Navigating the campus underground

Addressing need-to-know and curious-about questions related to pedestrian passageways and maintenance tunnels below campus

Rumors about the nearly two miles of tunnels that lie beneath Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, often revolve around its location near Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Some people have suspected the tunnels were designed as an Air Force/Wright State bomb shelter—or even that top-secret military experiments have been conducted in laboratories there.

For graduating senior Dan Darkow, who has spinal muscular atrophy and has been in a wheelchair since age 3, the underground connections between 20 of the 22 academic buildings simply allow for easy access.

“The tunnels offer a flat ground that I can easily move across without any bumps, ditches or obstacles in the way,” says Darkow, whose next education journey will be a master’s degree in higher ed student affairs so that he can help serve students with disabilities.

But, he notes, the tunnels are universally embraced. “No one likes to go outside in the freezing weather, snow, rain or wicked wind,” he says. “The tunnels appeal to all as a safe means of transportation, and some use it as a space to do their daily walking.”

Not surprisingly, systems of underground passages tend to appear most in climates with heavy snow, says Seth Bauguess, director of communications at Wright State. “Ours is easily the furthest south.”

One up-north example is Concordia University Wisconsin, located on the shore of Lake Michigan. About four miles of underground tunnels and hallways protect against snow and wind chills that bring temps down to minus 25 degrees in the winter, says Steve Hibbard, director of maintenance. When Concordia purchased the campus, then a convent, in 1982, officials decided each new building would have a tunnel connecting it to another.

Some of those connections also include utility pipes, but “they’re not narrow tunnels where you have to watch your head,” Hibbard says. In fact, they’re as wide, open and well-lit as any hallway.

Even when tunnels aren’t originally designed for pedestrians, as is the case at the University of Rochester in New York, their purpose may evolve. The underground industrial-style links between a handful of buildings are now frequented by students, who “in their opportunistic manner” began using them during harsh weather, says Jose Fernandez, executive director of project and program management.

Students, faculty and staff at any college or university with underground passages tend to wonder about their purpose. Here’s how facilities administrators answer seven common questions about these spaces and the institution’s tunnels vision.

1. Do the tunnels help sell the school?

Admissions staff at Concordia University Wisconsin find themselves touting that students can go to class in January wearing flipflops, says Hibbard. And at Wright State, which was profiled in a 2012 book on disability-friendly colleges, Darkow and other students have reported the tunnels playing a role in their college selection process.

Tom Webb, director of the Office of Disability Services, calls the system “a great equalizer.” Webb, who uses a mobility scooter, points out that it’s a risk for someone physically disabled to enroll at a school that does a poor job at ice and snow removal. Tour guides will often take students with disabilities to his office, and then a staffer may take them on a more extensive tour through the tunnels.

This winter, Wright State drew even more attention to its system with the Tunnel Takeover, a 5K walk planned to highlight this “point of pride” and to increase student philanthropy awareness, says Kari Simpson, a graduate assistant who works in the Office of Annual Giving.

About 20 students, faculty and staff participated in teams to support scholarships, innovative programs and other university needs. Organizers hope to continue the event annually.

2. What do tunnels offer beyond convenience?

On compact campuses, it’s not efficient to equip individual buildings with boilers and chillers. That’s why central plants producing steam, chilled water and compressed air are a common utilities solution. Utilities are then distributed by pipes connected to buildings via tunnels or simply buried in the ground.

But buried pipes are harder to access if something breaks, says Faramarz Vakili, director of operations and maintenance at the University of Madison-Wisconsin, which has miles of utilities tunnels. He describes the tunnels as looking like small rooms with pipes and telecommunications infrastructure on one side.

A utility tunnel system was completed in 1990 at the University of Regina—located in the capital of the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. Dave Button, vice president for administration, says a buried-pipe system “always breaks right after you’ve redone the parking lot or planted a nice tree.”

In other words, facilities officials would argue against pretty landscaping within 20 feet or so of buried utilities.

Many of the 6.5 miles of utilities tunnels at University of Arizona date to the 1920s and ’30s. “You have some tunnels you can barely crawl in and others you can walk through,” says Chris Kopach, assistant vice president for facilities management.

Kopach’s team wanted to capture the knowledge of its older facilities workers and develop a solid plan the aging infrastructure, he says.

So the university worked with a local mechanical engineering firm on building information modeling—or BIM, a 3D analysis of the tunnels. “We wanted to catalog every valve, every line, every area with asbestos,” he says, adding that they can now plan for maintenance and replacement.

3. Assuming tunnels aren’t cheap to build, what’s the ROI?

When Button takes colleagues on a tour of Regina’s utility tunnels, he’ll give a sales pitch about the need to financially support them. “It’s a real eye-opener for people to see qualitatively and quantitatively how expansive it is,” he says, adding that the “large initial upfront investment to build a tunnel system definitely pays dividends over the long run.”

