Lawsuit Squeezes Colorado Med School Design


Rocky Mountain News


DENVER — Smaller windows, no terraces, and wild grasses instead of trees and bushes. Those are just a few of the 300 or so nips and tucks that architects have dreamed up in the past three months to pare $30 million from the cost of the University of Colorado's $203 million medical school.


A lawsuit has put the construction on hold indefinitely. Meanwhile, the cost of steel has spiked, and interest rates are rising. The buildings — if and when they're ever built — will cost the same. But CU estimates its spending power has declined by 15 percent, or $30 million.


"It's an absolute shame," said Tim Romani, vice chancellor of planning and development for the CU Medical School.


Groundbreaking on the first of nine buildings was originally scheduled for March. The project will move the medical school from its aging Denver campus to the former Fitzsimons Army Medical Center in Aurora.


But a legal battle between a prisoners' rights group and the Colorado attorney general has put the school's funding on hold. The case is pending in the Colorado Court of Appeals, with no court date set. Since the dispute began, the price of finished steel has climbed nearly 50 percent, said Gene Fatur, project executive at Turner Construction. Unfinished structural steel cost $660 a ton in the third quarter, up from $350 a year ago, according to Nucor, one of the largest U.S. steel makers.


Steel permeates every aspect of construction, showing up in doors, wire, joists, decks, stairs, railing, frames and studs. In addition, the project's cost was originally estimated using 5.5 percent interest rates. "Depending on how long this takes, we may well have to borrow at higher rates," Romani said.


Romani has pledged to maintain the buildings' size. And the exteriors won't suffer. But the project's architects have begun to develop a list of optional items such as basements, extra walls and landscaping.


"We've made the envelope of the (education) building more efficient," said Andrew Nielsen, a partner with Anderson Mason Dale architects. "And in the process, maybe we've lost some of the graciousness."


All this redesign itself costs money, said Gary Desmond, principal with AR7 HooverDesmondArchitects. "We're spending a lot of time and money, which we never planned on, to figure out how to address these increasing costs," he said.