Outlook on facilities: Campus space-shapers

Shifts in enrollment and the labor market having a big impact on campus construction

In many ways, 2015 will look a lot like 2014 with respect to facilities. But there are trends impacting the creation and use of physical space on virtually every college and university campus.

Institutions will be curbing new construction activity, getting creative about funding, paying more attention to overdue maintenance, and planning more for mixed-use facilities.

Construction slowdown

Between 2011 and 2013, college enrollment dropped by 930,000 students, according to the U.S. Census Bureau—the largest cumulative enrollment drop since before the recent recession.

“In response to the declining pool of enrollees, many private colleges have curbed their construction and renovation programs,” says Ken Simonson, chief economist at Associated General Contractors of America (AGC). “State universities and colleges have been affected both by this trend and the large cuts many legislatures made in higher ed funding.”

Also affecting construction is the growing difficulty in finding craftsmen, reports Simonson. AGC conducted a survey of construction firms earlier this year and discovered that 83 percent of respondents were having difficulty hiring qualified carpenters, project managers and supervisors, in particular. For colleges, this can slow down projects.

“This situation is likely to intensify, staying as bad or getting worse in the coming 12 months,” Simonson adds. To underscore the point, he notes that unemployment

in construction is at an eight-year low. Even colleges and universities in the midst of construction may have difficulty finishing projects in 2015.

Public-private partnerships

The enrollment drop has also led to budget shortfalls. To replace the needed funding, institutions are forming joint ventures with private enterprise.


  • Increased attention on sustainability—even more than in the past several years
  • Adaptive reuse—the renovation of older spaces to meet the needs of today’s learners
  • Respect for campus heritage, with fewer buildings being razed and replaced as colleges recognize historical value
  • An emphasis on providing attractive and functional student housing and on-campus experiences


  • New construction
  • Ignoring the costs of energy-hogging facilities and infrastructure
  • Hiring freezes, as veteran facilities professionals retire in larger numbers post-recession and institutions are forced to hire
  • Demand for more student housing, as enrollment continues to decline

By partnering with for-profit organizations, colleges and universities can obtain resources for construction in exchange for sharing the revenue generated by new facilities. Such projects could include privately-built and owned student apartments located on campus, revenue-generating sports facilities managed by outside firms or the lease of space in campus buildings to private businesses.

Robert Shibley, dean of the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning, says higher ed will be seeing more of these types of partnerships.

Budget challenges are not limited to public universities. While state-funded universities have budget restrictions and tuition caps, private colleges “have to do more to compete, given their higher tuition,” says Shibley. To try to keep tuition affordable, private institutions are exploring partnerships to reduce the impact on the bottom line in construction and other areas.

Beyond financial concerns, non-revenue-generating partnerships are arising to combat town-gown conflicts, says Claire Turcotte, managing editor of Planning for Higher Education, the journal of the Society for College and University Planning.

Collaborations between universities and the surrounding community are improving safety and helping to raise the standard of living in the surrounding communities. The University of Rochester, for example, expanded its campus into a lower income neighborhood to add student housing and provide an income boost to the area.

Likewise, urban University of Pennsylvania has expanded into unstable adjacent neighborhoods, bringing new development and improvement. Turcotte expects such joint ventures to be more prominent in 2015.

Boost for deferred maintenance

“The deferred maintenance pot is growing” because the nation has emerged from recession, says E. Lander Medlin, executive vice president of APPA, formerly the Association of Higher Education Facilities Officers.

With limited budgets, institutions chose to invest in new construction rather than maintain existing facilities during the late 2000s. Systems within buildings have different life cycles, making it possible to forgo work on some while attending to others. Universities will need to start making more repair-or-replace decisions when systems in some buildings reach the end of their useful life in 2015, she says.

As the focus on new construction subsides and problems begin to arise in existing facilities, attention in 2015 will shift to maintenance and repairs, such as upgrading energy-hogging systems and installing new technology, Shibley predicts.

Interdisciplinary programming impact

A growing number of higher ed institutions are looking to provide space where linked disciplines—biochemistry and bioelectronics, for instance—can be studied together, says Shibley.

Co-locating several programs, departments and organizations under one roof, notes Medlin, makes more efficient use of space and provides flexibility for future program changes. “We’re seeing a greater alignment of programs and facilities,” she says.

With colleges planning fewer new facilities, Turcotte has noticed more institutions planning and implementing multiuse space, particularly in the sciences.

However, finding space is more of a challenge when more unrelated disciplines—such as business and science, or health and law—converge. With these programmatic changes occurring, more universities will be dealing with this conundrum in 2015.

“As long as we keep creating quality programs, the margin of difference [between institutions] is the physical facility,” says Shibley. “Place matters.”

Marcia Layton Turner is a Rochester, N.Y.-based writer.


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