BU residence renovations to cost $50 million over five years

By Gordon Lambie
BU residence renovations to cost $50 million over five years

Bishop’s University’s residences are at the breaking point. In what has become a familiar story across the province of Quebec, structures first built in the 1950’s and 60’s are now so out of date and behind modern expectations that the school has no choice but to engage in a massive and expensive regime of renovations, despite ongoing financial strain that Bishop’s is facing.

“We’re looking for $50 million for the next five years,” said Bishops’ VP Finance, France Gervais. “We have started the Abbott residence renovations, and every other building that we have will be renovated, hopefully one every year.”

Gervais was quick in establishing that there is nothing structurally wrong with any of the buildings, but pointed out that changes in fire and building codes over time mean that the buildings will soon no longer meet provincial standards. On top of that, the VP Academic said that there is a laundry list of heating and structural issues that, while not dangerous, severely undermine the quality of residence life at the school.

“They’re not up to date as to what the new students of today need,” Gervais explained, stating that the work to gut and remake Abbott is set to cost about $6.5 million.

Michael Goldbloom, Bishop’s Principal, recalled that the residences are one of the main tools with which the university is hoping to boost its revenues in the coming years, given that the rooms can be rented out to visitors when school is not in session. With the buildings in their current state, however, that offering is not as desirable as it could otherwise be.

“Part of the challenge for us is that we’ve actually been operating our residences and food operations with, I guess I will call it a notional profit. We have been taking about three or four hundred thousand dollars out of the residence and food operations to support the academic programs of the university,” Goldbloom said. “Now that we’re at a point where these buildings need to be renovated, and it’s not surprising after more than 50 years that that’s the case, it creates an additional financial challenge for us because the Quebec government doesn’t provide funding to build or renovate residences.”

The Principal pointed to residence life as one of the core structures of the Bishop’s experience and explained that the renovations currently being undertaken are a matter of essential work that should have been started already and cannot be delayed any longer.

According to Gervais, the plan at the moment is to renovate the three “newside” residences: Abbott, Munster, and Kuehner, as well as the Norton and Pollack residences, at a rate of one per year by drawing on funding from the Bishop’s University Foundation and some of the funds raised through the “Leading the Way” capital campaign. That money will help to finance a thirty year loan, the rest of which will be paid through the school’s annual operating budget.

“It’s not realistic to think that our capital campaign could pay for the renovation of all of these buildings,” the Principal said. “I’m still hoping for the day when someone says they want to contribute money to Bishop’s to renovate the residences. Many people who went to Bishop’s would say that their time in residence was a critical time for them, but so far no one has come forward in our capital campaign and said, here’s $5 million for residence renovations.”

Gervais and Goldbloom pointed out that with the closure of one residence per year, the school’s ability to house students will be reduced over the coming years, as enrollment is on the rise. One of the houses on campus has been converted to act as a student residence for the 2015-16 school year, but Gervais said that the school will be down an average of ninety beds per year for the duration of the work. Goldbloom emphasized that Bishop’s has managed to maintain its guarantee of a residence space for every incoming student.

Left out of the list of aging buildings to be renovated is Mackinnon Hall. Though it was built almost ten years later than the Norton and Pollack halls, the 115 room Mackinnon residence is, according to the school’s calculations, not worth saving.

“The issue with Mackinnon is that the kind of common wisdom in the construction industry appears to be that if you can renovate a building for less than 70 per cent of the cost of building new, it’s worth renovating,” Goldbloom explained. “In the case of Mackinnon, the analysis so far suggests that the cost of renovating it would be more than 70 per cent of the cost of building new, and therefore it may well make sense to build a new residence rather than putting the money into renovating the old one.”

The Principal said that given the current financial situation of the school, no firm commitment has been made to do any new construction yet, but he said that the preference would be to build a new structure sooner rather than later in order to offset the disruption to the residence numbers caused by the renovations.

“The overall plan is to renovate Newside and Norton and Pollack but if, in that time we could build a new residence, then at the end of that time you could demolish Mackinnon and at no point would you be operating with fewer beds, as we are right now,” The Principal said.“The best thing we could have done would have been to build a new residence first, because then each year when one was empty, you could have other rooms for them.”

Gervais estimated that one way or the other, Mackinnon will be demolished within the next five to six years.

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