A quarter of a million dollars will build a pretty nice home in Maine.

Four and a half million dollars should be more than enough to build a 20-unit apartment building for senior citizens, a building that is not only attractive but sound and durable.

Unfortunately, after only a year, the Birch Hill Apartments in Lewiston seem to be falling apart. Not only that, the units seem in some respects ill-designed to house the elderly at all.

A downtown neighborhood group blew the whistle on this project after residents began complaining of cracks in walls and air blowing through gaps around windows.

In one place, floor boards lift inside an apartment when a motorized wheelchair travels by in an adjacent hallway.

Among the puzzling design features is a bathroom fan and light controlled by a single switch.

When the light is flipped on for any reason, the ceiling fan is timed to run 20 minutes.

Go in to brush your teeth and the fan runs for 20 minutes, like it or not. Grab something from the medicine cabinet and the fan runs for another 20 minutes.

What’s more, when residents try to take a shower, the fans sucks the warm air out and draws in cooler air.

Some shivering tenants have responded by showering in the dark, and others by hurriedly showering, drying and changing clothes in the shower stall before it cools off.

One elderly man has put a space heater in the bathroom, a possible safety hazard.

Residents are even more worried by cracks in walls, and doors that will not latch or shut, indications that the building is shifting or settling.

One residents questioned childproof wall outlets that require a twist of the wrist, and push-button lights that are difficult for those with arthritic hands to operate.

The residents appreciate the opportunity to live in a new building, despite its design flaws.

But taxpayers should not be as forgiving.

We have questioned the per-unit cost of elderly housing units being constructed in both Lewiston and Auburn.

Developers have explained that cleaning and outfitting old buildings is expensive, but it also helps maintain the traditional look of a community.

We get that.

But the Birch Street building is new construction, and it still cost an average of $224,000 per unit.

For that money, this should be a handsome building that not only anticipates the needs of the elderly but is built to last for many decades.

The building is owned by Coastal Enterprises Inc., a community development organization headquartered in Wiscasset. It is managed for CEI by Preservation Management Inc. of New England.

Contacted about Birch Hill, Preservation Management said it was unaware of problems.

“Any maintenance item that is brought to our attention is addressed very quickly,” an official told the Sun Journal.

From what we saw, these are not maintenance issues, they are design and construction flaws.

As stewards of the public’s money, CEI should act quickly to have an independent structural engineer determine what is wrong with this building and what it will take to fix it.

Then the architects and contractors should be accountable for fixing it.

If we don’t act now, in 10 or 15 years we may be looking at an expensive, inefficient eyesore.

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The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and editorial board.


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