Utilities piping within the tunnels is highly visible. “Even the smallest leakages are noticed right away,” says Emmett Boyle, Regina’s director of maintenance and utilities. Or, as Button puts it, “you pick it up at the one-drip level.” That means no big digs with a backhoe or putting staff into hazardous, confined spaces.

The buildings receiving utilities are dependent on them, says UW-Madison’s Vikili. “They can not live without steam or chilled water for long. It takes days for a huge steam pipe to be turned off and get cold enough for people to actually work on it.”

That’s why he advocates for spending money on redundant systems, as well.

4. Are these spaces safe?

For maintenance workers, safety means being able to get in and out of utility tunnels and having restricted unauthorized access. UW-Madison has 400 or so access points that are harder to enter than to exit—important during an emergency, Vikili says. The university recently invested over $7 million to upgrade the insulation on the steam pipes and increase worker safety.

With pedestrian tunnels, schools are going to great lengths to ensure the campus community feels safe.

System design is one measure. At Wright State, for example, the tunnels—open 24/7—connect the academic center of campus but not the residence halls, keeping the places where students live more secure, says Bauguess.

Good lighting, emergency phones and surveillance cameras are key tunnel safety features. In orientations for parents and students, Concordia includes information about tunnel surveillance and officer presence. “Parents love the fact that students are being watched,” says Mario Valdes, director of campus safety. Over his decade at the school, he says, there have only been two calls to campus safety from the tunnels.

At Concordia and Wright State, the campus community could use the tunnels as shelters if necessary. Wright State even has regular tornado drills there, says Bauguess.

5. If I go in, will I find my way back out?

Directional signage is another typical safety feature. Still, there can be a learning curve. Case in point: At Hibbard’s first week on the job at Concordia, “one of my student workers had to bring me back to my office,” he admits.

As Wright State’s Bauguess notes, it’s easy to lose your frame of reference underground. But at every intersection, there’s a list of buildings with arrows to help—and learning the system “becomes a badge of honor, like navigating the subways in New York City,” Bauguess says. Users with disabilities get extra guidance, says Webb, who estimates that about 120 current students use wheelchairs. There’s a Braille version of the map for the visually impaired.

Bauguess says the tunnels are like an underground highway, although the longer corridors, such as one about two football fields long, offer seating for those who need it.

In a tunnel that crosses under a quad at the University of Rochester, students are much more likely to be seen lingering—with paintbrushes. “It’s the only wall on campus students are allowed to paint,” says Fernandez, adding that the old paint is about an inch thick.

It’s tradition for the wall to advertise student events and spread awareness of issues. Nine out of 10 undergrads are involved in at least one student organization, says Laura Ballou, assistant dean of sophomores and a Rochester alum who has painted in the tunnel herself.

6. Why can’t I use a particular tunnel?

UW-Madison’s tunnels are like a mysterious underground city, and people get curious, says Vikili. In the past, students would get caught partying down there or homeless people would live in the tunnels. That led to an effort of securing access points.

It’s for good reason. “In some areas, it’s so hot your hands would burn if you touch a pipe,” he adds.

In places where utility tunnels may allow pedestrian access, the pipes are generally kept out of reach and tunnels get blocked off during maintenance.

Still, a few people outside of the facilities department do get to check out tunnels not open to the public.

Button says he’s given hundreds of tours of Regina’s utility tunnels—to students in his engineering graduate class and board members, for example. Last year during homecoming, says Boyle, three scheduled tours of about a dozen people allowed retired staff and faculty as well as others get a peek.

7. Should there be a bigger campus underground?

At most schools, including Rochester, decisions to build new tunnels as new buildings appear are made on a case-by-case basis. “If [buildings] are close together, doing short runs of tunnels makes a lot of sense,” says Fernandez. “If far apart, I believe it’s cost prohibitive.” Of their four new buildings in the past few years, only one project included a tunnel connection.

At the University of Arizona, “part of the analysis with new buildings is to look at the surrounding infrastructure,” says Kopach. Plant optimization is the goal. Even older buildings with standalone boilers or chillers may wind up getting connected to the power plant.

Related: Tunnels access: Perspective from a student with disabilities

With good planning, tunnel projects get started before the facility does. “A new building doesn’t come from the middle of nowhere,” says UW-Madison’s Vakili. “There’s a general idea of where new buildings are going to be situated.”

The department that takes on the cost depends on the project. Redundancy planning or maintenance and liability issues would generally be part of the facilities budget, Vakili says. “But if we need to extend a tunnel because a new pharmacy building is coming, the tunnel cost would be tied to that building.”

Tunnels are part of the bigger planning picture, so facilities departments can weigh in on which bucket gets dipped into. In all of these discussions, Vakili says, “we have a voice.”

Melissa Ezarik is managing editor of UB.

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