The student voice of the Knowlton School of Architecture

High Rise, High Skepticism

by Alex Palmer

Ohio State is currently one of the largest universities in the nation, but that is inadequate for school administration. Ohio State is becoming more restrictive in response to high application rates. For the 2009 freshman class, the ACT score average was a 27, sharply contrasting the national average of 21.1 and Ohio’s average of 21.7. The students also excelled in their classes, with 57% of students ranking in the top 10% of their high school classes. Ohio State turned down 48% of applicants last year alone, and they want that to be lower. The quality of students’ academics applying to the university is rising, as is the national demand for a college education. The university thinks that enrollment can be raised without compromising quality, so they need more dorms to accommodate this proposed rise.

Also, if Gordon Gee has his way, freshman and sophomores will be required to live on campus. Ohio State currently has around 10,000 students living on campus in overcrowded rooms sometimes designed for half the amount of people occupying. The need to expand dorm space is clear, but what is the strategy?

One part of the plan, called the South Campus High Rise Renovation and Addition project,  is to make a dorm connecting the four South Campus tower dorms; Steeb to Smith, and Park to Stradley. The plan will make new lobbies, study rooms and lounges, as well as some additional dorm rooms. It will also be integrating energy efficient technology such as geothermal heating/cooling.  In addition, there will be renovation of rooms in the tower dorms such as the addition of air conditioning as well as extensive landscape revitalization around the structures. These all seem like good things. The deal seems less desirable, however, once you get the full picture.

The proposal is to cost 171.6 million dollars and only adds 360 additional beds. This brings the cost of the project up to about 477,000 dollars per bed. The project proposal claims that this strategy will be saving the university money as they will not need to create new infrastructure for the buildings as they will use existing elevators, sewers, etc. This also seems like a better idea environmentally, as renovating old buildings is far more efficient than tearing them down and building anew. The old dorms are also being retrofitted with the new geothermal system of the High Rise project.

Cleary, dollars are not the only issue here, but do the environmental and revitalization measures that are being taken explain the cost?

Because of this skepticism, I began to dig deeper into the costs. The only releases to the press, in the form of an article in The Lantern and The Columbus Dispatch, are not overly informative. The released budget simply has the figure of 120 million dollars under construction and the remaining 51.6 million split amongst design and management commissions, fees, and contingencies.

I spoke to Professor Jane Murphy, a member of the University’s Design Review Board. Some light was shed on the scope of the work that was to be done. The project is not just the building segments, but a large scale, comprehensive green space renovation around the dorms and the Hale Center parking lot area. It is not simply aimed to increase beds on campus, but to improve the quality of living in the South dorms. This is only the beginning of a huge campaign the university has put together in order to increase dorm space. Even with a large landscape revitalization project, I still find the cost to be a bit troubling.

As I have no experience in the construction field and have no idea how these projects work, I did a bit of research into similar projects and their associated costs.

In 2008 at the University of Arizona, a dorm project was projected to add 1,079 additional beds spread across three buildings. Two were to be multi-story buildings and another was an addition/renovation project on an existing 119 bed dorm. The project was scrapped after administration couldn’t get past the cost of 150,000 dollars per bed, a paltry figure compared to the amount Ohio State has decided to spend.

There are some differences in these plans. For one, the Ohio State project is renovating 2,000 dorm rooms as opposed to 119 in the UA proposal. That will add some amount of cost, but the difference is a staggering 300,000 per bed. That would not be made up in renovations alone. If that was the case, it would be considerably more cost effective to build new structures instead of renovating.

The Arizona proposal does not include landscape revitalization and a geothermal system. The geothermal system is expected to cost 7.3 million dollars, but there is no published dollar amount for the landscape revitalization.

Another difference is that 7% of the budget for this project is in Civic Structure (2%) and Green Build and Energy Policy (5%). Civic structure will help improve streetscapes around campus, and the Green Build and Energy Policy money is to help ensure LEED silver status.

The High Rise project is extensive and the beginning to the grand Campus Framework plan, but are we as students and taxpayers getting all we should for the cost? Until more detail is released in the budget, I’m not convinced.

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