Snow Big Deal

March 20, 2015
The snowiest winter on record presented new challenges for Harvard Art Museums’ facilities and operations staff, many workers putting in long hours clearing more than 500 tons of snow from the brand-new roof.

Even though spring officially arrives today, there’s still plenty of evidence that this was Boston’s snowiest winter on record. Many of our winter-weary friends and visitors have asked: How did the museums’ brand-new roofs handle the load?

The answer: “Amazingly well,” said Peter Atkinson, director of facilities planning and management. “We didn’t have any problems.”

Of course, when it came to clearing off snow, Atkinson said, “We were in the same situation as the rest of New England”—meaning facilities and operations staff, as well as additional hired workers, put in many long days and nights of shoveling. “The snow load was never a concern, since the roof is built to hold a tremendous amount of weight, but we were being proactive in getting the weight off the structure,” Atkinson said, noting that clearing the snow also helped provide more natural light inside the museums.

Snow generally slides off the sloped glass roof, but it still accumulates in large quantities because it falls onto the flat roof above the third floor. In late February, the museums hired a crew of 12 workers from Arch Painting to clear the snow from that roof. It took them two full days.

All told—and by conservative estimates—the 100-plus inches of snow this winter necessitated the removal of more than 500 tons. Assistant facilities manager Mike Eigen oversaw the seemingly unending task, which also involves keeping all roof drains clear, and roof hatches and stairs open, as well as maintaining walkable paths for access to rooftop equipment.

The safety of visitors, staff, and pedestrians is always of highest concern for the facilities team, so even more important than clearing the roof is keeping public throughways free of snow or ice. With three of the museums’ four sides situated alongside busy sidewalks and streets, it’s not an option to simply brush snow onto surfaces below. Workers had to pile it onto tarps and drag it to the (normally grassy) area behind the museums, facing the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts.

This responsibility, coupled with rooftop snow removal, led some staff to log heroic hours. Maintenance technicians Paul Correia and Dennis Lesse, along with a number of custodians, twice stayed overnight at the museums to keep up with the snowfall.

The team is confident they and the building will be able to handle whatever inclement weather nature throws at them next—particularly after the success of their proactive efforts this winter. “We’re well prepared for spring and beyond,” Atkinson said.

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