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Planning under way for new science building at WCU

fr wcusciencebuildingWith the N.C. Connect bond passed, Western Carolina University is moving forward with plans to bring a $110 million natural sciences building from vision to reality.

“We see this building as a key part of economic development in the Western part of the state,” WCU Chancellor David Belcher said while campaigning for the referendum vote that provided funding for the project. 

The existing natural sciences building was built in the 1970s, too small to accommodate today’s volume of majors in science programs and too antiquated to house the sensitive scientific instruments students need experience using to succeed in the workforce. 

By the end of the month, said Director of Facilities Management Joe Walker, WCU leadership will be meeting with their top choices of the 19 designers who bid on the project. From there, they’ll decide which will be best suited to carry out the task. 

“For this project you really need that specialized lab consultant, lab designer,” Walker said. “You also need a good mechanical designer on the project as well.” 

Most of the firms that applied are based in North Carolina, he said. Once WCU decides which one to hire, it will take a year, year-and-a-half for the design work to wrap up — Walker expects to break ground in the first half of 2018.

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“It’s going to be a phased construction with demolition components to it, so you’re looking at easily a 2021 completion,” he said. 

The trick will be allowing for continuity of classes while the construction goes forward, said Mike Byers, WCU’s vice chancellor of administration and finance. The university doesn’t have any alternative space to house those science labs. 

“Our plan is to continue to offer classes in the current facility while new construction occurs immediately adjacent to it,” Byers said. “Then we plan to move into the new space, allowing us to demolish the old building and rebuild on the same site.”

Walker said the building design will focus on sustainability but won’t necessarily vie for LEED certification, the flagship certification for green buildings. 

“Our budget’s going to be very tight on this,” Walker said. “We will certainly pursue sustainable practices in the facility, but there is a cost to pursuing certification.” 

With $110 million allocated for the project, the natural sciences building was the single largest item listed in the $2 billion N.C. Connect Bond. However, constructing a specialized science building is expensive, and the university doesn’t have any additional funding sources to supplement — they’ll have to stick to the $110 million.

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