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Chronicle Messages

How Firm a Foundation?
Spring 2000
PDF Version

A fond memory from 50 years ago is of a small mountain congregation at Rhoades Methodist Church in Afton, Va., singing the old hymn How Firm a Foundation. My grandmother's place was down at the front of the little church in a few pews designated for the choir, and I sat there -- for safe keeping -- beside her. That hymn has been much on my mind during the last months of 1999 and the early days of the new year. As readers of the Chronicle know, the foundation of the north end of Krannert Center began to settle in early October, and within two weeks, an area under the post office had subsided a little more than two feet. First we discovered cracks in a few walls and an office door that would not shut. Then the cracks became wider. We responded as we had in other instances of settling at the Ford Buildings, Westcott, and Evans Hall, and began grouting operations to stabilize the area under the building. In the meantime, we moved the occupants from the north end to other locations, and soon thereafter, relocated others who had offices on the top floor.

This subsidence or sinkhole problem turned out to be a serious matter. Our contractors pumped grout around the clock for more than two weeks, followed by another three weeks of work during normal hours. By the end of the process, workers had pumped 10,300 cubic yards of grout under the building, stabilizing the affected area and allowing us to determine the best way to repair the damage. The settling had caused great stress to structural elements on the north end which led to damaged walls and ceilings, and some obvious damage to portions of the exterior of the building. The south end of Krannert remained safe, and the post office and bookstore quickly moved into portions of the ballroom, as did the Valhalla snack bar. Our food service operations on the south end of the first floor were able to continue. Part of the ballroom became a temporary student lounge. Following the end of pumping operations, workers shored up the floors in the affected part of the building and began removing damaged walls and sections of flooring. Early in January, our architects began meeting with campus representatives about plans for repairs. We expect to have Krannert fully in operation by the beginning of classes in August 2000.

Three-quarters of Krannert is fine. Before repairs began, about 25 percent of the building looked as if an earthquake had hit. We had never previously encountered structural damage of the sort we experienced this past fall. Indeed, in every previous case, grouting operations -- pressure pumping a highly permeable form of concrete into Swiss cheese-like voids under our buildings -- had halted subsidence and prevented damage.

A century ago, the main part of our campus was built upon limestone formations which can be weakened by fluctuations in the water table. Contrasting wet and dry periods may lead ultimately to subsidence and sinkholes. The local water table is at a record low level because of a sustained drought. Geologists tell us that in addition to the drought, the local quarry probably affected the water table in the past, as did several drainings of Victory Lake during repairs a dozen years ago. The quarry is now filling with water, but the drought lingers. (The quarry will shut down all operations this year and will clean up the site before moving away in 2001.) We have experienced sinkholes in this area for many years, including one near the Krannert site that was recorded on a 1931 map of the campus. Recent sinkhole activity coincides with the drainings of the lake and the extremely dry conditions that have affected us over the past 12 years. We have to face up to it: from time to time, subsidence will be part of life at Berry College.

From now on, however, new buildings will not be affected by subsidence. Across the street from Krannert, our new science building is rising impressively. This building is constructed upon 124 caissons -- huge, reinforced concrete columns -- which rest well below the surface upon bedrock. It is as if the science building stands upon stilts that are buried beneath it. How firm a foundation? As strong as it can be!

Staff members and students who had offices in Krannert also showed strength during the emergency. With student and volunteer assistance, the post office moved its entire operation over a weekend. On Monday morning, mail was ready for everyone. The student newspaper moved into a few small offices and large closets in a nearby building and never missed an issue. The bookstore continued its work elsewhere, as did Valhalla, the housing office, the chaplain, and career services. Our police officers and plant operations staff members worked around the clock in support of the efforts that went on to prevent further damage from occurring. I am proud of my co-workers and filled with admiration for their resilience.

Everyone has to live with geology. Downtown Rome sits upon Rome mudstone. No skyscrapers for our fair city. Much of Floyd County and a good portion of Berry property are underlaid with sandstone and shale, although the county also has its share of limestone. Wherever there is limestone, one can predict some subsidence. We are experimenting with sonar and other electronic means to determine where settling is likely to occur, although old fashioned "waiting and watching" remains a good approach. We look for cracks and sticking doors and respond immediately if there are problems. The Rome News-Tribune recently wrote that "There is reason to believe the limestone beneath Berry will soon stabilize. The drought will end. The quarry is closing up and in a few years there will be a huge lake in its place that adds to the water in the surrounding rock. ... And Berry will doubtless continue to plug holes as fast as they appear."

Our character and seriousness of purpose will enable us to make our peace with Mother Nature and the geology of the ground beneath our feet. Indeed, rather than looking down, we should be looking up, counting our blessings, and working even harder to meet our educational goals. When the words of How Firm a Foundation come back in my memory, I am powerfully aware of the strong moral foundation upon which this college was built. We have met other challenges -- and prevailed. We will prevail this time as well. I will let you know if we have other serious problems with subsidence in the future.

Dr. Scott Colley
Berry College President

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