Julia Sears Has Solid Foundation

Safe at Sears

August 18, 2016 |

By Joe Tougas

There’s no unfunny way to say this, so let’s just do it:

The Office of Residential Life at Minnesota State University, Mankato would like to assure students, community members and everyone else that the Julia A. Sears Residence Community is not going to fall down the hill anytime in the next thousand years or so.

Rumors stating otherwise have been reaching the Residential Life office staff, and they would like to push back with some reassurances involving regulations, engineers and architects.

The rumors hatched from an undergraduate geography class exercise on soil erosion. Students in that class use the Sears building and a nearby ravine as a lab to study, measure and predict erosion. This exercise led to rumors that the building is in some sort of precarious position. What didn’t make the rounds is that Sears will be safe and secure where it stands for an estimated 9,000 years, according to the instructor’s own calculations.

“This rumor causes actual anxiety among students when they hear it fifth-hand and don’t know what to make of it,” says Residential Life Director Cynthia Janney. “People suppose that there’s some dire engineering issue and a cover-up is underway. They wonder where they’re supposed to live when the calamity ensues.”

The building opened its doors to student residents in the fall of 2008, ushering in a new era of on-campus living with its semi-suite rooms and inviting social areas indoors and out. The following year, the accolades coming into Residential Life about the building were sometimes peppered with odd questions about an alleged erosion issue.

In 2009 Janney learned of the large undergraduate geography class in which a colorful hypothesis was being spread around campus by word of mouth—and causing alarm for some students.

Creating buildings near ravines is not uncommon, notes Ann Voda, president of the project’s Minneapolis-based architect, Bentz/Thompson/Rietow, Inc.

And as with any project of this size, the firm worked with civil engineers, structural engineers and landscape architects to conform to the building standards set by the Minnesota State Building Code and the City of Mankato. The University itself contracted soils engineers to test and analyze soil throughout construction, and the building stands in compliance with all codes, including the Minnesota River Watershed District.

“It’s not a construction situation that’s unusual. There are protocols that you go through when you’re situating a building in these conditions, and those protocols are set up to mitigate any kind of risk,” Voda says.

The firm also designed and installed an underground storm drainage system to capture the rain runoff and divert it with pipelines into a pool in the ravine. Five catch basins in a field between the building and the ravine collect the storm water and put it into an underground piping system that moves the storm water to the woods.

“All the storm water that hits our site goes there instead of running off down the hill,” Voda says.

Rich Wheeler, Residential Life’s Assistant Director for Environment, understands why the building and the ravine were chosen for the class project: They’re here.

“It’s something the students can relate to because they’re there and they can see it,” Wheeler says. “Whereas nobody knows what it was like before the Grand Canyon was made and what erosion did. Or Wisconsin Dells and even the Blue Earth River Valley. It’s just that all of a sudden it goes from 9,000 years to ‘it’s gonna happen soon.’

“I could tell you with 100 percent certainty that the design team was aware of it and took it into account when we looked at the site [to build Sears],” Wheeler adds. “We have no question that the building and the ground around it are going to be safe and secure in 500 years and well beyond that.”

Official Approval

“There is an established system of professional checks and balances for assuring structural stability,” says architect Ann Voda, whose firm, Bentz/Thompson/Rietow, Inc., designed the Julia A. Sears Residence Community.

“The architect, along with our civil engineer, structural engineer, landscape architect and the owner’s soils engineer perform testing and analysis of the soils and site conditions; coordinate the design; meet requirements by the city, state, watershed district, and building codes; and observe the construction during which more soils testing and analysis occurs on a continuous basis,” Voda adds.

Before an ounce of dirt was moved, plans for the building needed to be approved by state and local various government bodies. A pre-construction timeline:

Jan. 18, 2006: Building design approved and accepted by Minnesota State Mankato, Minnesota State and architect firms Bentz/Thompson/Rietow and Ayers Saint Gross. This is the stage in which code issues, if any, are raised and addressed prior to approval.

Aug. 23, 2006: Design development approval.

Dec. 11, 2006: City of Mankato approves the topographical survey, which includes the city’s requirement of a 25-foot setback.

In addition, the architects designed a collection system for runoff that captures rain in five basins behind the building that divert runoff through a piping system into the woods below. Both the piping system and the building conform to the required 25-foot setback. J.T.