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Construction continues at the site of the new Ashdown Graduate Residence (NW35) located at 235 Albany Street, between Warehouse and Sidney-Pacific Graduate Residencies.
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In a rapid reversal from their position of the last month, senior administrators in charge of overseeing the budget and scope of the new graduate dormitory NW35 have reinstated the fourth floor of the building, which would house 97 out of 548 students. The building is already under construction and is scheduled to open in Fall 2008.

The unexpected changes to the original plan provoked an outcry from students who had been involved in the initial design process, during which administrators had committed to include students and maintain transparency in the decision making process.

Then-Interim Executive Vice President Sherwin Greenblatt ’62 decided in early January to address rising costs by eliminating the fourth floor from what had originally been designed as a five floor building.

The Feb. 8 decision to reinstate the fourth floor is one of Theresa M. Stone’s SM ’76 first in her new role as Executive VP, which began Feb. 1. It comes despite what had been projected to be an $11.5 million budget overrun from the original $104 million approved by the MIT Corporation.

The administration has not yet decided where extra funds to cover the increased costs will come from. “The EVP needs to find those funds,” Kirk D. Kolenbrander, vice president for Institute affairs and secretary of the Corporation, said.

The only assurance is that “we’re not going to raise rents to pay for the increase in the cost of the building, because then the rents would be unaffordable for grad students,” said Karen A. Nilsson, senior associate dean for Residential Life. She added that costs will also not be spread out across system rents.

Breakdown in communication

Contention between students and administrators over the lack of student input about the project is not new; disagreements about the design of the residence came close to shutting down the NW35 project last spring.

“Universities operate on understandings,” GSC President Eric G. Weese G said at the general council meeting of the Graduate Student Council on Wednesday. “We had an understanding, and they didn’t follow it – our recourse is to do what we’re doing here, which is to complain loudly.”

Kolenbrander said that while students “should expect to have some input, how that will actually be made real is not simple.” He acknowledged that “finding the right balance is something we need to work on, and that balance has not been achieved.”

Still, past input remains relevant.

As the result of last minute compromises, student concerns about common space and affordability of rooms were incorporated in a final design that allowed the project to move forward last spring.

“The final design was good,” Weese said. “Lots of common space, low rent rooms, we were quite happy.”

“We kept in mind always that we didn’t want the reductions in scope to adversely affect the opportunities for community. Community harming was off the table,” said Nilsson. “We’re confident that all the programmatic elements can be delivered,” she said, referring to common space for community events.

Although a subcommittee was created in March 2006 specifically to enhance communication between administration, faculty housemasters and students concerned with issues in the new building, efforts to maintain it appear to have withered since: “I was a chair of the communications subcommittee — we’ve been cut out of the process,” said Leeland Ekstrom G at the meeting.“Our biggest concern is that we weren’t even asked,” said Ashdown House Executive Committee President Sian Kleindienst G. “We are worried about the process because next time something worse could happen.”

“I’m very happy that we’ll have the extra beds for graduate students back,” said Ashdown Housemaster Terry P. Orlando. “I think it was a good decision, I’m glad it was made.”

“I’m very pleased that 97 beds will not be lost,” Weese wrote in an e-mail to GSC representatives Thursday. “However, this does not change the fact that there are very serious communications problems that need to be addressed.”

Rising construction costs

In December 2006, Bovis Lend Lease, the contractor managing the project for MIT, revised its cost estimate for the project from the $104 million previously approved by the MIT Corporation to $115 million, driving the administration to look for ways to cut costs.

“What we’ve experienced locally and nationally is significant escalation [of costs] from month to month,” said Gary Tondorf-Dick, program manager for projects in the Department of Facilities. “Although there was contingency in the [original] estimate for escalation, there has been so much demand internationally” for some basic building materials that “industry standard guidelines have been exceeded to a greater than anticipated degree.”

During an interview in January, Chancellor Phillip L. Clay PhD ’75 had said that the administration was determined not to go over the $104 million budget. To achieve the necessary $11 million cost reduction, the administration had settled on two kinds of changes: reducing the scope of the project by eliminating parts of the building and a significant number of beds, and scrapping optional “value engineering” features.

Under the new design, only the value engineering will be subject to cuts, through elimination of an architectural canopy, reducing window sizes, and downgrading some materials.

“The Department of Facilities was asked to go back in and re-analyze the costs with the option of putting the fourth floor back in,” said Nilsson. “A lot of financial analysis was done” before Stone made the decision.

While the final price tag for the building has not yet been determined, subcontractor bids are expected to come in next week, at which point the maximum final cost will be fixed, said Tondorf-Dick.

“It is not possible for me or anyone to say with certainty that the building will not cost more or cost less. We’d like to believe that we now have a correct estimate,” Kolenbrander said.