Building Boom at UVic

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It certainly isn’t low profile and the price tag of $122 million isn’t trivial either, but the building boom up at the University of Victoria hasn’t had much attention, probably because of all the other private-sector development projects going on.

With 23,600 students, faculty, and staff gathering daily at Gordon Head, you could call UVic one of the region’s largest communities. Its head count surpasses Langford, the real number three municipality in the CRD, by a few hundred people.

Two major new buildings are going up on the campus, while a third project puts an addition onto McPherson library facing UVic’s Ring Road. Most expensive is the new building for the School of Earth and Ocean Sciences at $66.5 million, followed by a social sciences and math building at $38.6 million. The Mearns Centre for Learning, being built at the back of the library, is costing $17 million. The three buildings will add about 250,000 square feet of space — equal to half of Hillside shopping centre.

If those three projects weren’t enough, the university plans to start two more buildings this year, the First Peoples House for aboriginal students and new offices for president David Turpin and other administrators called the support services building. Those two are worth another $20 million. It hopes to have the support services building, located near Centennial Stadium on the Ring, open by September 2008.

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“It’s our biggest capital construction in our history that anyone can remember,” said Kristi Simpson, associate vice-president of financial planning and operations.

Student enrollment growth a few years back — a time when many young people couldn’t find jobs and decided to stay in school or go back for more learning — coincided with a time in the late 1990s and early this decade when the provincial government put the lid on university capital spending.

“The current construction boom is a result of a significant space shortage on campus as well as projected student growth,” said Simpson in an email.

For several years, UVic has fallen short of space requirements for those thousands of people on campus; in fact, it reaches just 85 per cent of the provincial standard. The big shortages are in student classrooms, faculty offices, and research space.

It’s such a tight fit that even the maze-like Sedgewick cluster on the west side of the ring — one of UVic’s first faculty offices and supposed to be only temporary — has become a de facto permanent facility, helped by the fact that every prof who’s ever worked in the single-storey building hidden in the trees never wants to leave.

“We built a strong case that we can’t survive with our current space,” says Simpson.

When the current building projects are opened, UVic will hit the 95-per-cent mark.

“We can accommodate more students,” she says. Both the science building (to be finished in September, 2008) and the new social sciences/mathematics building (February 2008) will add more classrooms.

The latter is also likely the first building in Victoria with a significant beetle-killed pine feature. A decorative arch of the “denim” streaked wood has been built at the courtyard entrance. The complex of three-, four-, and five-storey buildings will also have several green roofs where students and faculty will experiment with finding what grows best up on top. It’s the second building at UVic with a green roof — expected to reduce air conditioning demands in hot weather and slow rain runoff in the wet season — after the $25-million engineering/computer science building which opened in the fall of 2006.

The social sciences and math building should be ready by March next year. Faculty and students now using Cornett and Clearihue will move in what the administration calls a “decanting process.”

Eugene Heeger used to work for the B.C. Buildings Corp., the province’s landlord and a company now gone from the scene. He’s now UVic’s director of capital projects, after some years in South Africa directing the building of a huge industrial park in a special economic zone and a major retail/commercial redevelopment on the famed Nevsky Prospekt of St. Petersburg.

At UVic, “what you’re seeing is three projects that are peaking this year.” The construction environment is filled with thousands of students and staff every day. “Managing that becomes a pretty tricky proposition…. It’s placed terrific strains on our resources, but we’re coping very well.”

All three projects have impacts on the university’s infrastructure. So much new space is being added that UVic has to dig about a kilometre of new sewer main, since the existing connector to Saanich’s Gordon Head network is at capacity. So UVic’s waste will now head down Oak Bay pipes.

When the last of the five new buildings at UVic is finished late next year, you probably won’t see any new construction on this scale for a long while. Heeger points out that the university is close to the limits imposed by its 2003 plan, which provides for a building footprint on just 40 per cent of the campus. UVic has lots of land, but is committed to preserving such sites as the Mystic Vale ravine and stream.

Simpson says the focus in coming years will switch from construction to renovation, replacing decades-old heating, lighting, and plumbing systems before they are totally obsolete.

“We don’t want to get so far down the road that costs get astronomical,” she says.

The renovation work won’t be as visible as the new construction work, but it may cost just as much over the long term. Based on work at other universities, the ballpark figure just for UVic’s older buildings is about $40 million. The university is scouting for consultants to undertake a detailed buildings and infrastructure study of what should be done, building by building. It may point out ways of squeezing more usable space out of the older structures, said Heeger.

To use a development industry term, four decades on from the first construction, UVic may be built-out in Gordon Head.