On a campus dominated by red brick and concrete, Oregon State University’s George W. Peavy Forest Science Center stands out.
Now under construction, the centerpiece of the new Oregon Forest Science Complex is being built with massive panels of cross-laminated timber and wooden support beams, all of it sourced from within a 240-mile radius.
The three-story classroom, lab and office building is calculated to serve as a showpiece for the Oregon timber industry and position the school as a leader in the emerging field of commercial construction using advanced wood products.
“This building is transformational in what it’s going to do for our college,” said Dean Thomas Maness.
But the project is also more than a year behind schedule, 33 percent over budget and, for some, a symbol of deep divisions within the college.
Out with the old
For more than 40 years, Peavy Hall was synonymous with the OSU College of Forestry.
Built in 1971 at a cost of $2.2 million, the 84,000-square-foot building was a low-slung concrete structure with a tree-filled interior courtyard and a basement crammed with labs and offices. But by the time Maness became dean in 2012, the building was showing its age, with a backlog of maintenance issues estimated at $10 million or more.
“Peavy Hall was a frigging disaster. You couldn’t find your way around it, it was a big doughnut,” he said. “Forty-three percent of the old Peavy Hall was in the basement, and the basement leaked and they couldn’t fix it.”
By the following year, Maness was having discussions with Oregon timber families and other potential donors about a capital campaign to renovate Peavy. A feasibility study for that project raised the idea of building an advanced wood products laboratory as well.
At the same time, there was a growing push from timber interests and state government to help create new markets for Oregon businesses by taking advantage of the emerging trend of using engineered wood products to replace steel and concrete in midrise buildings.
An executive order signed by then-Gov. John Kitzhaber in October 2012 directed state agencies to take a number of actions to that end, including identifying at least two state capital projects that could be built “highlighting use of wood products in non-residential construction.”
The 2015 Legislature bought into both ideas, authorizing $29.7 million in state bonds to help fund the renovation of Peavy Hall and the construction of an applied research center in wood products engineering and manufacturing. The university was to fund the rest of the $60 million project through donations.
But just days later, in a press release announcing the legislative bonding authority, OSU made it clear that Peavy would not be renovated — it would be replaced.
Reaction was swift.
Old and ungainly as it may have been, Peavy was beloved by many in the College of Forestry.
Some students and faculty members questioned the need for a new building and called it a waste of resources, prompting the dean’s office to publish a “frequently asked questions” document defending the decision to demolish Peavy.
Doctoral student Deanne Carlson led a campaign to preserve the building, distributing “Save Peavy” lapel buttons, contacting media outlets and appealing to elected officials.
And John Selker, a distinguished professor in the College of Agricultural Sciences, went to the Faculty Senate with a survey that he said showed more than three-quarters of the faculty in the College of Forestry opposed the idea of tearing down Peavy Hall.
None of it worked.
In July of 2016, workers with Walsh Construction began dismantling the building that had been the college’s home for 45 years.
In with the new
Maness argues that the new building will be a major upgrade. Peavy’s subterranean hallways, he said, will be replaced with light-filled classrooms, flexible laboratory space that encourages interdisciplinary collaboration, and plenty of common areas where students and faculty can come together to network and exchange ideas.
“This building is going to be spectacular when it’s done,” he said. “It’s going to be quite beautiful.”
Not only that, added Geoff Huntington, the college’s chief of staff, but it will also highlight the capabilities of innovative companies such as project suppliers D.R. Johnson in Riddle and Frank Lumber in Mill City, which are retooling their operations to serve emerging markets for engineered wood.
“From the very beginning, this project was envisioned to show the breadth and flexibility of the wood products industry of Oregon,” Huntington said. “This is part of demonstrating we have huge capacity in timber-dependent rural communities to produce sustainable wood products.”
In addition to showcasing made-in-Oregon advances in prefab CLT panels and glu-lam structural members, Maness said, the College of Forestry has a responsibility to lead the way in educating a new generation of students about the need for sustainable construction practices.
“We’ve got to start building with natural materials,” he said. “We’re covering the world in concrete, and wood has such an advantage when it comes to carbon footprint.”
A series of unfortunate events
But the heartburn over the decision to replace Peavy Hall goes beyond the loss of a building some considered a campus landmark.
When demolition started, about 50 faculty and staff members were displaced. Some found new quarters next door in Richardson Hall, the 100,000-square-foot building that houses the rest of the college’s classroom, lab and office space. The rest were scattered in three other buildings on another part of the campus.
Others were not so lucky. Emeritus professors who had maintained offices in Peavy suddenly found themselves with no place on campus to call their own. Some grad students lost lab space as well.
There were other problems. Just three months after Peavy was closed for demolition, many of the occupants of Richardson Hall were temporarily displaced when heavy rains drenched much of the building’s interior during a roof repair project, causing at least half a million dollars’ worth of damage.
Not long afterward, the university parted ways with Walsh Construction, the contractor for the Forest Science Complex and Richardson roofing projects, and brought in Andersen Construction. The switch contributed to delays in building the forestry complex, which was initially slated for completion in fall of 2017 but now is not expected to be done until spring 2019.
A number of College of Forestry faculty members contacted by the Gazette-Times for this story declined to speak on the record, saying that criticizing college or university administrators could damage their careers.
