When you're 121-years old, there's no surprise that it takes an occasional nip here and a tuck there to maintain your good looks. Even if you're a brick building and some of the cosmetic surgery is done with a jackhammer and shovels.
The University of Arizona's iconic structure in the center of campus, Old Main, is getting another face lift – an important one, as it turns out.
Rainwater draining off of the roof is making part of the building sink into the ground, weakening some of the pillars that hold it up. In places, mortar has fallen out from in between some of the bricks.
"The problem," said Jim Riley, "is that the downspouts on Old Main come straight down and dump water at the base of the building. So, the foundation has been affected, and it's sinking. On one side, one of the posts was down a foot below another one just a few feet away."
Riley pointed upstairs to parts of the second floor that have been closed because of the damage. An associate professor of soil, water and environmental science, Riley teaches a class in rainwater harvesting and is leading the initial effort to deal with the runoff problem.
"What we're doing is basically taking water from the downspouts and moving it away from the building and into a little swale several feet away so that it can soak in there, rather than at the foot of the building," he said.
Eventually, the diverted runoff will overflow that swale, into another and then out to the street. When they're dry, the swales are barely noticeable indentations in the dirt.
"We want to make it look like the swales are not too steep, like they've been here forever," he said. "The proof of the concept was that as soon as we finished the swales on the south side of the building, students started walking through it.
"This side of the building had a part of a project that we didn't anticipate. They used to have some bulbs planted right along the edge of the building that they were irrigating. So, we took those out, and the rocks that were around them. And now we're filling in, so there is a slope going away from the building."
Old Main has had its share of issues in the past. Built in 1891 by Phoenix architect James Miller Creighton, it incorporated features like high ceilings and shaded porches to mitigate the hot weather at the beginning and end of the school years.
But funds to maintain it and other campus structures were always scant, and after an initial round of Depression-era federal money for a series of new buildings was spent, construction and upkeep essentially stopped.
Old Main was condemned and abandoned in 1938 and nearly demolished until the U.S. Navy repaired it for a training center at the start of WWII. There have been about a half dozen remodeling projects over the years since, and more are on the way, said Grant McCormick from UA planning, design and construction, who team teaches the class with Riley.
McCormick said water harvesting is not a new concept at the UA. Some of the oldest parts of campus still have remnants of the berms and reservoirs used to irrigate campus lawns before sprinkler systems were installed.
"The water harvesting project for Old Main is part of a larger series of improvements anticipated for the building," McCormick said. "This was one that we were able to go ahead and, through the class, address a problem that will be part of a larger solution. This would have needed to happen at some point but we went ahead, and by doing our part now, we were able to remove one of the factors that is creating some damage to the building."
Some of the columns that support the building may need to be replaced, and part of the second floor is blocked off for safety reasons. McCormick said work by the water harvesting class won't interfere with other repairs.
But it isn't as simple as digging in the dirt. The class is getting expert practical advice from Woody Remencus from UA facilities' grounds services. Remencus has worked as a landscape contractor in Tucson and is on the UA's Surface Water Working Group and has partnered with McCormick and others on other projects.
"My input has been putting a practical spin on the academic side of how these things work. When you're working with contractors, facilities, within the university system that has a lot of checks and balances and rules, you can't just go out and dig a hole. There are processes. There are historic issues. And I think that it's important just to let students step back and see that it's multifaceted. It's not just dig a hole, collect the water. There's a lot of other things that encompass water harvesting," Remencus said.
After spring break, the students will spend most of their time in the classroom designing projects for other parts of campus.
"We're starting to think right now about where those sites might be, but we're not sure yet," said McCormick. "We'll probably brainstorm a bit, but haven't focused in on which ones yet, probably eight or 10 sites. If a few of those rise to the top, we'll refine the design and then over the next spring class we would use those designs for the projects."
"The intent of the class is not looking at this as free labor. It's about learning while you're on the end of a shovel so you're prepared to do a design that makes sense," said Riley. "Normally in our spring class we do several projects. But this one had such a nice feel to it, and because of its importance, students can come back years from now as alumni and say 'I did my part to save Old Main.'"