Onward and UpwardFeb 01, 2022 ● By Lisa Sciortino
It’ll take more than a pandemic to slow down construction on the UNT at Frisco campus.
The 100-acre site, located at the southwest corner of Preston Road and Panther Creek Parkway, has been abuzz with activity since construction began there in October 2020. In fact, the project – which will see the creation of state-of-the-art, open-concept buildings boasting conference and study rooms, practice-presentation rooms and other spaces – has largely avoided experiencing the sort of supply chain issues and other delays that have plagued countless building projects nationally over the past year-plus.
UNT at Frisco’s newest campus (it currently holds classes at HALL Park and Inspire Park in Frisco and the Collin Higher Education Center in McKinney) is being constructed in two, 50-acre phases on land that was gifted to the university by the City of Frisco. (UNT has the option to purchase an additional 50 acres in the future.) It is anticipated to be open in time to host classes for the spring 2023 semester, when it is expected to offer 27 masters and Ph.D. programs to an initial 3,000-5,000 students (that number could grow to as many as 25,000 students within a decade).
“Things are going very smoothly,” Chad Joyce, UNT’s senior construction project manager, recently told Frisco STYLE. “COVID is an interesting thing when it comes to construction, and procurement (of materials) has been all kinds of fun, but honestly, the team worked through it really well, and we have stayed on schedule and under budget.”
In January, there was “a lot going on in terms of getting the utilities set up and in place” at the site, Joyce said. The four-story building that is currently under construction (it’s visible from Preston Road) should receive power sometime this month, followed by air conditioning in March. Achieving temperature control is a critical step that will allow crews to finish work on the building’s interior spaces.
Upon completion, the building will house classrooms, faculty offices and other spaces that foster collaboration, Dr. Wesley Randall, dean of New College and senior academic at UNT at Frisco, said. “Unlike a traditional building where you’ve got faculty (offices) at the top, classrooms down below … it’s classrooms spread throughout the entire building with the goal of students and faculty and staff colliding.”
Meanwhile, the school’s student services team – led by Dr. Hope Garcia, assistant vice president of student services for regional campuses – will assist inside the building where career coaching and financial management services as well as student-club and group activities will be available.
When it came to keeping construction costs down, Randall said university leadership “smartly watched our money during the pandemic, and the president (Neal Smatresk) and Board of Regents looked at what was going on. They could have said, `Let’s just stop because we’re worried,’ but they didn’t. They looked at it and said, `No, we’ve got an agreement with the City of Frisco and we’re moving forward. We are going to keep building this campus.’ … We had very smart folks at the system with a very smart contractor … that saw an opportunity and aggressively pursued it on behalf of the UNT system. It saved us a lot of money.”
The team overseeing the project was able to lock in costs for materials and construction contracts early in the pandemic after prices plummeted when other building projects stalled.
“Once the pandemic hit, everything stopped elsewhere, so the cost of supplies – steel, concrete, drywall, all of it – dropped, and so you had a bunch of manufacturers that were sitting on a bunch of inventory” due to canceled orders, Randall said. When other construction projects finally resumed, supplies tightened and costs ramped up. Now, “People are … paying 20 to 30 percent premiums on (things) we were paying 20 to 30 percent less” for.
Joyce agreed that “the time we bid worked out very well in favor of this campus and getting everything that we wanted and having extra” in terms of procuring materials and supplies – although that process hasn’t been without some challenges.
For example, he said, “We started out with one manufacturer of metal studs that we wanted to use throughout the building.” Due to hiccups in the supply chain, “We’ve ended up going to like five manufacturers of metal studs. It’s (utilizing) whatever we can get to make sure that we do it smartly but that we get it built.”
Randall said that the project being under budget has allowed for another unexpected benefit: Last fall, some $5 million was removed from the UNT at Frisco campus’ construction budget and reprogrammed by regents to help fund the construction of a future standalone multicultural center at UNT’s Denton campus. (A construction timeline and other details about that facility are still being determined.)
Over the years, the center was “one of the things we could never fund … but one of the things students of color always wanted,” Randall said. With the reallocation of those dollars, “That will always be this link between Frisco” and the Denton campus. “We wouldn’t have been able to do that without the Frisco promise, if you will, that we are creating this career-ready enterprise with the City of Frisco. The gift of the land has helped us keep costs down such that we’re able to give that promise of higher education to those who are least likely to have that promise. … To me, that’s beautiful.”
Beyond the construction, UNT at Frisco leadership is equally as excited about the degree programs that will be offered at the campus, particularly the Project Design and Analysis program that will allow students to earn a degree within three years by working with the university’s “industry partners” (including the City of Frisco) as part of a “fully project-based experience,” according to Academic Associate Dean Shari Childers.
The program will allow those partners to view firsthand what UNT’s students are capable of as they prepare to begin careers. “It is, in my opinion, such a much-needed partnership with business to get students where they want to go,” Childers said. On the industry side, “What we’re hearing from our partners is it offers students the opportunity to sort of come out of the realm of theory and have their boots on the ground and have the opportunity to practice with partners and experience” real-world business situations.
The university has also partnered with Frisco ISD to offer a project-based dual credit program for district students who “work on real-world problems that are complex to solve” in areas such as climate change and education. Through the program, Childers said, students are able to “see these problems through the lens of multiple disciplines simultaneously. How would an economist view this problem? How would a sociologist view this problem?”
Childers believes that the UNT at Frisco campus will also positively impact the overall community.
“Being here is a function of Frisco wanting us to be here and us sort of being landlocked” at the Denton campus, she said. “But that opens up a whole host of new possibilities that we haven’t had. … One is reshaping, even with respect to design, what the campus looks like and how it welcomes the community and is part of the community.”
Public university campuses are “always a public space, but it doesn’t always feel that way,” she said. “In our case, we want open space that the community is a part of consistently, that industry is part of consistently. … Part of the way that we are reconceptualizing education … is to make sure we have those partnerships and those connections in place and that the design of our campus reflects that openness.”
Editor’s note: Frisco STYLE will publish updates about construction and programming, events and other information related to UNT at Frisco in advance of and following the campus’ anticipated 2023 opening.
Lisa Sciortino is managing editor of Frisco STYLE.