Building a better college campus

UB’s annual construction report: Behind the action on campus construction
By: | Issue: July, 2015
June 19, 2015

Despite the economic and demographic factors that indicate challenging times ahead for higher ed, campuses across the country are busy building, according to a survey of college and university leaders by UB.

The survey took a look at the inspiration behind campus construction efforts and the overall institutional impact of the projects. With student enrollment growth being a big motivational factor for new buildings and renovations, it’s not surprising that academic buildings and residence halls are the top project types.

Building exteriors are picking up design elements from surrounding structures and interiors are being designed to support interdisciplinary studies and collaborative teaching and learning styles. Facilities planning, meanwhile, continues to focus on sustainable building practices.

Some key findings from the survey, which had 319 respondents:

  • More than half, 53 percent, said they either began planning a major construction project in the 2014-15 academic year or will begin planning one in the coming academic year.
  • Nearly half, 45 percent, reported that their campus has already broken ground, or this academic year will be breaking ground, on a major building project.
  • In addition, 47 percent said they have completed or will complete a major building project this academic year.

Motivations and foundations

The top construction project motivation cited was student enrollment growth, with other popular reasons being that buildings were past their lifecycle, or that there was a need to consolidate related programs and make space for new ones.

Meeting student demand: “We had maxed out our lecture halls. We did not have the facilities to be able to handle a growth in the class sizes, so that was a big driver,” says Phil Howard, vice president of facilities services at Georgia Regents University-Georgia Regents Health System. “Now we’ve created something that can be used as a recruiting tool to be able to increase class sizes in the future.”

A recently completed project is the J. Harold Harrison, M.D. Education Commons, a three-story, 175,000-square-foot interdisciplinary building. It includes classroom space for the Medical College of Georgia and the College of Dental Medicine and, most notably, a 40,000-square-foot interprofessional simulation center. Also in the works are two on-campus residence halls—one for undergraduate students and one for graduate/professional students.

Similarly, a steadily growing student enrollment plus continued gains in student retention prompted the University of Nevada, Reno to undergo considerable expansion in recent years. More than 1 million square feet of space has been added to the campus since 2007, says President Marc Johnson, adding that there’s much more work being done. Recent projects include a $20 million expansion of its engineering earthquake lab, and the $45 million Pennington Student Achievement Center, which is slated to open in January 2016.

Other survey respondents said they are simply playing catch-up to accommodate student growth that has already happened, as is the case for Alverno College in Wisconsin. “The campus was built in 1953 when it served 800 students. Today, it serves 2,500 students, so we have needs for study spaces and general areas to accommodate that growth,” says Julie Quinlan Brame, vice president for advancement.

Once all of Alverno’s new construction and renovation projects are complete, the campus will have nine new high-tech classrooms, a new high-fidelity nursing simulation center (with realistic simulators that respond physiologically to interventions), an expanded commons, a larger food service area, a coffee shop, private group study rooms, and a new art education suite that doubles the classroom space devoted to art and dance education.

Updating outdated facilities: Deferred maintenance was the biggest prompt for major building efforts at Newberry College in South Carolina, reports Scott Joyner, the vice president for institutional advancement.

“We’re trying to update to be competitive in the market,” he says, adding that despite the appealing Georgian style architecture, Newberry’s buildings are dated. The college’s projects, which include a Science, Nursing, Art and Math building, as well as a Center for Athletic and Academic Excellence, are part of a five-year, $35 million building campaign.

“It’s going to really set us up for the next 50 years of higher education, with updates in information technology and energy, and by building things that are multiuse and interdisciplinary,” says Joyner. Officials plan to grow the small private liberal arts college beyond just traditional incoming freshman; transfer programs with technical institutions and an expansion of adult learning are also fueling the growth and construction projects.

Creating smarter academic spaces: Consolidating related programs and giving space to new academic majors prompted a just-completed $72 million project at Maryland’s Frostburg State University. The Center for Communications and Information Technology (CCIT) houses Computer Science and Information Technology, Communication Studies, Graphic Design, and Mathematics, and also includes studios for its cable TV channel and NPR-affiliate radio station. There’s even a multimedia learning center with a planetarium.

“We have to turn students away at night when the building closes. They want to stay there and work all night,” says Joseph Hoffman, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Construction with an eye on the future

A wide range of campus construction projects, with published costs ranging from a few hundred thousand dollars to many millions, were noted by survey takers. Some include the renovation and retrofitting of older facilities, while others are adding square footage to their existing campuses. Despite a variety of project types, there were some noteworthy trends uncovered in follow-up conversations with survey participants.

Interdisciplinary studies: Georgia Regents University officials wanted to create learning communities for their medical students, while also offering shared resources for its five health sciences professional colleges.

“Simulation is a huge part of the curriculum in all the colleges. Previously, the simulation was spread out and each college had their own,” says Howard. The new construction allows for more realistic simulations involving various health care specialties.

“Nurses and doctors and physical therapists are working together in teams after they graduate, so why not begin bringing them together? We brought all those colleges together under one house,” he says.

A commitment to alternative energies: A good number of respondents said they were aiming for LEED certification, with more building to LEED Silver standards rather than LEED Gold. Most mentioned a focus on alternative energy and sustainability in some form. Rooftop gardens, rainwater collection systems, updated HVACs, solar panels and energy-efficient lighting and windows were a few of the recurring responses regarding sustainable building elements.

Staying relevant, but maintaining tradition: When officials at Carroll University in Wisconsin decided to embark on a $24 million project to incorporate a state-of-the-art science lab building, it needed to meet 21st century design standards, while living among buildings constructed in the 19th century.

“Architecturally, we are the oldest institution in the state,” says Ron Lostetter, vice president of finance in administrative services. “What we didn’t want to do was make a new building look old, but it needed to fit into the neighborhood, so to speak.”

To make that happen, the design team incorporated the same stone appearing in the campus’ older buildings into the new building’s exterior.

Design inspired by teaching styles and learning outcomes: Another common theme that came through is that construction projects often involve faculty and student input, or at the very least, careful consideration of how they teach and learn best.

“When we design our buildings, every nook and cranny has seating because we learned that groups of two, three or four students will sit with faculty to discuss their academic and social endeavors. It’s amazing what students can do outside of the larger rooms,” says University of Nevada, Reno’s Johnson.

A similar notion influenced Frostburg’s construction. “The university is not the blackboard and armchair seats of the past,” says Hoffman. “You have to have an architecture of learning that matches up with the tools that are available.”

That’s why the CCIT building was constructed with informal and formal break-out areas, many with technology that allows students to hook up their laptops to a large screen and work together on developing projects. “Design can make all the difference between a successful and unsuccessful experience for students,” he says.

If you build it, will they come?

Campus construction, no matter how it’s financed, is a big investment, but survey respondents are looking forward to many happy returns.

One way new facilities are being maximized is as recruitment tools. “When we have our open houses for prospective students, we ensure we make full use of these facilities to host the open houses. Visitors get a chance to sit in the rooms, to tour the spaces,” says Hoffman. “I know that parents and the prospective students keep talking about the quality of the spaces available as having a major impact on their decision to apply.”

Most of all, though, is that shiny new campus facilities often have the fringe benefit of a renewed sense of institutional pride that resonates among all constituent groups, including current students, faculty and alumni.

“When our new Commons space was complete this fall, students came into the renovated area and they were literally high-fiving each other,” says Marlene Neises, Alverno College’s associate vice president of academic services. “They’d always been really proud of their college, but now they are proud of their campus, too.”

Dawn Papandrea is a Staten Island, NY-based writer.