Case Studies

JoAnn Rife – UW-Oshkosh

Chief facilities officer moves UW-Oshkosh toward sustainability

At the center of the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh campus sits a beige, two-story building known as Polk Library. While the tree-lined library looks serene from the outside, its infrastructure—which dates to the 1960s—has literally become an explosive issue for the university community.

When it was constructed, Polk used what’s known as a two-pipe mechanical system, in which the same pipes that carry chilled water for cooling during the summer also transport high-pressure steam for heating during the winter. Over the years, that caused a lot of wear, leading the university to file insurance claims over exploding pipes.

JoAnn Rife | Chief Facilities Officer | UW-Oshkosh

JoAnn Rife | Chief Facilities Officer | UW-Oshkosh

JoAnn Rife, the university’s chief facilities officer, is now overseeing an evaluation of whether to demolish or repurpose the library—and the building’s pipes aren’t all that’s being scrutinized. As he explains, libraries must now offer more digital resources and fewer paper ones. There’s a need for outlets and Wi-Fi as much as nooks for reading and shelves for books.

“I think most of us feel that it’s probably going to make the most sense to actually tear down the building and build a smaller one,” Rife says. “You don’t necessarily need the same number of books that you previously had.”

Seriously sustainable

If a new library is built, it can be more energy efficient than the old one, and that would connect to the university’s effort to be greener.

To that end, Rife oversaw the design and construction of Sage Hall, an academic building. The 191,257 square-foot facility includes photovoltaic solar panels, solar thermal hot water generation, and a green roof that reduces the volume and speed of runoff and prevents the water from becoming acidic. It also has natural materials used for the finishes on the interior.

JoAnn Rife | Chief Facilities Officer | UW-Oshkosh

The building itself is oriented to absorb natural light even in winter. Rife’s team even designed it to have a courtyard so that natural light permeates the center of the edifice as well as its perimeter. Though a full four stories tall, the $5 million building took less than two years to build and was completed in July 2011. It was the first new academic building constructed on the campus since 1971.

“Academic buildings like Sage Hall are the heart and soul of learning for our students,” Rife says. “As such, they need to be the physical embodiment and learning lab of our campus sustainability strategic goal.”

Competing to conserve

That’s not the only green project Rife has overseen at the university. Horizon Village, a suite-style residence hall completed 2012, has a geothermal heating and cooling system, which draws from the temperature in the ground through loops of piping that circulate liquid from underground throughout the building.

The building includes a green roof that provides insulation in winter and natural cooling through evaporation in the summer, and which is supplied with reused water. Rife and her team also reused limestone from the previous halls on that site to create the exterior patio and indoor fireplace.

JoAnn Rife | Chief Facilities Officer | UW-Oshkosh

Like Sage Hall, the building’s rooms stay bright during the day because of south-facing windows. The suites are even set up so that residents can compete with one another to see who has the best energy use. Residence Life coordinates the competitions through a monitoring station located behind the first-floor front desk, and Facilities Management reads the meters through the Building Automation System they installed.

Today, with the library project looming, Rife says day-to-day operations have been taking up most of her time. The university recently completed a study looking into outsourcing the custodial and grounds departments. While the 30-day analysis concluded that UW-Oshkosh should keep the departments in-house, Rife is making some changes.

For example, she’s asking staff to do fewer odd jobs, like moving people’s furniture, and more tasks that are central to their job descriptions, such as daily cleaning.

“We need to do our real job first, and then we can help out with the rest,” Rife says.

Proud parent

If Rife is proud of her work, she’s also proud of the two kids she’s raised at home. Her daughter is a special education teacher who loves her job, while her son is about to graduate from UW-Madison—her alma mater and the university’s flagship school—with a degree in kinesiology.

“I’m very happy to see both my kids be very successful at what they do,” Rife says.

While she has a bachelor of science in interior design from UW-Madison, Rife started her career in high-end furniture sales. In 1997, she became a corporate interior designer at Wisconsin Office Interiors. A job with the state Department of Workforce Development followed, then another with the Department of Administration in 1999, where she oversaw the re-organization and renovations of Department of Administration-owned office buildings in Wisconsin.

JoAnn Rife | Chief Facilities Officer | UW-Oshkosh

Joining UW-Oshkosh in 2001 as an AutoCAD specialist, Rife worked her way up to director of planning and construction, then co-director of facilities management before ascending to her current role in 2020. It’s been a long climb, but Rife is happy in Oshkosh—even when exploding library pipes make her job a headache.

“Inside and outside of our university’s built environment are opportunities for our students, faculty and staff to consider sustainability,” Rife says. “At UW-Oshkosh, we have developed the campus as a living-learning laboratory where we engage and empower students and other stakeholders to maximize their understanding of, and ability to act on, the sustainability challenges of our time.”

View this feature in the Blueprint Vol. II 2023 Edition here.

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