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Chris Shay: Underground Secrets of SCU Construction

Chris Shay is the Assistant Vice President of Operations at Santa Clara, a role that spans a variety of planning and projects. Chris’ wide role includes working with Environmental Health and Safety, Facilities, Parking & Transportation, Sustainability SCU, Housekeeping, Archeology, Campus Safety, Utilities and Business Services. He is playing an especially key role in managing the construction process for new buildings on campus, including Finn Residence Hall and the Sobrato STEM campus.


In this conversation, Chris reveals the inside scoop on how construction projects get planned and executed. He talks about how his role requires looking 4,000 years at the past to preserve Native American culture that lies beneath SCU’s campus, all the way to 4,000 years in the future thinking about the long-term sustainability of facilities. We also discuss how physical spaces impact creativity, the most formational challenge of Chris’ career and how current construction projects will transform the campus over the next 10 years.

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Interview Highlights

Gavin Cosgrave: What does your job entail?


Chris Shay: Being in charge of projects here at a historical college like Santa Clara comes with its own special weight of doing projects well for the community and history of the place. Anything from the new residence hall to the stem building. We think of buildings as a family of facilities to tie together the campus environment.


I go to an incredible number of meetings. I go from what I consider 4,000 years in the past to 4,000 years in the future. I’m in charge of archaeology to sustainability. The Ohlone people first settled here 4000 years in the past; we have to preserve the historical culture of this place. All the way through sustainability… what will our children’s children’s children inherit?


GC: What are some of the aspects of planning buildings that students might not think about?

CS: To build in such a regulated environment of California, we spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about how the buildings will affect the environment. There’s a whole regulatory industry that you have to comply with so that your construction doesn’t impact the environment.


One of the areas I was impressed with when I came to Santa Clara five years ago was how much the students have an input. There was a student Patrick who actually influenced the shape of Finn Residence hall. The architect and Patrick worked back and forth and came up with the shape for Finn. There was student input that was part of that. We include students on committees for planning buildings.


GC: How does archeology influence the new STEM building?


CS: The soil underneath the campus is replete with an incredible archeological history. Every layer has an interesting story. On the STEM site, we’re finding an incredible amount of history associated with what they called the “Eberhard Tannery.” The first tannery of the mission was located on the STEM site. When the Germans came into live to the valley, they created Eberhard Tannery on the same site. The German buildings were built on a tannery which was built on another tannery.


GC: Are there any features of new buildings that make them more sustainable?


CS: Interestingly, laboratory buildings look similar to other buildings, but they use a massive amount of energy. One square foot of space in a laboratory is worth 9 square feet of space in a house. The mechanics of the STEM building has very cutting edge technologies for reducing energy.


GC: What has the most difficult part of planning the STEM building been?


CS: The most interesting challenge has been the conversation around the goal of the Sobrato campus, pulling together engineers, mathematicians and scientists into a community. A lot of people that do research and teaching do different things, so they need have spaces that reflect what they do, so bringing those together into one facility is challenging.


If you can bring them together, they can think about their problems together, and the hope is they can come away with different solutions. Bringing the physicality of those two groups together has been a fun challenge.


One of the areas I geek out on the most is creating a facility that creates those spontaneous connections between students. We specifically put the collaboration space by the large stairs in the center of the building. The idea is that faculty will have to walk past the student collaboration space and see them, so the spontaneous collaboration not only goes between researchers discussing topics, but we also want student to benefit. They are positioned to be able to grab a faculty and pull them aside to have a discussion. All of that comes together into one building.


GC: Can you tell the story of the meningitis outbreak a few years ago?

CS: For the students here at the time, the meningitis crisis was one of the most formative of my career, and I’ve been doing this for 25 years. It was a situation where on a Sunday, I was sitting at home and got a call from our emergency manager saying they thought they had gotten a case of meningitis. From that moment at 2:35 on a Sunday afternoon, we were on touch with the CDC and the county of Santa Clara. We opened up a clinic for all 5,400 students. For a comparison, UC Santa Barbara took seven months that we took about 48 hours to get to. We brought in doctors and nurses, we organized all the logistics of bringing students through. We sat every almost single student down in Leavey. It was an amazing week. I don’t think I’ve ever been that tired. It really was a truly community effort. We had vice presidents handing out stickers. We had students organizing students. It was one of the things I truly look back upon with great pride to be part of the community.


GC: How did you find this line of work?


CS: That takes me way back in time. I came home in pre-kindergarten and told my mother I wanted to be in construction and a police officer. She said, “well, you’ll have to choose.” Here I am 45 years later, and I didn’t have to choose – being in charge of campus safety as well as construction. I always say to our faculty, staff and students: we aren’t in the business of building buildings, we’re in the business of supporting programs. We think a lot about service.

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