An underground animal-research lab under construction on the University of Washington campus is coming in well over budget, and officials say it underscores a poor track record of managing the costs of major building projects.
The University of Washington has done a poor job of managing the costs of some major construction projects, causing an underground animal-research lab to balloon 15 percent over its budget, university officials acknowledge.
UW President Ana Mari Cauce called the problem “just not acceptable,” and said the university needs to do a better job of estimating costs, including anticipating all the things that can go wrong during construction.
On Thursday, the Board of Regents approved $18.5 million in additional money to finish construction of the Animal Research and Care Facility, an underground animal-research center on the south end of campus. The 83,000-square-foot building’s final price tag: $142 million.
When it was first discussed, the UW thought it could construct the building for as little as $83 million. They later approved a price tag of $123.5 million.
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“In 20-20 hindsight, we had an optimistic and rosy attitude” about how much the building would cost, said Mike McCormick, associate vice president of capital planning and development, during Thursday’s regents meeting. “We should have anticipated this.”
McCormick, who’s been with the university for just a few years, told the regents he’s had a chance to “look under the hood” at the way the UW manages construction projects, and found problems, including poor analyses of what a building will cost.
Two other construction projects — work being done to expand the UW Medical Center, and a UW Medicine building in South Lake Union — are also over budget, although university officials expect to bring both within their original price tags through project cuts.
The animal-care facility — which will house almost all of the UW’s research animals, including monkeys, pigs, sheep and rats — is being built underground, just up the hill from Portage Bay. Its construction, and the amount of animal research conducted at the university, have caused animal-rights activists to frequently target regents’ meetings, although none were present Thursday. The facility is expected to open this spring.
The building’s cost shot up because, among other things, the site had a high water table and the water “didn’t behave the way hydrologists anticipated,” McCormick said. In addition, contractors had to remove underground storage tanks on the property that weren’t on the plans.
The building has also required different heating and humidity levels for different rooms, depending on which types of animals will be kept there.
In an interview during a break in the meeting, Cauce said the university “hasn’t had the kind of management oversight we’ve needed.”
She said there’s a tendency for a university department to add bells and whistles to a new construction project, much as homeowners do when they’re remodeling. With construction costs on the rise, the UW needs to do a better job of saying no to building-design changes, she said.
The animal-research lab also went out for bid just as the economy was heating up. The combination of poor planning and the rise in construction costs, McCormick said, caused bids to come in much higher than the university anticipated.
University officials are putting the animal lab below ground in part, they say, because they are running out of space to build above ground, and in part to preserve the view from Pacific Street to Portage Bay. The building is being constructed between Foege and Hitchcock halls, a site chosen because of its location near health-sciences buildings.
The UW will cover the extra costs by using its reserves, and will also recover some of the costs by charging more to research projects that use animals housed in the building. UW receives more than $1 billion annually from federal funds to do research, most of it medical.
McCormick said the UW should have been more realistic about the costs of such a complex project. The cost per square foot for the animal-research facility is coming in close to the cost of a similar underground facility at Harvard University, he said — a benchmark the UW should have used in its planning.
The building is costing about $1,700 per square foot. Harvard University’s animal center cost $1,653 per square foot.
Like the rest of Seattle, the UW is in the middle of a building boom right now. It’s constructing new residence halls on the northeast side of campus, a new Burke Museum on the northwest side and a new Life Sciences building near the Burke-Gilman Trail. It also is finishing up an addition to its molecular-sciences building, and will soon pick a site for a new building to house departments that are addressing global health.
In those projects, “You will see a very different approach” to managing costs, Cauce said.
During Thursday’s meeting, the regents approved the budget for another new building: a second computer-science and engineering building, with a price tag of $110 million, most of which is coming from private philanthropy. Construction is expected to start right away, on a site once occupied by a decommissioned nuclear reactor.
Computer-science professor Ed Lazowska, who is helping raise money for the project, made a point of saying that the first computer-science building was finished on time and under budget. The same team is working on the new building, and he predicted it would come in on time and under budget, too.