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Arielle Shternfeld / Columbia Daily Spectator

After the construction of East Campus, Charles Gwathmey, the project's chief architect, called it “the worst-constructed building we've ever seen come out of our office.”

In just the first month of the semester, residents in East Campus have been plagued by a slew of facilities issues, including mold infestations, erroneous fire alarms, and a lack of usable stoves. As it turns out, however, EC’s recent problems are not a novel phenomenon.

Today’s issues in East Campus parallel hundreds of reports of poor standards of living from when the building was first erected. After its construction in 1979, Charles Gwathmey, the architect whose firm built East Campus, called it “the worst-constructed building we’ve ever seen come out of our office,” and for good reason. Before and since Spectator’s 1983 exposé “East Campus: The dream dorm in decay,” students have complained about the administration’s apparent lethargy towards fixing EC’s original structural problems: piping, leakage, and electrical issues.

Despite the similarities between EC past and current problems, a Facilities spokesperson denied that EC’s current woes are caused by the same issues as those in the past, even if many of the problems are identical.

“The causes of recent issues related to cooking gas, false fire alarms, and instances of mold are new,” the spokesperson said in an email to Spectator. “They are not related to any past issues, and therefore not indicative of any older, unaddressed problem.”

EC was originally built as part of a campaign to increase student enrollment. The original design included plans for a theater, bank office, general store, craft centers, and a student activities facility. At the time, however, Columbia College Dean Peter Pouncey told Spectator that the administration had been too ambitious, “looking for $12 million in cash to build a $16.5 million building.”

To address the lack of funding, Columbia made an unprecedented decision to sign off on a “design-build” contract, which protected the University against cost overruns but required that it reward the entire contract to one construction firm: Morse Diesel. Morse Diesel later admitted to compromising the design due to the cost.

“A few eggs are bad, but not all the eggs are bad,” Carl Morse, co-founder of Morse Diesel told Spectator in 1983. “Rest assured that in this building you will find a few things that are not right, but not in overwhelming proportions.”

To save money, pipes in EC were offset by an additional one-half inch, resulting in many future plumbing-related difficulties. Mechanics had to design a link to merge the mismatched pipes and then tear down the walls to access those pipes, as no entrances had been built.

At the project’s end, Morse Diesel failed to check off 500 items on the “punch list,” a catalogue of mandatory adjustments and repairs that need to be done after a building is finished.

As a result, within a year of the dormitory’s opening, over 600 maintenance reports flooded Columbia Housing. The reports included railings falling off the wall, bathroom tiles popping out, and doors falling out of their frames. The electrical current running to the light fixtures didn’t match the fixtures, causing frequent blowouts. In January of 1981, Spectator reported that students were not evacuating their EC rooms because they couldn’t hear the fire alarms in their “carpeted duplex” rooms.

A Spectator photo originally published in January 1981.

In 1988, following a full-scale investigation into EC’s structural problems, Columbia filed a $15 million lawsuit, later upped to $25 million, against the four companies responsible for planning and building EC, accusing them of inept design and construction. In 1993, New York State’s Court of Appeals ruled that Columbia had the grounds to sue for strict liability and negligence.

The case was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum in 1993.

Today, East Campus is one of Columbia’s most sought-after dorms, and almost exclusively houses seniors who receive favorable lottery numbers. For current residents however, their admittance to EC this semester has been more an ordeal than a triumph. Major facilities failures have riddled the dorm for several months as an ever-growing number of student complaints pile up in Columbia Housing’s inbox.

Three days before students were due to try their luck in last year’s housing lottery, administrators announced that EC would not have functioning stoves or ovens for the 2018-2019 school year due to gas leaks in the building’s piping.

When students returned to campus after the summer, they were greeted with over 20 erroneous fire alarms—also attributed to condensation issues in the piping—in a span of less than two weeks. Following the series of alarms, dozens of seniors reported mild to severe cases of mold in their EC rooms in September. One mold case was so bad that an entire six-person suite had to be relocated into temporary housing for over a week.

The problems range from inconvenient, such as having to cook on low-power hot plates, to hazardous: mold inhalation poses a danger to affected residents’ health.

Caroline Albert, CC ’19 and a resident of the suite that was temporarily relocated, said she repeatedly reported the mold to Housing, but the mold returned multiple times after maintenance workers treated it. Eventually, Albert and her suitemates were relocated with less than 24 hours’ notice.

“It got worse and worse, to the point where both my suitemate and I were getting sick. Living in that damp environment, we both got pretty sick,” Albert said. “My suitemates and I were all talking about how we’ve lived through the John Jay bathrooms, we’ve lived through maybe not-the-best conditions as far as cleanliness goes, but we’ve never made a Housing complaint until this year.”

These complaints come nearly 40 years after construction workers broke ground on EC. In the past decade, Columbia has invested an average of $3 million per year to improve EC facilities—more money than has been spent on any other dormitory

A Spectator photo originally published on February 6, 1981.

Piping was replaced in the 1990s, but leakage and mold continue. The fire alarms, both erroneous and not, remain inaudible to certain townhouse residents today. A Facilities spokesperson acknowledged that students have reported inaudible fire alarms both this semester and last semester, and said that they are in the process of addressing the problem in conjunction with the alarm vendor.

Administrative inaction in solving these issues has been a major concern for students since the 1980s. Charles John O’Byrne, CC ’81, LS ’84, who was the head resident of EC in 1983, was often frustrated by what he saw as ambivalence on the part of Columbia Housing.

“Although several decades ago, I remember the number of examples of shoddy workmanship in months following students moving to East Campus,” O’Byrne said. “The University’s response was lackluster, to put it mildly, and in some instances, impressed me as negligent.”

Today, students echo O’Byrne’s sentiment. Albert said she filed over 15 complaints before Housing sent maintenance workers to treat the mold in her room.

“I never in a million years would think this is an issue Housing would brush under the rug and ignore,” Albert said. “It didn’t even cross my mind.”

In the cases of the mold and false fire alarms in September, Housing sent emails to EC residents following Spectator’s reporting on both issues.

“I don’t think this is necessarily Housing’s fault, I think they’re doing the best they can,” Jessica Grubesic, CC ’19, said. “I think it’s more of a problem with Columbia and the way they built the dorm. A lot of people feel their complaints have been dismissed by Housing but I think the building itself is a mess and it’s just not able to be fixed in the short term.”

O’Byrne sees things differently. As a devoted member of the Columbia community—twice graduated, and the former president of the Alumni Association—he feels, more than anything, a lack of faith in the University’s handling of EC.

“It’s disappointing to hear that so many problems persist to the present day, and it makes one wonder why an institution like Columbia can’t do better,” O’Byrne said. | @ColumbiaSpec

East Campus mold fire alarms Morse Gwathmey
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