Partnering for success

The role of the architect in the business of higher education

Similar to their corporate counterparts, institutions of higher education have to operate in a fiscally responsible manner, which means managing budgets and achieving bottom line results. While there are many factors that contribute to success in this arena, the recent decline in state support for higher education is making it more difficult for colleges and university to grow and thrive. Today’s reality is that reduced funding puts more pressure on colleges and universities as they compete for limited dollars. Not surprisingly, in this environment, there is increasing scrutiny of major expenditures, including proposed capital improvement design and construction projects.

Building a compelling financial case and securing funding for facility improvements is rarely easy, but in a resource-scarce setting, it is even more challenging. As a result, there is a greater tendency to delay new building and remodeling initiatives until the economic climate improves. While some see this decision as a prudent course of action, it can be short-sighted and impact the institution’s ability to attract and retain top quality students, faculty, staff and benefactors.

Partnering with architects

For institutions that are facing critical decisions about when and how to engage in design and build projects, partnering with architects can be invaluable. Architects bring objectivity, creativity and a fresh approach to the practical and strategic aspects of facility renovations and new construction projects. They also bring a unique perspective to assist in seeing the bigger picture and can provide new ways of looking at and thinking about these key issues. Taking an innovative approach, architects consider the business, financial, educational and community aspects of each project or initiative from the beginning. They accomplish this by asking questions such as:

  • What purpose does this facility serve today?
  • How will the changing needs of the students and the community be met by this facility in the future? 
  • What, if any changes in the facility’s design and structure are necessary align physical space with future needs?

Architects assist institutions in devising incremental plans based upon the institution’s unique priorities and resources. For instance, sky-rocketing energy costs are a major concern, especially for more established institutions that have numerous older buildings equipped with boilers and HVAC systems running on borrowed time. Retrofitting or updating these antiquated systems can provide considerable savings. Yet, because these items largely go unnoticed, they tend to take a backseat to other more pressing financial needs, such as faculty and staff salaries, security and other campus operational, marketing and development expenditures, just to name a few.

Architects, on the other hand, with extensive construction background and considerable knowledge of building trends, are trained to look for ways to reduce operating costs. In this case, by recommending a thorough building systems’ assessment, they can determine which buildings or spaces are problematic. As a result, the institution saves in two ways: initially in current energy costs, and over time in recapturing the investments. By uncovering problem areas, architects additionally help institutions evaluate future feasibility options for renovating, expanding or building new.

Correlation between improved campus appearance and increased enrollment

Maintaining a competitive edge in the education marketplace is critical for institutions to remain viable. Yet, in the midst of financial uncertainty, the positive outcomes that result from attention to the total campus environment can be easily overlooked. In reality, when space is updated or reconfigured to be more effective and efficient, it adds value to the campus recruiting initiatives and enhances students’ experiences. This is an important consideration when ROI is not only valued, but expected when using state dollars.

Julie Bryant, Associate Vice President, Retention Solutions for Noel-Levitz, which conducts the yearly Student Satisfaction Inventory™ says campus appearance continues to rank high as an important consideration for students seeking higher education institutions. “At four-year privates, campus appearance is more important than size and recommendations from family and friends, and tied with geographic setting. At four-year publics and community colleges, campus appearance is more important than size and recommendations, but below geographic setting in importance,” says Bryant, referring to survey results conducted between the fall of 2010 and the spring of 2013. In fact, campus appearance ranks as one of the top eight considerations influencing the choice of a higher education institution (Noel-Levitz 2013. 2013 national student satisfaction and priorities report. Coralville, Iowa: Author).

Although the afore-mentioned survey is not specifically targeted to incoming students, the summary of results point to a correlation between improved campus appearance and increased enrollment. This connection is not only important, but can be critical for future planning. Take for instance, predicting student enrollment benchmarks. An expected freshman enrollment that falls short by say 300 students not only reduces revenue for the current year, but when multiplied by four (freshman through senior years) negatively impacts an institution’s bottom line for years to come.

There is great value in creating a distinctive campus design that defines or re-enforces an institution’s differentiator or unique value proposition. But for many institutions, developing the necessary long-term design plan to achieve these results is challenging.

