for completion in August 2016, will improve the building’s teaching labs.
A $130 million renovation of Sterling Chemistry Lab, slated for completion in August 2016, will improve the building’s teaching labs. Photo by Henry Ehrenberg.

Three years from now, much of Sterling Chemistry Laboratory will be unrecognizable after the University completes a $130 million renovation of the building.

In May, the University began a project to construct new teaching laboratories for chemistry and biology that is slated to be completed in August 2016. Though the University had planned in the mid-2000s to build a $500 million Undergraduate Science Center, which would have involved adding two floors to SCL and demolishing Kline Chemistry Laboratory, Provost Benjamin Polak said a project of that scale was no longer possible after the onset of the financial downturn in 2008. Amid increased emphasis on improving STEM teaching at Yale, administrators pushed for the renovation of Sterling Chemistry Lab during capital budget talks last spring, Polak said.

“We asked to move [the SCL renovation] up in the schedule because it was so urgent, and the reason was we thought it was embarrassing that our teaching labs weren’t good,” Polak said. “We can’t be improving STEM teaching without better teaching labs.”

University President Peter Salovey said that students interested in STEM subjects like chemistry should be able to work in safe, accessible and modern facilities.

“The current state of the [SCL] teaching labs is far from this ideal. It’s a project that has been needed for a long time,” he said.

Steven Girvin, deputy provost for science and technology, said the current SCL renovation has been in the planning process since 2008, but had been stalled along with other projects because of the constrained capital budget.

While some lecture halls and classrooms in SCL were completed as part of a separate $13 million initiative, much of this summer’s construction focused on the exterior of the building. The front doors were replaced, the parapets on the roof of the building were rebuilt because they were becoming unstable, and thousands of bricks were replaced, said Kurt Zilm, the director of undergraduate studies for chemistry who was involved in the design work for the renovations.

Though construction has yet to begin on the teaching labs, the back half of SCL will become a three-floor “teaching lab center,” Zilm said. The first floor will house the new teaching labs for biology, while teaching labs for chemistry will be located on the second floor. The third floor will house the mechanical support systems for the building.

The building will have wider hallways, glass walls and ramps to make it wheelchair accessible.

“On the tours we give to prospective students of Science Hill, we hate taking students through decrepit-looking teaching spaces,” Girvin said. “The new SCL will be something that will really shine and be a big draw for recruiting students.”

Zilm said the new, expanded lab space will also enable Yale to accommodate the increase in class size once the new residential colleges are built.

The renovation will be challenging because construction will be underway while other parts of the building are still occupied by students, faculty and researchers, Polak said, adding that faculty have thus far been accommodating and enthusiastic about the renovations despite the inconveniences.

“There are definitely concerns, and we’re working with faculty and the construction company to try to adjust working hours or concentrate the periods of bad vibration so people can plan ahead,” Girvin said.

In order to allow the existing labs to be rebuilt, some labs will be relocated to temporary lab facilities that will be constructed inside SCL next summer. Once the new labs are complete, these temporary facilities may be turned into lecture halls or additional labs, Girvin said.

Girvin said the design process for the SCL renovations took professors’ feedback about teaching preferences into account. Classrooms renovated this summer have new blackboards along multiple walls and rotating chairs to enable students to see all the blackboards, while the lecture halls have new audiovisual systems, chairs and blackboards, Zilm said.

Four chemistry majors interviewed said many fixtures in SCL were worn out and in need of renovation.

Nolan Wilson ’15 approved of the renovations that took place this summer and said he noticed that new, larger chairs have been added to the front of lecture halls.

“I guess it’s an incentive to sit closer to the professor,” he said.

Students also said they are excited to have additional space in the facilities. Bechir August-Pierre ’15 noted that with larger class sizes, the rooms in SCL can feel crowded.

The Sterling Chemistry Laboratory was built in 1923.

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