When lawmakers are complaining that your building projects seem a bit expensive, it might not be the best time to tell them that you spend a little extra money to ensure that all of your bricks look the same.
That was one piece of advice this observer might have offered a University of North Carolina system official before he briefed legislators this month about bond-funded projects across the state.
At issue for the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Capital Improvements was the nearly $1 billion voters approved for UNC as part of the Connect NC Bond Act of 2015. That money is destined for 21 projects across the university system: 11 new buildings focusing on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics; two new business school buildings; a western campus of the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics; and seven major building renovations.
Voters were willing to take on new debt to move these projects forward.
Will Johnson, the system’s associate vice president for finance and capital planning, spent 20 minutes at the Oct. 11 committee meeting offering an overview of the projects’ progress and timelines. But several lawmakers targeted one statistic within Johnson’s 22 slides: the $464 projected average cost per square foot for new campus construction. That included costs of $600 or more per square foot of projects at the flagship campuses in Chapel Hill and Raleigh.
“It’s a little disappointing,” said Sen. Joel Ford, D-Mecklenburg and a recent Charlotte mayoral candidate, as he considered the variation of costs for projects at N.C. State University and N.C. A&T State.
“Both of those engineering buildings, quite frankly, should have drywall in them,” Ford said directly to Johnson. “Both of those buildings, if they’re made out of brick — brick is brick.”
“I’m just looking to hear something different going forward in terms of how can the state save money by leveraging $2 billion so we can build the buildings that these universities want to build, but save money while doing it,” Ford said, referencing the total size of the voter-approved 2015 bond package. The university system will use roughly half of the money from the voter-approved bonds.
Ford wasn’t the only lawmaker to mention bricks.
“How do we determine what your input for quality has been?” said Rep. Dean Arp, R-Union, the committee’s co-chairman. “Not just cutting the size of the building, because we want the most that we can get. How do we determine what was done from a cost standpoint — a quality standpoint? … You can have brick, but you can have a $50 brick or a $10 brick.”
“There are different bricks, and people do use different types of bricks,” Johnson said. “Those things are tied to what styles the campuses are in. N.C. State has a standard range of colored bricks, and they have a standard color additive to their mortar. That’s what N.C. State is. And that colored mortar costs a little bit more than our standard gray mortar. But that’s what N.C. State has been for 200 years.”
N.C. State actually dates back 130 years to 1887. But one suspects that lawmakers were less concerned about that numerical error than the other figures Johnson presented.
“I’m just staggered by the cost per square foot,” said Sen. Joyce Krawiec, R-Forsyth. “Wal-Mart, Food Lion … You build one, you know exactly what your cost is per square foot.
“There’s a difference between what we want and what we need,” Krawiec said. “Just like your house: You can build a house at $100 per square foot, or you can build one at $350 per square foot.
“We shouldn’t need 250 engineers for every project,” Krawiec said. “We should design a building, whether it’s a STEM building or an engineering building or whatever it is, that’s necessary but not necessarily what the university wants. There has to be a way to bring this cost down.”
“Four hundred sixty dollars per square foot just seems kind of high to me,” said Rep. Jon Hardister, R-Guilford, who ticked off recent cardiology and cancer center building costs ranging from $122 per square foot to $316. “That’s higher than most retail construction. That would be higher than most commercial. Medical is usually the most expensive, but these are … private or, in many cases, nonprofit hospital clinics. They’ve got to keep their costs down. They certainly have to be efficient in the services they provide.”
Johnson contrasted university buildings to big-box stores and other commercial or medical building projects. He explained that UNC buildings are designed to last much longer.
“We own, maintain, keep those buildings forever,” he said. “We don’t demolish our buildings. It’s hard to demolish a building on campus. There’s history there. There’s culture there. We just don’t take buildings down. The investment that the people of North Carolina put in these buildings, as you know, is a serious matter.
“We can build buildings for less money,” Johnson said. “That’s a physical reality. It’s a complicated question and answer: How good can we afford to build? The answer for this bond program is we’re going to build as much quality and as much square footage as we can with the dollars that y’all are graciously providing.
“Campuses are going to try to get every square foot out of that dollar that they can possibly get,” Johnson said. “That’s the best answer I have.”
It’s not clear that the answer is one that cost-conscious state legislators wanted to hear.
Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.