From the Director: Back in Backhoe Mode

The last remaining physical connection to our Peabody origins will soon be removed to make room for a new energy loop. Construction crews are coming to USN's corner of 19th and Edgehill Avenues in March.
By Vince Durnan, Director
It’s been half a decade since we toggled out of the construction projects that kicked off our Centennial celebration. The days of jackhammers and skill saws during classroom instruction now sit far back in the realm of memory for most of us who suffered those headaches, and the 50,000 square feet of improvements are a fact of life. So then, what’s the next test of our forbearance, the next contribution to posterity? Glad you asked.
Perhaps you’ve noticed the fencing on either side of Edgehill Avenue, turning the corner onto 19th Avenue. You may even have peered into the growing abyss, the beginnings of a hole slated to be fourteen feet deep. You may also notice similar work running the length of the Peabody College campus. There’s a preponderance of piping to behold, indicative of a massive infrastructure project. If you reached that conclusion, you’re right.
Let’s go back to go forward. In 1914, when Peabody moved from its original location near the present Howard School building downtown, the buildings relied on a system of steam heat, connected by tunnels, as did most colleges of that day. When our home, the then-Demonstration School, came online in 1925, its umbilical cord was a steam pipe that ran under Edgehill — and still does. That’s the last remaining physical connection to our Peabody origins. Hundred-year-old steam pipes start to fail, and such has been the worry for Vanderbilt and, in truth, for us at USN. We’ve since added boilers and geothermal systems to serve much of our newer space along the way, but as I type, we continue to use steam from that pipe, purchased in bulk from VU.
So when the time came to replace that legacy system with something more modern, energy efficient, and substantial, including both warm and cool water loops that would last for generations, there were decisions to be made about USN’s place in the picture. Would we go our own way, building systems here to accommodate that move, or might we remain part of the big neighborhood system? Not surprisingly, obvious benefits to scale would come along with hooking on to the new energy loop, but getting the work done would be no small task.
After weeks (and weeks) of meetings, and with Board support, we chose the harder short-term road that would lead to the far more attractive long-term result. Our VU neighbors offered to bring the service right to our building in exchange for a promise to be in essence a customer, paying our fair share similar to the other units of the University, for decades to come. It is, on several levels, a big deal. We get cheaper energy than we’d be able to buy on our own, through a system with far fewer moving parts, for the long haul, and greener than what we have had prior.
Practically, it’s a huge help for us, including the potential to serve our cooling needs as well when we choose to connect to that part of the loop. Philosophically, it confirms our fundamental partnership with our higher education neighbor, rather than ignoring this essential adjacency as we look into the school’s future. This decision may serve as an example for other mutually beneficial initiatives in coming decades.
But back to what this means for you, right now: 19th Avenue will remain open through the months of construction already begun, and soon the excavation will come to our side yard, then our front yard. It will get messy, though more in the summer than the spring, as the tie-in happens. Then we’ll need to do considerable work in our building to connect everything up. It’s a seven-figure project with a big long-range payback.
Part of the near term concern is safety on 19th. If you are part of the community of self-nominated creatives who park in barely-authorized or downright prohibited spots in or near the ROTC lot, then run through traffic to scoop up your kids and run back through traffic, hoping and trusting that no harm befalls you or your progeny, you gotta stop. Really, don’t do that — the sidewalk is closed and there are trucks all over, etc., etc. Please don’t try to hotwire hookup — doing so is an even worse idea than it has been all along. We’ll be extra vigilant at drop off and pick up times, but your help is deeply appreciated.
And if you’re wondering what might be next in the physical plant improvement category once we have this energy project in high gear, remember that we tend to toggle from Edgehill to the River Campus, and remember that we need infrastructure service there too. Stay tuned for announcements on that front, and of course if you are interested in being a funder for any of this work, the way our predecessors funded the campus we rely on daily, the campus they made possible for us, just let me know or reach out to my dear colleague Anne Westfall in the Development Office.
We are resolute in the commitment to leave this campsite better than we found it, and from my perspective, so far, so good. If you’re wondering, the space upstairs in Sperling is the last remaining area yet to undergo renovation/modernization. And I’d be surprised if it didn’t get some needed attention before long. But for right now cast your eyes on the corner of 19th and Edgehill.
Yours in the effort,
    • Music Night included a cameo by Director Vince Durnan.

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