Community college building costs come under fireWritten by Becky Johnson
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Haywood Community College leaders say county commissioners are unfairly accusing them of overspending on a new $10.2 million complex where arts and crafts will be taught.
Last week, Commissioner Kevin Ensley called it the most expensive building per square foot that he has ever seen in the county.
Now, HCC has dug up research to show that its creative arts building will cost less than similar construction at other community colleges in the state.
Ensley had compared HCC’s cost per square foot to that of recent construction projects in Haywood County, including the new jail, justice center and Bethel Elementary School. But HCC countered that community colleges are subject to stringent new state energy standards that lead to higher expenses. Plus, the craft trades require specialized equipment, from a $15,000 dust collection system for the woodworking shop to a $16,000 pottery wheel.
“I think the main thing is that everyone is talking about the same thing when they’re talking about the cost,” said Debbie Trull, director of administrative services. “It can be complex, and it can be confusing.”
But Commissioner Mark Swanger said Ensley’s comparisons are valid, even though they include different types of buildings.
“Every construction project has special features,” Swanger said. “In a school for example, you have a whole restaurant inside it. The jail, of course, has a complete security system.”
HCC claims that state requirements for energy efficiency could have added as much as 4 percent to the construction cost. The energy-hungry pottery kilns, welding equipment and shop tools made it especially costly to meet state guidelines — forcing the college to install more energy saving features than normal to offset their high energy use.
At a board of trustees meeting last Wednesday, HCC claimed that its new facility would cost $203.97 per square foot. According to HCC’s research, the average total project costs for such buildings are $283 per square foot statewide.
HCC also cited a national study conducted by McGraw-Hill that showed construction at colleges routinely costs 160 percent higher than K-12 schools.
“We need to be comparing apples to apples, instead of apples to oranges,” said HCC President Rose Johnson.
But County Commissioner Kevin Ensley said the college is the one that’s not comparing apples to apples.
“What they are doing is dancing around the numbers,” Ensley said.
To come up with a square foot cost of $203.97, the college omitted architect fees and site preparation and used only the estimated cost of the construction contract. But when taking the total project into consideration, the cost is $245 a square foot: $10.2 million for 41,000 square feet.
As for numbers from other colleges, HCC factored in the total project cost, including architect fees and site preparation — creating an unparallel comparison to its own numbers.
When Ensley was doing his comparison of recent construction projects, he used the total project cost — even if that meant factoring in the cost of buying land and putting in a septic system in the case of the new Bethel school.
Ensley said HCC is pushing the envelope on environmentally-friendly features for the new building and that’s what is driving up the costs. The building as planned would likely qualify for the “platinum” level green building designation.
“I think they want a platinum building, and we aren’t in a platinum economy right now,” Ensley said. “Some of these initiatives are extremely expensive.”
But HCC leaders say that isn’t the case, according to pricing they’ve done on the building with and without the green features.
Trull maintains that the college has already tried to be as cost-conscious as possible, but it won’t initiate a total redesign to please commissioners.
“The design is at the point where it would cost money to go back,” said Trull.
But Ensley said it is not hard for a contractor bidding on the project to provide a baseline cost estimate along with a separate breakdown of extras, Ensley said. Ensley wants county staff to review the construction documents and see if there are potential savings.
“I’m going to continue looking at it,” Ensley said.
Ultimately, county commissioners have to approve the college’s loan on the building. It will be paid for with revenue from a special quarter cent sales tax. County voters approved the special tax in 2008 for the express purpose of funding community college expansion.
It brings in enough each year to cover payments on 15-year $12 million loan, which is more than enough to pay for the creative arts building. But the college has a wish-list of other expansion projects it hopes to fund with sales tax money. Commissioners would like to see the money stretched further.
“I don’t want to see $10.2 million eaten up by this one building,” Ensley said.
Swanger and Ensley didn’t say whether they would hold veto the project if costs aren’t brought down, but they aren’t satisfied at this point. Swanger said he will keep an open mind and is eager to hear whatever new information the college plans to present.
“We all want this to work,” Swanger said. “We want the community college to have good, updated, safe facilities. That’s the reason we are looking closely at this. We want the money to go as far as it can to reach that goal.”
Haywood Community College researched construction costs at five other colleges that spent far more on their buildings, including:
• Alamance Community College, which spent $301 per square foot for its technology center.
• Catawba Valley Community College, which spent $226 per square foot for industrial and technical building.
• Wilson Community College, which spent $320 per square foot on a heath & technology building.