True Lab Stories: Demolition Men

This is actually sort of a pre-lab story, as it happened before my lab in grad school was even established. It pre-dates my time at NIST, and happened long enough ago that the statute of limitations has surely run out, so I feel safe telling it.

The lab I worked in in grad school was acquired by the group a couple of years before I got there. It had previously been used by a group doing something involving wet chemisty, so there were lots of benches and sinks and other things that we didn't need or want in a laser lab.

They brought in the NIST facilities crew, and asked them how much it would cost to have the room renovated to remove all that stuff. The answer they got back was completely outlandish-- thousands of dollars, way more than they had available in the group budget.

Of course, they couldn't let prime lab real estate completely go to waste. So, a guy who was a grad student before me and one of the permanent staff in the group took care of the problem.

They stayed late every night, and went into the lab with hammers. They broke up the benches, ripped out the cabinets, pulled out the sinks, and generally destroyed everything in the room. They broke stuff down into small-ish pieces, and carted it down to the dumpster on the loading dock a little at a time, after everyone else had gone home.

After about a month of this, the room was down to bare walls with a few pipes sticking out of the wall. Then they called in the facilities staff again, and asked them how much it would cost to cap off the water and gas lines that were all that was left from the original lab.

Group legend had it that they got the same estimator sent out to look at the job, who was a little startled to find the room empty...

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Sort of reminds me of when i was in grad school and we needed to run some high-pressure helium lines and 30A 3-phase power cable from our lab to an outdoor balcony where we wanted to put our cryocooler compressors. After trying repeatedly to get our physics dept's facilities people to drill the holes in the walls, my advisor finally just asked me to do it.

So I did. Of course, drilling a 1.5" hole through cinder block with a regular (non-hammer) drill and a masonry auger takes time and is exhausting, so I did it in stages, usually after everyone in facilities had gone home.

Everything was going fine, until one evening I forgot to put the drill away and left it on the balcony...where it was spotted by someone in facilities. The building manager apparently was INFURIATED that someone was drilling holes in his building, so he went to my advisor to chew him out. My advisor's response was, basically, "I kept asking you to do it but you never did. What was I supposed to do?"

They finished the holes for me.

In my building we are the only ones who have an accurate set of blueprints. When we need something done, we do it, add it to the plans and if anyone from Facilities asks ... "Oh, that? It's always been like that. I think you installed it back in '82."

Nowadays you could presumably put it all up on Craigslist and it would be gone inside 2 days.

(What can I say, I've been renovating. The "Eeek! Don't throw that out! Someone can use that!" instinct is very strong.)

Twenty five years ago, I worked at a CSIRO division in Australia. One day a couple of painters were putting the finishing touches on a new partition wall built to subdivide a large lab. A pair of carpenters came in and asked

"When will you finish painting that?"

"This afternoon. Why?"

"We want to know when the paint will be dry, because we have to knock it down."