Beleaguered renovation restores majesty

The shell of the once-grand Coffman Union has finally begun its transformation. It is metamorphosing from the architectural abomination it became after the 1970s renovation toward the grandeur visualized by the present renovation’s architect.

The new renovation is being done – among other things – to undo the damage done in the 1970s. Yet a common link – continuously rising costs – makes the modern-day renovation seem eerily similar to the project done during the 1970s.

But this renovation, much like the previous one, has been tied up in red tape since the onset of the project, thanks in part to numerous cost overruns and a fundamental mid-stream change in how the project structure was laid out.

In 1999, the original budget for the entire project was $45 million, under the design-bid-build project structure. Three contractors submitted bids based on the design originally proposed. All three bids exceeded the allocated $45 million by 30 percent to 70 percent. Clearly there was some mistake in this stage: Either the design proposed was clearly too expensive, or contractors were in search of another lucrative University contract on which to make absurdly high bids. A plausible explanation is a combination of both.

Interestingly, no bids came at or under budget, which makes suspect their allocation amount. Perhaps the true cost of renovating Coffman was known and this was just an elaborate ruse to find more money for the renovation.

Nearly a year had passed when, in September 2000, a redesign of the union’s renovation began, along with a change to design-build structure. Supposedly this allows more control of cost, and allows the project to proceed at a faster rate since the design and construction portions of the project are integrated (as opposed to the traditional design-bid-build project structure, where design and construction are handled by separate companies). The close integration of the design and construction portions of the project implies design-build projects should actually be cheaper than the design-bid-build structure.

The reduced cost was not the case with the Coffman renovation project, however. In May 2001, even after changing the project structure to design-build, the regents approved a new budget for the renovation of Coffman: $70.89 million – almost 60 percent more than was originally allotted. Interestingly, the new allocation is near the top end of the original three bids received under the design-bid-build project structure. Something doesn’t seem right here.

It seems the Twin Cities Student Unions had a full understanding of the costs associated with renovating Coffman Union and knew the only way to pay for the renovation of the building would be to do so by right of force – by way of increasing student payments – to complete their project. Considering the 1970s renovation is not paid off yet, and won’t be until 2013, this could be a likely correct prediction.

Designers want to restore the building to its former grandeur and essentially undo the destruction accomplished during the first renovation in the 1970s. Some requests were to reuse the original terrazzo flooring that was paved over with cheap, gaudy orange floor tile, as well as to replace old, crumbling brickwork with new bricks that match the aging of the existing brickwork. These are only two of the special requests I am aware of, but there must be countless others.

Considering the special requests of the designers for the completion of the project and the amount of work that has to be done to undo the ruination of the building in the 1970s, there must have been other alternatives. It is likely, though, these other alternatives, like building a new structure, were overlooked. New student unions can easily be created, and for likely less cost than the renovation of Coffman Union.

Since Coffman Union was effectively ruined in the 1970s, during that era’s myopic renovation, and much of the money being spent on today’s renovation is to rectify what was done in the 1970s, one might wonder if there comes a point that completely demolishing the union and building a brand new student union might be more cost effective and provide students with better value. Hopefully, the renovation will provide students with a good value for the amount of money each student spends.

Speaking personally, considering I’ve been paying for the student union without being able to use one for the past two years, it will take a lot to make the renovated Coffman of much value to me.

Nathan Hemming is a biosystems and agricultural engineering major. Send comments to [email protected]