Excitement builds over new University of Lethbridge building — and no, the old one isn't sinking

Provost dispels rumours old university building is "sinking" by noting he doesn't have a rope ladder to throw out the window.

'The science facilities ... have lagged behind what you’d find at many high schools,' says provost

Brian Sullivan has been working on Destination Project for 3.5 years. Construction began in May 2016 and is due to be completed in spring 2019. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)

As the University of Lethbridge celebrates its 50th birthday this year, it is heralding the advancement of its research facilities with the construction of a new science facility — and no, it's not because the old building is sinking.

University Hall, an iconic U of L structure that overlooks the Old Man River, is one of three structures set to be vacated when the new science facility opens in the fall of 2019.

While it will need "major" renovations, there's no risk it will be demolished or, as rumour has it, fall into the river, according to provost Andrew Hakin.

What to do with the vacated space will form Phase 2 of the project, and present big opportunities for the arts programs at the school.

Currently in its first phase, the Destination Project will see construction of a new, $280-million science and research facility — one of the biggest ventures underway in the city. 

"The science facilities at the University of Lethbridge, for many years, have lagged behind what you'd find at many high schools," said Hakin.

"Having said that, our colleagues working in the sciences have done a tremendous job in what they do with those facilities. But it's just not the way science is done anymore." 

Provost Andrew Hakin says he thinks the new building will help bring a new energy and excitement for science to the university. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)

The construction of the new building is something that has been pushed for decades, Hakin said.

Formal work on the building started nearly four years ago, led by Destination Project program director Brian Sullivan.

"It's the biggest project that I've ever done," Sullivan said. "In fact, if you add up all of the other projects [I've worked on], which is nine or 10, it still doesn't total the entire value or size of this project." 

Need for the project was driven by demand from both faculty and students, as well as the growing capacity of the school — both in terms of student population and research demands. 

Rumours of a slippery demise exaggerated

As for the rumours of the University Hall sinking into the river, Hakin said that's simply not the case.

"It's one of the tales about Lethbridge: 'Oh yeah, they have the university that's sliding into the river.' No, no, it's not," he said.

"It's not to say we don't keep a careful eye on the positioning of the building and the coulees, but that's one of those tales you just come to smile at."

Hakin said he still feels perfectly safe in his office overlooking the river.

"I don't yet have a rope ladder to throw out the window," he said. 

New building will merge disciplines

The building is designed primarily out of concrete to protect the research equipment, which is often sensitive to vibrations. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)

Hakin's excitement about the new facility is palpable. He hopes it heralds a change in attitude about science and accessibility to it. 

"What we fail to do as scientists is to tell the story more often of why this is important. This new building allows us to put a lot of what we do on display," he said. 

"Scientists don't always wear white coats. There's good stuff happening that is fundamentally changing the world we live in, and we're a part of it."

The design of the building promotes cohesion between departments, Sullivan said. Where it used to take more to reconfigure a space for a research project, in the new building it should be cut down to a few weeks.

Growth of university and city go hand in hand

The 2016 academic year saw record enrolment, reaching more than 8,600 students. That's up from less than 4,000 in the 1980s. 

​The school also gets a ringing endorsement from Lethbride Mayor Chris Spearman, who had four of his own kids attend the university. 

"It's exciting for the city of Lethbridge. These are high quality jobs, and it's a great opportunity for students," he said.

"By no means is this an ivory tower institution. These are people who are involved in every aspect of our city."


Sarah Lawrynuik is a freelance journalist who reports on climate change and conflict and is currently based in London, UK. She's covered news stories across Canada and from a dozen countries around the world, including Ukraine, Hungary, France and Iraq. She has also worked for CBC News in Halifax, Winnipeg and Calgary.