New details shed light on demise of swim center

By
Wednesday, September 5, 2007

New details and questions are emerging about what caused the Smith Swim Center’s demise – primarily, University officials say, the building’s lack of a dehumidification system, causing support beams to rot away over the course of almost 35 years.

The facility, built in 1973 and closed for good in February when its roof was deemed structurally unsound, is now slated for demolition.

The problems in the Smith Swim Center’s roof that led to its closure first surfaced last November, according to Stephen Maiorisi, vice president for Facilities Management.

The swim center was closed temporarily last winter as the University conducted inspections and made last-ditch repairs to see if the structure could be salvaged. It was closed permanently on Feb. 13.

In May, the Corporation announced that it had approved a plan to build both a permanent swimming facility and a temporary on-campus training pool. The move reflected a significant commitment of the University’s financial and project-management resources, especially in light of its existing plans to construct a new $35-million fitness center.

Initially, University officials were hesitant to say what caused problems to develop in the swim center’s roof. They also could not say whether a flaw in the design of the building or faulty maintenance work caused deterioration in the beams supporting the swim center’s roof.

Now, they say, it appears that the root of the swim center’s problems was the lack of a dehumidification system – which would almost certainly be included in any similar new facility built today, according to Maiorisi. Moisture built up on the roof of the building, causing the roof’s support beams to rot, he said.

“The lack of dehumidification in the facility over 35 years was the main cause of deterioration,” he said. “It was a slow process that started basically from the point the building was opened.”

Additional inspections conducted in the last year also revealed that the support beams were shifting, Maiorisi said. “It was really two issues: the rotting beams, along with differential settlement of the beams,” he said.

Maiorisi said it was possible that the beam shifting was related to the beam deterioration, but he said he couldn’t definitively make that conclusion.

Maiorisi hesitated to say who was to blame for the facility’s problems.

“We’re not actually sure what caused (the shifting of the beams). It could be an error in design,” he said.

Maiorisi added that the University is aware of other collegiate swimming facilities that have experienced similar problems, such as the pool in Boston College’s William J. Flynn Recreational Complex, which – like the Smith Swim Center and the Olney-Margolies Athletic Center – was designed by Daniel Tully. A call to BC’s athletics staff was not returned Tuesday.

Tully – a Santa Fe, N.M.-based architect who has designed numerous other collegiate swim facilities that bear his patented “hyperbolic paraboloid design” – told The Herald Tuesday that he was “frankly astonished” that the University plans to demolish the Smith Swim Center and build a new facility, calling those plans “inappropriate” and “beyond me.”

Tully said he told the University in a report and analysis that the existing building could be repaired in a year or less for a cost of $2-3 million.

“It’s a great building. It could have been repaired. But I guess that’s life,” he said.

In an article in the July/August issue of Brown Alumni Magazine, Tully hinted that the swim center developed problems in its roof because of improper maintenance.

Tully told The Herald in April that the “hyperbolic paraboloid” design, which he patented, is a “wonderful structure” that is “extraordinarily strong.”

Maiorisi said the building was regularly maintained and that a series of renovations has been performed on the swim center over the years.

He said renovations undertaken in the 1990s to the Smith Swim Center revealed problems related to the building’s lack of a dehumidification system, but that one was never installed. Maiorisi said he did not know why.

Beverly Ledbetter, vice president and general counsel for the University, said the University reviewed the history of the Smith Swim Center’s problems but has decided not to pursue any legal action at this point.

“There are lots of people involved in construction issues, such as architects, designers and builders, and sometimes all of those come together, and sometimes there are issues related to the age of the building,” she said. “I can’t say that we have put the lid on it, but as of this time, there is no legal action contemplated.”

The Smith Swim Center will be demolished and replaced by a new, permanent pool. The new facility will be designed by Robert A.M. Stern to complement the planned Jonathan Nelson Fitness Center.

The temporary facility, which will consist of a modular, above-ground pool and an air-supported cover, is scheduled to be completed sometime in January. The facility will allow aquatics athletes to train – but not compete – on Brown’s campus.

Maiorisi said the University will be able to sell the temporary pool back to the company supplying it after the permanent facility is completed, allowing Brown to recoup at least some of its $4-million investment.

Head men’s water polo coach Felix Mercado, newly hired this summer, said that despite the team’s current lack of an on-campus facility, his program “couldn’t be in a better situation” right now and that recruiting was largely unaffected.

For the time being, the men’s water polo team is training at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass., and Seekonk High School in Seekonk, Mass., Mercado said.