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Amherst College in search of new site for science center

In announcing the decision to the campus community in a Thursday email, President Biddy Martin said the college has not wavered on its commitment to build a top-notch facility for science within the initial timeframe and budget. She said that this pivot in plans will not affect a projected completion date.

“By 2018, as planned, we will have opened a new science center that meets the research needs of our faculty while offering the best science education available to undergraduates anywhere,” Martin wrote in her letter.

College officials announced in October 2011 their intention to build a $200 million, four-story center between Keefe Campus Center and the Merrill Science Building. Plans called for much of the structure to be built into a hillside to blend into the college landscape. Construction was to take place in stages over as many as six years.

Cost increases

Since then, however, the demands of the site have led to a significant escalation in cost and would likely have negative disruption to faculty research and other campus life, said James Brassord, director of facilities and associate treasurer for the college.

“It became evident as we entered the final stages of design that those construction estimates, as validated by subcontractors, were understated,” Brassord said.

Additionally, it recently became clear to college officials just how disruptive the project would be when a much smaller effort to re-route utilities next to Merrill proved harmful to the sensitive science being performed in the building.

“That was a small project compared to the science center, so we could foresee serious disruptions,” Brassord said.

When the costs climbed to more than $250 million, officials scrapped the site and will instead look for a location that allows for a single phase of construction.

The college will soon hire an architectural planner to assess the merits of two specific alternative sites and may explore others, Brassord said.

One site is on the east campus off East Drive between Barrett Hill and Merrill Science roads, where four 1960s-era dormitories are located. This scenario would involve demolishing Coolidge, Stone, Pond and Crossett dorms to make way for the new science center. Brassord said the college would first need to construct housing elsewhere on campus to replace the dorms, which currently house 280 students.

The second site is located on the southeastern portion of campus in an open area south of Wieland and King halls. Brassord said this site is appealing because it is undeveloped.

While it searches for a better site and updates a new design, the college will make needed improvements to Merrill to allow for ongoing scientific research and teaching. The original design called for the eventual demolition of Merrill.

Once the science programs in Merrill move to the new center, the college will likely use the building as swing space while other campus projects are under construction.

School plans anew

Martin said the decision to change course wasn’t easy because of the “visionary and compelling design” that architect Behnisch Architekten developed for the site.

The college expects to use many of the elements in Behnisch’s design as it plans anew, particularly its plans for laboratory and technical spaces. This will allow the college to recover a portion of its investment in the pre-construction phases.

Brassord anticipates the center will be roughly the same size at 220,000 square feet of floor space, but the building will have a different look and will likely cost less to develop because a new site will not have the same amount of “cost premiums.”

No matter the location, the vision for the science center remains the same.

“The goals and commitment are unwavering,” Brassord said.

The new building will house most of the school’s science disciplines, including the departments of astronomy, biology, chemistry, physics and psychology, and the neuroscience and biochemistry-biophysics programs.

The college began planning for the new center about eight years ago when officials determined that Merrill was approaching the end of its useful life.

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