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Buildings at NDSU need work

David Samson / Forum News Service Street work and sidewalk demolition is underway near Stevens Hall on the campus of North Dakota State University. Other improvements to Stevens Hall will be to replace half of the building's windows, among other things. A report commissioned by the state university system estimated it will cost almost $6 million over the next six years to finish all the maintenance work Stevens Hall needs.

FARGO — When Jane Schuh was a graduate student at North Dakota State University in the 1990s, she sometimes had to stop her research because the power had failed in her building.

Schuh, now a professor and administrator at the university, said it’s hard to conduct lab work when the lights go out.

She said things in the Van Es building are better these days, but her veterinary and microbiological science research area still doesn’t have a backup power supply. And maintenance workers come by so often it “feels like they live on our roof.”

Schuh’s building is one of many at NDSU and across the state with a long backlog of deferred maintenance — repairs that haven’t happened because the money isn’t there.

A report commissioned by the North Dakota University System estimates that NDSU will need $244 million for those repairs over the next six years. If state funding continues at its current rate, the school will be lucky to get 5 percent of that.

NDSU gets about $2.7 million from the state every two years for repairs. It would cost $2 million to $3 million just to update the ventilation in Van Es, said Mike Ellingson, director of facilities management at NDSU.

“Our list will continue to grow with the current funding that we have,” Ellingson said.

Most of the repairs needed at NDSU are for the guts of various buildings — electrical, plumbing and mechanical work. The study looked at only a sample of eight buildings on the campus and used them to estimate how much deferred maintenance is needed throughout the school.

Half of those buildings, including Van Es, were deemed to be in “poor” condition, with an average of $5.2 million in deferred maintenance.

Walster Hall, an agricultural science building, was listed in even worse shape. The report said it may be cheaper to replace the building rather than cover the more than $7.5 million in extant repairs over six years.

And the school’s heating plant needs almost $9 million in repairs and replacements by 2020. System wide, only Valley City State University’s plant needs more work, the report stated.

Ellingson said he wasn’t surprised by the report’s results. NDSU hired a firm to take stock of its deferred maintenance in 2008, and officials have used that plan to prioritize repairs.

The report helped the facilities management department identify the 15 worst roofs across campus, for example, and prioritize where major work was needed or a “Band-Aid” of smaller repairs would suffice.

NDSU’s current master plan calls for replacing Harris Hall, the 60-year-old home of the food science program, and the Dunbar Laboratories, built in the early 1960s on the campus’ south side.

Replacing Dunbar should eat a big chunk out of the school’s deferred maintenance, said Rick Tonder, director of facilities planning for the North Dakota University System.

Long-term outlook

The big backlog of deferred repairs at NDSU has forced the facilities management team to approach some projects with an eye for the distant future.

A recent renovation to the roof of Ceres Hall, which houses the admissions office and career center, opted for a more expensive metal seam rather than shingles because metal lasts longer.

And the school’s parking lots are concrete, not asphalt, because it takes longer for concrete to break down.

“In some cases, it might cost you a few more dollars upfront, but we’re looking at the long-term perspective,” Ellingson said.

Ellingson and Tonder stressed that virtually all universities have deferred maintenance, and it’s usually unwise to tackle the whole list at once.

But just keeping the University System’s buildings in their current state will take about $266 million every two years from the state — almost seven times what the system currently gets.

Reducing deferred maintenance and getting buildings into better shape will take even more state money.

“(The system) faces a decision about what condition it wants and can afford for its facilities,” the report said. “And the options are all challenging.”

The State Board of Higher Education is still considering which buildings to prioritize and how much money to request from the Legislature.

But the system wide price tag is about $800 million over the next six years, and any request won’t be that high, said Linda Donlin, director of communications for the University System.

Ellingson said he’d like to trim the list of repairs at NDSU in the coming years.

“There’s a lot of heavy lifting in front of us,” Tonder said.