Most colleges and universities are willing to go to great lengths to modernize school campuses while also maintaining an atmosphere that students had decades ago once enjoyed. Some schools are willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on preserving their antique aesthetic while embracing the future.
Recent building renovations and expansions across the University of Cincinnati, Duke University and the University of Virginia fall well past the $100 million mark. Harvard, flexing their muscle as usual, raised over $237 million to update the Fogg Museum back in 2014. And according to a new survey by The Society for College and University Planning (SCUP), 84% of its member institutions reported they plan to update or adapt their facilities over the next year.
Greg Peele, the higher education advisory council chair of Skanska, explains three important reasons why schools opt to fix their current buildings rather than build new ones. Schools are in landlocked areas that have no space to expand and have limited budgets – especially during recessions – which makes it more cost-efficient to renovate multiple buildings rather than build a few new ones. Most important of all, however, is how these historic buildings contribute to the school’s brand.
“They want to maintain a certain style because that’s a recruitment tactic for students,” said Peele. When you think of Stanford, MIT, or Harvard, you think of the campus and environment they created. There’s a look and a feel they want to remain.”
When a historical school building is in the middle of construction or renovation, Skanska is usually on the job. Of the $14 billion worth of higher education projects the construction management company has worked on, $10 billion of that was geared toward historical renovation. That’s 44 historical education projects across 31 million square feet.
Building around the student experience
The renovation done within a building is usually geared toward the student experience. It’s the leading reason why libraries, such as the one in UVA that Skanska renovated last year, are among the most targeted facilities to renovate. Peele explains how the libraries of today are more geared toward being a center for student engagement rather than a student resource. This new functionality requires contractors and designers to consider how library spaces can better foster these kinds of interactions by providing more spacious floor plans and breakout rooms, which requires them to make room. For example, schools are willing to compartmentalize their curation of books, used less every day by students, more compactly to serve the library’s new function.
Additionally, buildings with a STEM focus require upkeep since emerging technologies can speedily obsolesce their lab rooms whose functionalities do not cater to the innovative ways students are now learning in the classroom.
Student recreation centers and dining halls are heavily prioritized for renovation due to their ability to attract students who are more attuned to personal well-being. Exercise and a proper diet are key components of this and a building that can properly accommodate to a variety of student preferences is essential.
Generationally esteemed colleges and universities, however, face a unique challenge when it comes to renovating their buildings. UVA’s historic library, for example, is 85 years old. Renovating an old, beat-up building requires contractors to consider a plethora of factors before they can even touch the building.
“It’s not like working on a building off of a college campus that is 10 years old that you take the window off, you do two months of rehab, you put the windows back on it, and you’re done, said Peele. “You can’t do that on historical buildings. It’s a tremendous amount of surgical-like improvements.”
Before a school can begin any renovations, such as mortar joint replacements or tuckpointing to address any water and air intrusions, it must first diagnose what materials that building was first made out of, which can be complicated because the original as-built drawings usually don’t account for that.
They are also usually forced to completely obliterate the inside of a building to efficiently work around tight space constraints. For example, antiquated buildings with eight-foot corridors and classrooms need to be resized to 10 to 12 feet while also conforming to new building codes, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, which can require making room to fit a working elevator system. They also need to implement life security systems, such as sprinklers.
It’s an art to gut a building while preserving its style.
“When you have alumni come back, they see a tremendous number of similarities of what they remember, but then you also have new students who come in and see bigger, brighter open spaces, media rooms and coffee shops,” said Peele. “It’s modernizing but also keeping some historical preservation as well.”