Privately, however, most of those interviewed by the newspaper agreed that morale in the college is at a low ebb, with many feeling that administrators have made a series of bad decisions while glossing over the legitimate concerns of faculty and students.
In the words of one faculty member: “It was one disaster after another.”
In the meantime, the Oregon Forest Science Complex was running into problems on another front: costs.
In June 2016 — a month before demolition began on Peavy Hall — the OSU Board of Trustees approved an $8 million increase to the project’s budget, to be paid for by additional fundraising.
At the same time, the project was being scaled back: Instead of 85,000 square feet, the new Peavy would be 80,000, and the advanced wood products lab, originally pitched as a 25,000-square-foot facility, was trimmed down to 15,000. In a further effort to hold down costs, some of the bells and whistles were eliminated from the project.
Despite the downscoping, however, costs continued to climb. A September 2017 report to the board’s Finance & Administration Committee warned of a $7.2 million budget shortfall.
By last month, the figure was higher still. On Jan. 19, a proposal came before the board to increase the budget by an additional $11.5 million. Combined with the earlier bump, that would boost the project’s total budget to $79.5 million, up 32.5 percent from the initial $60 million.
The motion specified that the extra money would come from an internal bank loan to be repaid by the College of Forestry using college assets, including additional gifts from donors and accelerated logging on the Blodgett Tract, a 2,400-acre research forest in Columbia County.
Anita Azarenko, OSU’s associate vice president for capital planning and facilities operations, acknowledged problems with the cost estimates but said improvements have been made in the process. She also cited a consultant’s report commissioned by the university that found “abnormally high” market pressures were driving up prices in the construction industry nationwide.
There was little discussion of the matter. Trustee Patty Bedient, former chief financial officer for Weyerhaeuser Co., called the latest increase “a huge overrun.” Nevertheless, she joined the rest of the board members present in voting to approve the added funding.
Attempts by the Gazette-Times to contact individual board members either went unanswered or were referred to Board of Trustees Chair Rani Borkar. Under the organization’s bylaws, the chair is designated to act as spokesperson for the board.
Borkar initially declined an interview request, referring questions to OSU Vice President Steve Clark, the university’s chief spokesperson. When pressed, however, she did respond to several questions via email.
“While none of the board members like seeing increased costs, we have done our due diligence to understand why the increases have happened on this project,” she wrote.
“Partly, they are due to overall increases in construction costs that are happening everywhere. We also know that it can be challenging to estimate the budgets on capital projects when there is a long lag time between when a capital project is proposed and when construction starts after OSU gets the state funding approved by the legislature.”
Borkar said the board would evaluate budget changes in future projects and is satisfied that OSU officials have taken steps to limit the risk of such steep cost increases going forward.
“We have confidence in the university’s management of capital projects and appreciate university leaders’ focus on continuous improvement and transparency,” she wrote.
An analyst for a national construction industry organization said there’s no doubt prices are spiking across the country as firms struggle to find skilled workers to meet surging demand for commercial building projects.
Ken Simonson, chief economist for the Associated General Contractors of America, said the group’s most recent annual survey found 71 percent of construction firms are having trouble finding craft workers and 51 percent report difficulty in filling salaried positions such as project managers and supervisors.
“Anecdotally, we hear fairly often from our contractors that they can’t find subcontractors to even bid on a job,” he said.
While those factors alone might not be enough to explain a 33 percent budget increase, Simonson added, the construction market in the Northwest is especially tight right now, with multiple big projects in places like Portland and Seattle acting as magnets for skilled workers.
“Construction employment increased 10 percent in Oregon from December 2016 to December 2017,” he noted. “Oregon’s market is really hot.”
Two views of the future
That’s no consolation to disgruntled College of Forestry faculty who fear the decision to tear down and replace Peavy Hall will haunt the college for years to come.
Spiraling costs for the Oregon Forest Science Complex, the thinking goes, force the college to lean on donors who might otherwise be willing to support other projects, while heavy logging on the Blodgett Tract limits the kind of research work that can be done there and could ratchet up harvest pressure on the college’s other forestlands.
There are also concerns that cost-driven cuts in the scope of the project will leave the college without enough lab space.
Worst of all, perhaps, is a lingering feeling that administrators brushed aside the faculty’s legitimate concerns in the rush to create a signature building.
In the words of one faculty member: “They got themselves in over their heads, and there’s going to be long-term consequences.”
Maness acknowledges he was “pretty shocked” by the cost overruns on the project.
“But when you look at the transformational effect this is going to have on our college,” he added, “it’s something that we have to do.”
Peavy Hall, he argues, was an outmoded and inadequate building that was holding the college back. The Oregon Forest Science Complex, he insists, will not only push the college to the forefront of engineered wood design and construction, but it will serve as a calling card to attract the best and brightest to teach, learn and do research at OSU.
“Already we’re getting faculty that want to come here and work in the building, we’re getting students who want to come here,” Maness said.
Even the doubters within the college, he predicts, will stop complaining when the new facility opens its doors a little over a year from now.
“Once we’re done, everybody will forget about it,” Maness said. “They’re going to forget about all that stuff and they’re going to be really proud of it.”