Earlier this afternoon, President Biddy Martin emailed the College community, announcing that the administration and Board of Trustees have decided to halt the College’s current science center construction, and move it from the anticipated Merrill site to an alternative location.
According to President Martin, the decision was reached after extensive debate after Facilities staff announced to her a month ago that there was an accumulation of issues with the plans; they recommended not going forward with the current plan.
“There are a number of complexities that have had the cumulative effect of making this the right decision, but the two primary reasons are, first, the escalation in cost, which went to a point where we thought it wasn’t fiscally responsible to keep going, and the second is that it was going to cause an unacceptable extent of disruption for faculty research, teaching and student life,” President Martin said in an interview earlier today.
Worries about the project started when bids for the contracts kept coming in based off the architecture plans, and the cost for the project continued to rise.
“We were getting more real, hard numbers now — before we only had estimates that were based on the concept, more rough design. Now we had exact, detailed architectural plans, and construction folks were going out to their subcontractors and getting exact numbers, and every one of those numbers [was] coming in higher [than previously thought],” said Dean of the Faculty Gregory Call. “We were also getting feedback about how complex the project is. It made us worry about not only what we received so far, but about the potential for costs to continue increasing.”
The complications that arose due to the location of the Merrill site was another worry and concern.
“I don’t think there could be a more complicated site [than the Merrill site]. It is a very complicated site and it dictated the design. We had a great architect, Stefan Behnisch, who delivered a really spectacular design for that site,” President Martin said. “But the site requires a complexity of design and has ultimately driven the cost to a place where it just doesn’t seem wise to continue.”
The project was also complicated by the phased nature of the construction: the plan for the first phase was to build three quarters of the new center and the second phase would be to take down Merrill.
“The execution of the project was complicated too,” Dean Call said. “As we got into it we learned how much more complex that was going to be and how challenging it would be to accomplish safely and in a way that would minimize disruption to the scientists that were going to be moving into the new science center.”
Although the rising costs played a major role in this decision, the feedback received by the administration about the disruption also influenced the decision. In addition, the administration learned that disruption caused by the construction would be more than previously expected.
“We learned only in the last couple of months that, because of the complexity of the building, they were going to have to be doing construction six days a week instead of five and it was going to be 10 hours a day. So for at least two to three years everyone in the social dorm area and in King and Wieland would be hearing dump truck beeps and jackhammering 10 hours a day, six days a week. Now you’ve got student life in general completely disrupted for the duration of some people’s entire time at Amherst, because it would last four years potentially,” President Martin said. “It’s the accumulative effect of a whole set of things that turned the tide, and cost and disruption are the two major ones.”
Moving forward the College has halted all construction and is currently looking at alternative sites that would cause less disruption and be less expensive. One current imagined alternative is to put the new science center on east campus, where some of the socials are now.
“Because we recognize the socials need to be replaced, one option is to move forward with that first and then to use part of the east campus where the socials sit as the site,” Dean Call said.
If the administration chose to pursue that option, new dorms to replace the social dorms would have to be built. Possible locations for these include what is currently alumni lot, building another dorm on the Hill, building another dorm near Humphries House or another dorm near Newport or Seligman.
“Students are going to be extensively consulted on the kinds of space they want, because I know the suite style is very popular,” Dean Call said.
“That will be the fun and interesting part, to be able to involve students and get going on the dorms even sooner than we would have with the other plan,” President Martin said.
Another possible option would be to place the new science center east of King and Wieland, covering some of what is currently soccer fields.
There are still a lot of studies to be done and it will take at least two years before construction begins.
“In those two years, we would, if say we move to an east campus site, use that period to build dorms so that the social dorms can be taken down, which they need to be anyway, and the trailers can be replaced,” President Martin said. “The first step would not be just getting a design architect and picking a site for the new science building but solving the student life and residential life issues.”
Within the next two weeks, as part of the strategic planning process, the College will hire a planning architecture firms.
“They will come to campus and their task is to take a holistic view of the campus and its development going forward. Their hiring is unrelated to this decision and has been in the works
for months and would have happened even if we had gone forward,” President Martin said. “Now that the decision has been made, they’ll be charged with having as their first task the siting of a new science building and the development of a plan for the dorms. That will be a process that involves input from the community.”
The administration still expects construction to be completed by 2018, due to the new projects single-stage nature on an easier construction site.
“One of the things we learned getting into the project, and we knew this to some extent going in but the time frame got extended, was that it’s a two- or three-phase project where we would build most of the new science center, take Merrill down and then build the rest. Because of those stages it would take a very long time to complete all that construction and deconstruction and that was supposed to be a four-year process. So as we got into this — and this was part of the new information — we recognized that that schedule was going to take even longer than we originally thought it would. The project would instead have taken us until fall of 2018,” Dean Call said. “So now with four years time, even with planning and making these decisions and taking care of the social dorms and maybe a two-year construction period with the science center on a clear site, we will be able to get that done.”
The new project will also be less complicated in that now all those currently in Merrill will only have to move once.
Keeping Merrill instead of knocking it down will also provide the College the opportunity to move forward with other construction projects.
“Right now we have no swing space. We have a lot of big projects that people feel the need to have done over the next five to 10 years. Replace Frost, expand Mead, I mean there are a lot of different examples. Right now we have no swing space, so how would you do that? How would you redo Frost with all the people in the library,” President Martin said. “This will give us the option, once the scientists move out, of having the swing space so that we can get going on other projects. Whether Merrill will stay forever remains to be seen. But McGuire would then open up to some of the areas that are in dire need of space in the humanities.”
The administration also plans on improving Merrill immediately now that the scientists will not be moving for a few more years.
“Facilities will move immediately to see what improvements can be made so teaching and research can go on safely in Merrill for the next few years,” President Martin said.
However, President Martin admits that there are some upsetting elements to this announcement.
“About $19 million have already been spent so far on the science center project, some of which is recoverable and the College will get back in the form of the work that has been done to figure out what we need in the sciences, but some of it we won’t,” President Martin said. “But if you look at it in terms of the amount we would have spent above what we had anticipated and if we can build the building on a clear site that is more cost effective for the same amount of net square feet then it will have been a wise decision financially.”
President Martin also expressed regret at the timing of the announcement relative to room draw.
“I am really sorry that we didn’t know what we know now sooner and that we couldn’t get to the decision point in time for room draw. That is really a shame, and there is no way to negate that. I would be upset too,” President Martin said. “Unfortunately, we knew when we knew. The hard bids started coming in when they started coming in, and the disruption to scientists in Merrill occurred when it occurred, but the timing is very unfortunate.”
President Martin, however, stated her strong belief that this is the right choice to make.
“We think it’s good news. I mean, it’s never great news to get a certain way into a project and then change course necessarily, but it’s the right thing to do, it’s the right decision and it’s going to make more possible,” President Martin said. “Everyone involved has acted in complete good faith from the beginning. I mean, I wasn’t here for the decision about the site or the design, but I know from reviewing everything and being here for almost two years that everyone acted in good faith and it just happened as it happened. The decision that our facilities staff reached about coming forward — which takes a lot of integrity and guts to come to the president and say ‘you told us to be honest no matter what and we’re telling you that we think; we need to change course’ — would give me a lot of faith if I was a student or faculty member or staff that people here will do that. Good people with good will made the decision four years ago and good people with good will are making the decision we made now”
For students, faculty or staff who want to learn more or have questions about the project can attend a meeting tomorrow morning, at 9:30 a.m. in Johnson Chapel.
Additional reporting by Brianda Reyes '14 and Ethan Corey '15.