Designing higher education facilities

The world is getting more high-tech, and the colleges and universities preparing students to work in an increasingly advanced environment must keep pace. Engineers with expertise on college and university buildings share advice on how to complete such complex projects, with honors.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer December 23, 2014


  • David P. Callan, PE, Vice President, McGuire Engineering, Chicago
  • Michael Chow, PE, CxA, LEED AP BD+C, Member/Owner, Metro CD Engineering, LLC Powell, Ohio
  • Essi Najafi, FE, Principal, Global Engineering Solutions, Bethesda, Md.
  • Mike Walters, PE, LEED AP, Principal, Confluenc, Madison, Wis. 

CSE: Please describe a recent college/university project you’ve worked on-share details about the project, including building location, size, etc.

Essi Najafi:
Global Engineering Solutions (GES) recently provided mechanical, electrical, and plumbing engineering support services for the New Physical Sciences Complex, Phase I at the University of Maryland, College Park. This state-of-the-art research/teaching facility houses the departments of physics, astronomy, and the Institute of Physical Science and Technology. This 160,000-sq-ft building is designed to bring continued recognition of the university’s nationally ranked science programs. The Phase I facility is located adjacent to the existing Computer and Space Sciences (CSS) