You Want To Build A Building:
Helpful Hints For Those Deans Who
Develop An “Edifice Complex”
Andrew M. Coats
When I became Dean of the University of Oklahoma College of Law in July
of 1996, I inherited a physical plant that was truly Dismal!
The Law Center Building, which had been completed and inhabited in
1976, had suffered greatly over the years.
The roof leaked when it was raining.
The roof leaked when it wasn’t raining.
The roof stored up rainwater and leaked on dry days.
We had to put sheets of plastic over the books in the library.
Most of the floors in the building were covered with carpet – the
same carpet that was placed in the building in 1976.
You can imagine what it looked like after twenty years of wear, summer
Paint was peeling off in places. Faculty
offices were very small and poorly ventilated.
The administrative offices were tiny and overrun with the wiring of
computers, telephones, printers, and duplicators, etc. until they looked like
something out of a bad jungle movie.
The lighting, heating, and cooling in the classrooms were inadequate.
The classroom furniture had been repaired and expanded until the screw holes
no longer fit.
You get the idea – a mess!
The ABA and AALS were breathing down our necks – insisting in a most
persistent and somewhat unpleasant manner that SOMETHING HAD TO BE DONE.
So, something was.
Money was raised – a little over $19 million in gifts and pledges in
less than one year – never an easy task.
(How the money was raised is saved for another dissertation at some
future time.) Notices were sent
out. Bids were received.
A contractor was selected. Designs
were completed and blueprints, working drawings, and specifications were
prepared. Ground was broken.
In two and a half years, a new building was built and was joined with
the old building, which had been totally renovated.
The old building contains 90,000 sq. ft. more or less.
The new one, 80,000. The
170,000 sq. ft. building that has emerged is magnificent.
Better even than I thought it could be.
There are a few glitches here and there, but overall, it’s a handsome
and functional structure. From
start to finish the project took almost five years.
The purpose of this writing is not to brag about what was accomplished
here, although I’m always glad to do so.
It’s to warn others who are taking the same path that there are
substantial, unexpected problems that will arise along the way.
There are hazards and pitfalls that await the unwary, which can turn a
well-intentioned project into a monument to discomfort and inconvenience or
can cause significant cost overruns and delays in completion.
The following suggestions arise from our experience throughout the
process. They are the result of
having to “learn by doing.” They
represent the result of a lot of worry, anxiety, and sleepless nights.
It is probable that a smarter and more careful Dean would have avoided
many of the pitfalls and problems. I
didn’t. I ran headfirst into
most of them.
The suggestions are offered in the hope that one of our colleagues out
there, somewhere, might be able to use one or more of them to avoid some of
the trials and tribulations that I confronted throughout our construction
project. I wish I had had the
benefit of these little nuggets when we started.
So, without further explanation or apology, please take a look at the
following suggestions and the underlying problems they might help you avoid.
Before starting the project, you must be sure you have enough money to
complete it. I know that sounds
quite obvious, but it is more complicated than it sounds.
Of course, you must have enough to build, furnish, and equip your new
building complex. But beyond
that, you should expect the unexpected and plan for it.
You really must have a significant contingency fund within the project
budget to deal with problems that will arise.
We were told that our heating and air-conditioning system in the
existing building was working well and could be connected to the system in the
new building with no problem. We
were told this by the University AirCon people and by the heat and air
subcontractors. All of them were
wrong; the old system wasn’t working well and was not compatible with the
new system. The result was that
after having most of the building completed, we had to go back into the
ceilings and replace substantial portions of the air-conditioning valves and
duct work. Very expensive and
Another “money” problem can occur with the “code” requirements
that you will face. This is
particularly true if your project involves redoing an older building.
In our state, as in most, if you do a substantial remodeling of a
building that was built before the various codes were enacted, the building
must be brought up to “code” requirements.
That includes “fire code,” “electrical code,” “Americans with
Disabilities Act,” etc. These
“code” requirements can really escalate costs.
We spent an unexpected $500,000 just to bring our existing building
into compliance with the “fire code.”
Some of it defies logic, like having to install a fire suppression
sprinkling system in an atrium area that was built entirely of concrete and
brick. Nevertheless, to get an
occupancy permit at the end of construction, you have to comply with even the
most unreasonable code requirements. You
should discuss all of these compliance issues with your architect and
contractor well in advance.
Finally, you will need to anticipate the possibility that a significant
cost may be incurred because of “cash flow” requirements.
You can’t just relax when you reach your goal for money for the
You will probably raise much of your money from gifts that take the
form of pledges spread out over three to five years.
We did, and we didn’t want to wait until all the money was in hand to
start construction. So, we went
ahead anyway, knowing that our cash needs would substantially precede the
receipt of a large percentage of our pledged gifts.
Fortunately, the University agreed to “cash flow” the project, that
is, to advance funds against the pledges and to do so without charging
interest. It’s a good thing it
did. Interest charges against
several million dollars for two to three years are expensive and could have
made a big dent in the budget for the project.
You had better make your cash availability arrangements in advance to
be sure you have the cash when you need it.
One other kind of major expense may develop and should be planed and
provided for. If your construction requires you to move your law library, you
will be facing substantial costs. In
our case, we had to move the entire law library away from the law school.
We rented an old movie theater several blocks away for a working
library of 150,000 volumes and put the remaining 200,000 volumes in crates,
which were stored in a heated and air-conditioned warehouse in another city.
Rental of these facilities was expensive.
Packing, moving, and unpacking books – both coming and going – was
extraordinarily expensive. It may
be that professional library movers earn more than brain surgeons . . . at
least it sure seemed like it.
You may have to face the same problem with clinics.
We had to rent office space and move both our clinics along with their
libraries, file cabinets, desks, etc. away from the law school and back at
Since we rebuilt all of the faculty offices, we had to move all of our
faculty and a lot of staff from their permanent law school offices to
temporary offices, and in many cases, to home offices.
All of that moving cost a lot as well.
Anyway, moving and storage expenses are sometimes not included in the
project budget and need to be anticipated.
Obviously, a successful building project starts with the design
architects. I think you need to
spend plenty of time with the architects who are going to design your new
building. The design architect
really needs to understand your vision for the structure and how it will work
within the College.
It’s important that you really analyze the ideas and proposals that
come from the designers to see if they really work and can’t be improved
upon with more mature reflection. Don’t just accept what the architects say.
Analyze their suggestions to be sure it’s going to be built the way
you want it.
In our case, there were a number of items that I persuaded the
architects to change or add. For
example, our courtroom had been designed without windows because the Federal
Courtrooms in Oklahoma City (which they used as a model) didn’t have any.
We added three majestic floor-to-ceiling windows, which really improved
the beauty of the room.
Under the original design, the main entry doors opened directly into
the center hallway, which meant that the air-conditioning system’s “air
lock” doors went across the hallway. This
would have required persons coming from one end of the building to the other
to pass through the two sets of inner doors, which would have been a nuisance
and which would have destroyed the visual impact of the great corridor.
By suggesting the addition of an external chamber-entry room, that
problem was eliminated.
These changes were expensive, but were well worth it.
I know you will have many such good ideas that can be incorporated into
the project. Don’t hesitate to
fight for them. If they cost
more, you can always go raise some more money.
Blueprints, Working Drawings, and Specifications:
After the basic design is established, the architects will prepare
blueprints, working drawings, and specifications, which the contractor will
use to build the building.
It’s extremely important that you read and study these drawings until
you are familiar with them in great detail.
Don’t hesitate to ask any question you may have at this time.
If you don’t, some things will become “etched in stone” and any
changes will come too late.
For example, left to their own devices, the electrical subcontractor
will place the electric wall sockets right in the middle of the wall two or
three feet above the floor. Maybe
that’s where you want them, but maybe not.
They may look a lot better close to the floor, and cords won’t be
hanging down the walls. Think
about how many such “plug ins” you may need in each space for lamps,
phones, computers, space heaters, printers, etc.
Little details like this can make a great difference in the looks and
functionality of the project.
And, of course, heating and cooling system subcontractors always feel
compelled to place thermostats in the middle of walls at eye level unless you
intervene. Of course, once they
do that, the placing of portraits or other artwork to be hung becomes much
more difficult, if not impossible.
You should be sure that all of these little details are spelled out
clearly in the plans.
Be Available During Construction:
I used to imagine that once the architects had prepared the blueprints,
construction drawings, and specifications, all the contractors and subs had to
do was build the building in accordance therewith.
That’s not how it works. Nearly
every day during construction some problem developed that required a decision.
When a problem that is not covered by the plans develops or when the
plans aren’t clear, the subcontractor who is actually doing the work stops,
submits an R.F.I. (Request for Instructions), and waits for the answer.
The R.F.I. goes to the contractor, then to the architect, and then to
the owner. If you are not
available to make a decision, the work will be stopped until you are.
If you are there and can view the problem and make an immediate
decision, much time can be saved, and as we all know, time is money.
If you are not available, someone else may make the decision, and you
may not like the result.
Employ a Permanent On-Site Architect:
When I saw the first construction budget proposals, I was surprised to
see $250,000 listed as salary for an “on-site
architect.” I was particularly
surprised and concerned since we were paying our architectural firm a
substantial fee and were also paying a good-sized fee to our university
architects. I really couldn’t
see why we needed a permanent “on the job” architect.
I balked, but I was persuaded that it was a good idea, and so we did
it. I believe it’s some of the
best money we spent. Our guy was
on the job every day, working with the contractor and subcontractors,
supervising and inspecting each phase of construction.
He interpreted the plans and made countless “on the spot” decisions
that allowed the construction to continue smoothly.
If there is any way you can afford it – do it – you will be glad
Prepare for and Attend the Construction Meetings:
During construction, the contractors, subcontractors, and architects
will meet once a week to discuss progress, anticipate the upcoming
construction phases, deal with unanswered R.F.I.’s, and generally discuss
the project. Our group met in the
construction offices every Wednesday morning at 10:00 a.m.
The meeting usually lasted at least two hours.
Normally, the owner is represented by his architects and doesn’t
attend personally. My Associate
Dean went step by step with me throughout the construction process.
One of us attended every meeting.
Because one of us was there, innumerable controversies were resolved
immediately so that construction could continue uninterrupted.
We would also meet every Tuesday afternoon with our “on-site”
architect, our university architect, an architect from the design firm, our
interior designer, and the person charged with buying furniture and fixtures,
to prepare for the Wednesday morning construction meeting.
The purpose of these meetings was to be sure we were all in agreement
on important issues as they arose and could present a united front to our
This extra effort was truly valuable in bringing the project to
completion on time and within budget.
Over the several hundred construction meetings that one or both of us
attended, we got to know the contractors, subcontractors, and suppliers, and
because of those relationships, we got a much better job.
Incidentally, there is always a bit of tension and potential
disagreement between the contractor and subcontractors on one side and the
owner and architects on the other. The
contractors want to build as expeditiously and sometimes as cheaply as
possible. The owner/architects
want the structure built in the right and lasting way.
You should always be mindful of this difference in viewpoint throughout
Furniture, Equipment, Carpets, and Accessories:
The part of our project that really went over budget was interior
decorations, furnishings, and accessories.
The result was quite impressive, but the cost was extraordinary.
You will, no doubt, work with an interior decorator who will offer you
a number of choices as to types of furniture, fabrics, carpets, paint colors,
window treatments, etc. The
decorator will put together a series of samples of materials of compatible
colors and textures from which you are to make a selection.
Try to get samples as large as possible.
It’s really hard to determine how a vast expanse of material will
look when you only have a 2" by 2" swatch of it from which to make
your decisions. And, equally
important, try to get some firm prices for all of those items that are within
your budget. The furniture costs
alone can really inflate the cost of the project.
Also very important, establish an early time line to order and to
receive delivery of these kinds of items.
I was amazed to learn that it may take many months for the carpet
makers to make the carpet you want. Orders
must be made months before the items are needed.
If orders are not submitted early enough, you may have a building that
is near completion and occupancy and nothing with which to decorate or furnish
it. On the other hand, if the
items arrive too soon, you may have trouble finding a good place to store them
until the building is ready. As
with comedy, timing is critical. Arranging
an appropriate arrival date can also be a big problem for light fixtures,
computers, student seating in classrooms, projectors, screens, blackboards or
So, watch your time line and F.F.E. (Furniture, Fixture, and Equipment)
budget. Problems in these areas
can really cause havoc with your opening and dedication plans.
I am sure that there are other problems that developed that I no longer
recall, or have blocked from my mind. I’m
also sure that problems will arise in your construction project that we
didn’t meet. Maybe those here
discussed will help you avoid some difficulties that you might have otherwise
Getting our building completed has been one of the most satisfying
experiences of my life. To have
an opportunity to dream a dream, to see it take visual form in the design
state, and then to be a part of the construction process as it becomes a
physical reality is a remarkably fulfilling experience.
As I indicated earlier, the process will bring lots of worries,
headaches, and sleepless nights, but in the end, it’s worth it all.
I hope some of what I have offered here will be helpful as you
undertake to build your dream for your school.
It is truly a flame that’s worth the candle.