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West Duke Building To Close for Renovation

Fast-acting lecturer leaves classroom before Feb. 19 ceiling collapse

Lecturing fellow Ana Fernandez was the first person to respond to the threat of a possible ceiling collapse inside the West Duke Building. Photo by Bryan Roth.
Lecturing fellow Ana Fernandez was the first person to respond to the threat of a possible ceiling collapse inside the West Duke Building. Photo by Bryan Roth.

Ana Fernandez was preparing room 202 in the West Duke Building for her Intermediate Spanish class, plugging in her laptop and preparing PowerPoint for presentations as part of that day's oral exams.

It was about 11:55 a.m. Feb. 19 when a pre-class conversation with a student was interrupted.

"Suddenly, we hear this loud, dry noise coming from the top of the room like something hitting the ceiling," said Fernandez, a lecturing fellow in Spanish with the Department of Romance Studies. "It was a big noise. Something was dropping."

She looked closer at the ceiling and noticed a a 12-feet wide area that was once flat started to bend. Leaving her possessions, she told her student to leave the room and walked down the hall to alert other staff, including Stacey Meyers.

"I told our staff assistant to call Facilities, and we went to take a look at the room," said Meyers, departmental business manager for Duke's Department of Philosophy. "It seemed clear it was going to be dangerous, so we found another room for them to use."

Minutes later, the ceiling of room 202 collapsed. Luckily, abandoned chairs and tables in the empty room were the only thing to suffer damages. All students and personal property had been removed in time.

"We went back to the door and you could barely open it," Meyers said. "Every tile, all the duct work, pipes - everything collapsed. I wrote a sign 'DO NOT ENTER' and put it on the door."

In the following days, staff from across Duke worked to reschedule 80 classes, reroute mail and plan a rebuilding process for room 202 and the rest of the 100-year-old West Duke Building. Engineers inspected ceilings throughout the three-story, 43,000 square foot building and concluded that all plaster ceilings should be replaced. Between the age of the building and impending work, Duke expects the entire building to be closed through this summer.

"The work will involve moving occupants, demolishing the existing ceilings, installing new ceilings and building systems such as light fixtures," said Tom Trabert, director of Facility Operations. "The university will use this time to perform some other scheduled work in the building, such as adding new roof tiles and an elevator and installing other system upgrades."

Kyle Cavanaugh, vice president of administration and emergency coordinator, said immediately following the incident, Duke used its emergency management process to coordinate an overall approach to communication, identify faculty office options, relocate classes, assign temporary parking, begin renovation and more.

"The team effort around this issue has been wonderful, and we are so grateful for the tremendous efforts of so many," he said.

The 80 classes from 11 West Duke classrooms have been moved for the remainder of the semester, shifting classes with as many as 45 students to other spaces across campus. To assist in the process, a special website was set up within 48 hours to inform faculty and students of the changes. Administrators emailed those impacted directly to let them know of the adjustments.

Out of all the impacted classes, just 11 moved from East to West Campus.

Duke Campus Mail Services has also begun rerouting mail for 79 offices located in West Duke. While permanent office relocations are being planned, mail will be sent to the East Campus Union. From 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. yesterday and today, staff have access to offices, although employees on the building's second floor will need to wear hard harts and receive escorted access from Facilities Management.

"Everyone was on email and on the phone over the weekend, creating schedules, responding to faculty and student concerns, thinking about short-term and long-term planning," said Laurie Patton, dean of the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences. "It was truly wonderful work and very characteristic of Duke."