Maximal use of space

Colleges and universities that work with architects learn to maximize their unique potential and take advantage of more opportunities. For instance, changing teaching and learning methodologies require more flexible space that can be adapted easily to accommodate different pedagogical approaches that evolve overtime. In this case, a design professional can help develop strategies for determining what, when and how to approach a project or planning initiative to accommodate changing needs. By providing effective planning strategies, architects help institutions recognize areas where existing space can be optimized. Institutions vary widely and strategies are often customized, but all can benefit from the ones listed below.

  • Utilize existing space more efficiently. For instance, with the help of the registrar, create an inventory of all current and possible classrooms to determine which are heavily scheduled and why others are used less regularly. Adjust class schedules where possible to better optimize these spaces. Vacant classrooms waste energy.
  • Encourage shared office space when applicable. This works particularly well with adjunct faculty in smaller colleges who teach at different times. Shared space can be equally cost effective for part-time departmental staff and professors that divide their time between campuses. 
  • Optimize the net to gross ratio. Are there opportunities to use non-assignable space for social, learning or collaborative areas? For example, a portion of an oversized corridor or areas outside of classrooms where students gather before class could be transformed into study areas by installing a bench and wall art. Designated seating areas also eliminate tripping hazards caused by students sitting on the floor.
  • Do more with less. Stretch every dollar by striving for designs that create a high impact for a low investment. Cost effective spaces adapt easily to change and provide more bang for the buck over time. For instance, as part of a renovation, consider limiting or eliminating interior wall construction to create open, flowing space that will provide more flexibility for future growth and change.
  • Create environments with a purpose. Updated school design has the capacity to impact student behavior in a positive way and improve the learning experience. A redesigned science lab, for example, that increases the opportunities for more students to engage in active learning can lead to higher test scores. In turn, prospective parents see this as a “pro” for choosing the school, which can lead to increased enrollment and retention. 
  • · Choose materials wisely. With food and beverage, book bags, carts, etc., students are hard on buildings, so building materials take a lot of abuse. In this case, durability is key. Also avoid light colored flooring, particularly at building entrances and high traffic areas. Overall, keep in mind that renovations are expensive and typically need to last 20-25 years, so always think timeless over trendy. In general students perceive outdated as unwelcoming, which can lead to a poor impression of the campus as a whole.

Additional satisfaction can be gained from establishing a long-term relationship with an architect. “There is an important synergy that develops that isn’t possible when a different firm is used, particularly in multi-phased projects,” says Richard Petitt, retired Associate Provost, Miami University. “It’s particularly beneficial when the architectural and engineering firm understands the institution’s long-range master plan and can offer advice and ideas that further that plan.”

The renovation alternative

Successfully managing a higher education institution is no easy task when diminishing resources are a grim reality. But putting design and construction projects on the back burner is not the solution. Instead, look at renovations and how they can be implemented over time to align with the anticipated flow of project funding. With costly construction and design projects a particularly hard sell, many institutions are choosing to optimize existing buildings in lieu of new builds. Renovations not only leave a smaller footprint, but in the case of more established colleges and universities, the end results retain the traditional look and the feel of the campus. “If an older building has exceptional €˜bones,’ there is often an excellent case to be made for a renovation as opposed to razing and erecting a new building,” says Petitt. “When it makes good financial sense to do so, university administration gains important political favor when it can save an existing building,” he says.

Bold decisions and future success

Today’s environment requires bold decisions to ensure fiscal sustainability, especially when it comes to critical campus improvements that directly affect an institution’s ability to compete. At the same time, challenges still on the horizon will force institutions to reexamine their goals from time to time. Predicting the future is not an exact science.

Achieving long-range institutional success is the key, but it is also a process. By effectively leveraging architects and their unique perspective, colleges and universities can develop a more comprehensive, strategic approach that will allow them to achieve successful results regardless of the environment. True, creating effective and inspirational space is a financial expenditure today. But it is also a sound investment in the future.

Tom Sens is an architect and client leader for BHDP Architecture, an international design firm that focuses on creating innovative environments and experiences tailored to the client culture and work process. Visit


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