COLUMBIA — Billows of dust were so thick around the Chi Omega house Wednesday afternoon that it was almost impossible to see what was happening.
But one thing was clear: The sorority house at 406 Burnam Ave. is coming down.
At 3:45 p.m., after hours of delays to repair equipment, a backhoe loader took the first punches into the brick exterior.
As the afternoon wore on, the rear of the building began to loosen and collapse. It is expected to take three days to pull the house and its annex down and to make way for a new home for the Greek chapter.
Currently the chapter includes 248 members — with 70 living in the house and annex during the 2011-12 school year. The new house will be able to accommodate 92 residents.
The demolition was ordered after the Chi Omega governing board decided it would be more expensive to renovate the house than tear it down and rebuild. The board was facing mandates to install a sprinkler system and update other aspects of the 90-year-old building.
Originally, the demolition was planned for 10 a.m. Wednesday, but the job was stalled by issues with the backhoe loader. Ron Richmond, house maintenance manager, said the problem was caused by a busted hydraulic pipe, then a lack of hydraulic fluid.
A group of spectators, which included Chi Omega alumnae, current members and curious onlookers, held up phones and iPads to capture the event from across the street.
The rebuilding project followed seven years of strategic planning, House Corporation President Abbie O’Sullivan said. The final push came when the city required all MU sorority and fraternity houses and annexes to be equipped with sprinkler systems. Chi Omega's governing council endorsed a similar mandate.
The cost of installing a system in the current Chi Omega house, built in 1922, was the deciding factor, O'Sullivan said.
Chi Omega's national office had required the installation by June 1, 2011, but O’Sullivan said she was able to work around that.
“We signed a contract telling them that we would not have the system installed by that date, but we were building a house that would have the required system,” she said.
Other issues had plagued the chapter. The original house depended on a boiler heating system, as well as separate air conditioning systems.
"The flexibility of the heating and cooling systems was absolutely terrible," O'Sullivan said.
Not only was the building out of date, but the Chi Omega house was unable to meet the needs of the growing chapter.
“We’ve outgrown the house," O'Sullivan said. "We even have an annex, but the new house will be built where the house and annex are currently located.”
Rebuilding the house will add a number of other amenities. Bob Cunningham of Cunningham & Associates, a Greek-housing specialist based in Columbia, said the house will enclose 33,500 square feet.
It will include an elevator, a parking garage beneath the building, a designated work room and a meeting room designed to hold the entire chapter. O’Sullivan predicted that the sorority could have more than 290 members after fall recruitment.
Chi Omega has leased the former Alpha Tau Omega house at 909 Richmond Ave. Eighty-nine members are expected to live in this location for the 2012-13 school year.
“It is a little sad, but everyone is so excited to have a new house; everyone is also so eager to help," chapter president Lucie Williams said.
Housemother Susan Gibson said some members met with the design team to make certain the house included everything they wanted. They have also saved antique furniture from the old house because they hope the design team incorporates it in the new interior.
"They really heard them instead of just casting their ideas aside," Gibson said.
The new house is expected to be completed by July 2013.