Aber Hall on the University of Montana campus in Missoula. Credit: Alex Sakariassen

MISSOULA — Over the past four months, Jameel Chaudhry has watched the prices for steel used in construction projects rise 20-30%. Same with the cost of carpet, plastics, sheet vinyl, concrete and a host of other building materials, which due to pandemic-related disruptions are all in short supply. For Chaudhry, associate director for planning, design and construction at the University of Montana, the environment is completely new, and based on what he’s heard from the state Department of Administration’s architecture and engineering division, has resulted in steeper price tags on projects throughout Montana.

“The time that we’re living in is like no other,” Chaudhry said. “This is the first time I’ve ever seen this kind of construction climate.”

One such project on deck at UM is a remodel of Aber Hall, a high-rise dorm on the east end of campus that was repurposed in 2020 as quarantine housing for students who tested positive for COVID-19 or were identified as close contacts. Campus officials announced last fall that the building would be refitted as administrative office space, and estimated the cost at $1.6 million. UM recently doubled that figure to $3.2 million, citing unexpected increases in construction material prices and unpredictable shipping schedules.

On Thursday, the Montana Board of Regents unanimously approved the university’s request to raise the budget of the Aber Hall remodel. Regents initially greenlit the project last fall, and approved a smaller cost increase of $300,000 in May. UM plans to pay for the remodel from its own coffers, drawing from a $146.8 million pot of infrastructure funding generated by a bond sale and debt refinancing in 2019, but spending is subject to a review and vote by the regents.

UM spokesperson Dave Kuntz told Montana Free Press the Aber Hall remodel feeds into a larger plan to build a new campus dining facility. That project calls for tearing down a portion of the Lommasson Center, which currently houses UM’s dining hall and numerous administrative offices. Those offices will be temporarily relocated to five upper floors of Aber Hall during the span of the dining hall reconstruction, which Kuntz estimates will take several years.

“It will be the home for employees who are displaced during the construction project that’s going to be taking place on campus between now and about 2025, when that stuff’s all set to be wrapped up,” Kuntz said.

In order to house administrative staff, dorm rooms in Aber will be carpeted and repainted, and electrical systems will be upgraded to accommodate computers and other office hardware. Chaudhry also said older light fixtures will be replaced, and some walls will be removed to turn multiple rooms into larger conference areas. 

“The time that we’re living in is like no other. … This is the first time I’ve ever seen this kind of construction climate.”

Jameel Chaudhry, associate director for planning, design and construction at the University of Montana

UM accepted a bid on the Aber Hall project this week, and Chaudhry expects work to begin by the end of July and wrap up by late December. It’s unknown what student enrollment will look like this fall, but Kuntz said he’s confident the removal of Aber Hall and its 394-student capacity from the on-campus housing equation won’t negatively affect the student population, pointing to the availability of private off-campus facilities such as the ROAM student apartments and UM’s plans to increase capacity in other dorms.

The weighty new price tag on Aber’s remodel speaks to a broader trend sweeping through the construction market. Barry Houser, director of marketing and communications for the Montana Contractors Association, said increases in building material costs over the past year are a nationwide problem. The nationwide shuttering of manufacturing plants during the pandemic resulted in significant shortages of lumber, steel and construction equipment. Houser has heard stories from across the state about cost increases being passed down to project funders like UM. Some projects have been temporarily halted or shelved altogether, he said, and the situation is exacerbated by an ongoing shortage of skilled workers to staff construction projects.

“Right now it’s kind of tying the hands of our members because there’s not a lot they can do,” Houser said, adding that contractors around the country are leaning on President Joe Biden to address rising construction costs. “What’s driving it is the shortage of materials, and we think that’s going to come around. Folks are starting to come back to work. Things are going to start getting made again and become more available and it should correct itself. But unfortunately, in the short term, it’s going to take a little while.”

The regents also voted Thursday to approve a request by the UM-based Montana Public Interest Research Group (MontPIRG) to add the nonprofit back onto the board’s list of student fees at UM for the coming academic year. The optional $5-per-semester fee was excluded from the list following the Legislature’s passage of Senate Bill 319, which required that student fees supporting on-campus organizations registered with the state as political committees be opt-in rather than opt-out. The provision was one of several that Republican lawmakers added to SB 319 in the session’s final days, and the new law is now the subject of two separate lawsuits. MontPIRG is a plaintiff in one of those challenges. The regents’ approval of reinstating MontPIRG’s student fee extends to June 2022, and is contingent on either the organization not registering as a political committee during that time or on SB 319 being struck down in court. If the law is upheld, the regents’ approval will be rescinded.

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Staff reporter Alex Sakariassen covers the education beat and the state Legislature for Montana Free Press. Alex spent the past decade writing long-form narrative stories that spotlight the people, the politics, and the wilds of Montana. A North Dakota native, he splits his free time between Missoula’s ski slopes and the quiet trout water of the Rocky Mountain Front. Contact Alex by email at asakariassen@montanafreepress.org.