By Roland Murphy for AZBEX

The BEX Leading Market Series Higher Education Capital Projects presentation is consistently one of the highest attended every year. The 2023 session held Dec. 5 at SkySong proved to be no exception.

A near-capacity crowd came out to hear about the latest capital project plans and state of the market perceptions from representatives of Arizona’s three major universities. The panel consisted of:

  • Moderator Cassie Saba (Robertson)DPR Construction SW regional prefab leader;
  • Alexander KohnenArizona State University VP of facilities development and management;
  • Stephanie BauerNorthern Arizona University assistant director of facility services for planning, design and construction; and
  • Ralph BanksUniversity of Arizona executive director of planning, design and construction.

The event was sponsored by DPR Construction.

After brief introductory remarks from BEX Companies Founder and President Rebekah Morris, Saba wasted no time turning to the panelists for quick summations of their project lists and state of operations summaries.

Speaking for NAU, Bauer explained the university’s master plan establishing its framework for the next 10 years was approved by the Arizona Board of Regents in November. She also presented a PowerPoint slide with seven capital projects, most of which are potential and not yet funded. These include academic buildings, student housing, parking structures and conversions of existing facilities to meet the university’s carbon neutrality and sustainability goals.

UArizona’s Banks told the audience the university has 15 or 16 projects on its planning list but that final funding has not yet been established. He mentioned, however, a request for qualifications is currently outstanding for the university’s new art museum project. Responses are due by Dec. 14.

Banks said the art museum will be “a signature piece” for UArizona and that high design quality will be of utmost importance. Because of its importance and prestige, the project will be developed under the Construction Manager at Risk delivery method, rather than the university’s standard Design-Build process.

Design-Build, particularly the two-step process, was an ongoing theme throughout the day. It is UArizona’s standard method, and both NAU and ASU are moving more heavily toward Design-Build as well.

Banks added that many of the potential projects have an added component, in that the university prefers to simultaneously manage upgrades to surrounding services and infrastructure while working on new developments, as the approach is both more efficient and more cost effective.

Kohnen said ASU has improved its processes to be more transparent to both ABOR and the public when it comes to disclosing projects. He said the university had formerly tended to announce projects as they started to move toward development but that ASU is now making a concerted effort to pre-list projects in its Capital Improvement Plan.

He also spoke at some length about various projects on the ASU development horizon. He said he is particularly excited about the Research Building ISTB 9 project, which is expected to see solicitations issued in the spring. Kohnen said he would have preferred to use a Construction Manager at Risk delivery method for ISTB 9, but that ABOR had programmatic objections. He added he is now excited about the Design-Build aspect and looks forward to the work to come.

He then outlined several more items on the potential list for ASU, including various healthcare and bioscience efforts, most notably the ASU Health headquarters to be built in downtown Phoenix. “I can say with 100% confidence our first building dedicated to our new medical school under the brand ASU Health will be downtown. Where it’s going to go, specifically, we have a couple more meetings to work those issues out. I am hopeful that something is going to percolate to the surface sometime this summer,” he said. “We have a real urgency to get moving on this because of the bond issue that came out for the City of Phoenix, and they’re going to help support some of those costs.”

Also of particular interest was the ongoing progress of plans for a development to honor the late U.S. Senator John McCain. The final name and scope of the development, which Kohnen jokingly referred to as “The McCain Compound,” has approximately 20 different stakeholders with a say in what will ultimately be built.

“We’re using the programming portion as a surrogate to get unanimity on what we’re actually going to build,” he said. “The first building will probably be somewhere in the $200M range. That’s what we’re targeting right now, so it will be a fairly expensive development.” He said he does not expect to be ready to break ground on any development for approximately 12 months.

During the question and answer session, Saba directly asked about the role of Design-Build in upcoming projects. Bauer said NAU is still learning the process and that the university currently has projects and RFQs under consideration using the method.

Banks reaffirmed that Design-Build is generally UArizona’s preferred alternative delivery method, although he said the university usually doesn’t use the two-step process.

Kohnen said ASU will not rely exclusively on one delivery method but that Design-Build has gotten more flexible as the supply chain demands have changed and that it offers a closer level of interaction between all the parties.

Farewell to a Giant

One reason the Higher Education LMS has always been one of BEX’s best attended has undeniably been Kohnen’s presence on the panel. At 6’11”, he towers above the rest of the room, particularly moderator Saba, who stands slightly taller than 5’. Their interactions have provided several comedic moments.

Kohnen’s acerbic wit, sarcasm and general willingness to speak his mind – often to the shock and amusement of the audience and his fellow panelists – have become expected program notes for these events.

Unfortunately for future attendees, this LMS was confirmed to be Kohnen’s last. He will be retiring from ASU and has accepted a position at Vanderbilt. While we at BEX wish him nothing but the best in his future endeavors, both his physical and comedic presence will be difficult vacancies to fill.