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Wednesday, 11 January 2012 14:00

Architect mix-up over HCC project begs the question: can water run uphill?

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Haywood Community College has hit a nearly $227,000 roadblock during the construction of it new creative arts building.

The $10.2 million building — a controversial project to begin with — will tap into contingency funds for the project to pay for previously unforeseen gaps in the architect’s plans. Contingency money is built into the price tag at the beginning of a project in case added costs arise.

“The reason you have a contingency is in case something crazy happens. That is the whole point,” said Bill Dechant, director of campus development. Dechant was hired recently as an in-house architect, a common position at state universities with nearly constant construction project but a somewhat new trends at the community college level.

The $226,901 expenditure will pay for the purchase of a new water pump and an outdoor shed to house the mechanism.

It became apparent in July that a pump would be needed to create sufficient water pressure for the building’s sprinkler system.

The architect firm hired to design the building had their engineers test the pressure in water lines on campus during the planning phase. The problem, however, is the pressure was tested down the hill from where the new building is located, Dechant said.

As water flows up the hill to the new building, it loses pressure, a fact the architect did not factor into his plans, Dechant said.

“Anyone who works in the mountains know if you take water pressure (at the bottom of the hill) and it has to go uphill several hundred feet, it is not going to be the same,” Dechant said.

Dechant explained the problem to county commissioners at their meeting this week, as county commissioners ultimately would have to sign off a change order to tap into the contingency funds.

Commissioner Kevin Ensley agreed that Raleigh-based architect Mike Nicklas should have taken the hillside position of the building into account.

“It is just common,” Ensley said. “It is always good to have an architect that is familiar with mountain construction.”

If the problem is not fixed, the building cannot open. All structures are required to have functioning sprinkler systems.

“Time is of the essence,” Dechant said. “This change order really needs to move.”

Even if the problem had been included in the project’s blueprints originally, the county would end up paying a similar amount for the pump at the beginning rather than on the backend.

Commissioners queried how the current added cost was tabulated.

The general contractor submitted five proposals before a price was settled on.

“We have been through several iterations of this design,” Dechant said.

The college negotiated a $100,000 decrease from what the contractor originally sought.

“We have about massaged this as much as we can,” Dechant said. “It is about as economical as we think we can do.”

Commissioners approved the change order but questioned how the oversight could have happened.

“Why wasn’t this done at such time the design would have accommodated this?” inquired Mark Swanger, chair of the county commissioners.

“That’s my question,” chimed in Commissioner Bill Upton.

The community college is currently trying to find out how such a costly slip-up occurred.

“We are in the process of trying to figure out who really drop the ball,” Dechant said. “The college feels like we are not responsible for that, that this is a design error. We are going through the correct procedures to solve that and figure out where responsibility lies.”

At the end of the job if there is evidence that the architect was negligent, Dechant said, the college would negotiate that at the end of the contract.

What is the outside architect saying about the bungle, asked Commissioner Mike Sorrells.

In the architect’s defense, he thought that a campus-wide water improvement project carried out last year would remedy any water pressure issue the the creative arts building might have, Dechant said.

Both the college and the architect plan to submit summary statements — their own version of events — to the state construction office.

Prior to the snafu, the college had a contingency budget of more $600,000. If the project changes are approved, the budget will drop to $365,198.

Dechant could not promise the commissioners that this would be the last of the change orders.

“I am sure there will be small change orders that come along. There always are,” he said. “I don’t think there will be any more change orders of the significance we are talking about. That said, I would never stand up here and guarantee anything.”

For community colleges, approving change orders can be a lengthy process. First, the project managers must get approval from the college’s Board of Trustees before presenting the issue to the county commissioners. The last step is to apply to the state construction office for permission to change a project’s costs and parameters.

Dechant said he did not know how the county or college would spend any remaining contingency funds if they go unused.

In addition to the cost of the water pump itself, the college may end up shelling out more funds in overhead costs to the contractor, who said construction will be delayed because of the error. If the contractor can prove that the change order held up construction, then HCC will pay more than $1,000 for each day that the construction schedule extended beyond what the workers were require to do.

 

‘Biggest project we’ve ever undertaken’

The commissioners and college administrators battled for months about the scope of the creative arts building project. Commissioners insisted that the college slash the price of its plans, while administrators argued that the building construction and amenities had been whittled down enough already. The new facility will house studio and classroom space for students studying the creative arts, such as pottery and woodwork.

Both groups eventually settled on the current $10.2 million cost. Money to pay for the new building is coming from a quarter-cent sales tax approved by county voters more than four years ago to fund improvements to Haywood Community College’s campus.

“This is the biggest project we’ve ever undertaken at Haywood Community College,” Dechant said. Construction of the building, which is still expected to conclude in early May, is about halfway complete.

The building will feature a number of green initiatives, including rainwater harvesting, solar thermal energy and Energy Star photocopiers.

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