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Student Center still hot topic

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Regents don’t like rust exterior

By Martin Salazar

The contractor that took over the Highlands University Student Center building didn’t meet the Dec. 22 target date for substantial completion of the structure, but President Jim Fries says the building is almost done.

And while the entire building may not be occupied by the time students return to class in  the spring semester, Fries said he’s hopeful that food services will be serving in the building  in January.

“They’re awfully close,” Fries told regents at a board meeting this past Friday.

But now there’s a new wrinkle to the building that has faced delays and cost overruns.

At least two members of the university’s board of regents are unhappy with the exterior rust finish chosen for the metal parts of the structure, the Corten steel panels.

Regent Jesus Lopez is even urging the administration to spend the roughly $38,000 it would take to remove the rust from the building’s exterior surface — which covers about 21,000 square feet —  and paint those parts of the building.

The building project was taken over by Franken Construction in April, about two months after the university fired the previous contractor, Makwa Builders LLC. Fries said Franken Construction has done a good job of making adjustments so that deficiencies in the building introduced by Makwa won’t be apparent.

He said there’s still a lot of cleanup that needs to be done, along with some painting and carpet installation. One of the things that is delaying the completion of the buildings is the testing and balancing of the building’s HVAC system. The openness of the building is complicating the testing. Also, the president said, the HVAC system has a water circulation system that requires three-way valves to be tested. It currently has only two-way values.

Fries said that change is pretty basic and should be completed in the next week or two. He said the new contractor has been working hard to get the job done, noting that at one point there were about 90 workers at the job site. More typically, he said, there are about 50 people working on the building.

“I think it’s going to be a great facility,” he said. “I expect it’ll have a huge impact on the quality of campus life.”

Addressing the building’s exterior, Fries said he’s received many compliments about the look, but he acknowledged he’s also heard from a few people who aren’t happy with the Corten panels.

Lopez, who was serving on the board when the project began, said he hadn’t been aware that the rust look was going to remain until recently. He said he was under the impression that rusted portions of the metal and glass building would be primed and covered.

“I’m the first to appreciate innovation in aesthetics, in architecture, in design. I’m a hip guy. I really am. That is not it,” Lopez said, referring to the rust finish.”

“That is ridiculous,” Lopez added. “I want also to make it clear that that was never apparent on any of the renderings or any of the drawings that were presented to this board, and I made inquiry on that. It is nowhere apparent. I don’t remember anyone ever telling me about that.”

Lopez said he approached contractor Jim Franken and asked how much it would cost to eliminate the rust and paint the metal. According to Lopez, Franken provided a $38,000 ballpark figure for sand and water blasting the rust, applying primer and painting it.

“I think that’s the way to go,” Lopez said. “We’re going to end what has been a disaster real soon. We finally have a good building. The inside is just spectacular. It’s going to be one of the most spectacular buildings in New Mexico ... But, regents, I implore you. Let’s not continue this disaster. Let’s not allow this to remain there as the design or appearance of that building.”

Board chairman Leveo Sanchez agreed that the rust exterior is unattractive.

“We spend all of our lives trying to get rid of rust,” he said.

Changing the exterior wasn’t on the agenda, and the board took no action on the matter. But Lopez told his colleagues that Fries could take care of the matter administratively with a change order.

The Highlands Student Center, a massive glass structure at the northwest corner of National Avenue and Eighth Street, was supposed to have been completed this past December. Regents blame Makwa for the delay and fired the company in February.

The project is already about $4.8 million over budget, its cost having jumped from nearly $20.6 million when it was first approved to just over $25.4 million. The amount doesn’t include any settlement with Makwa.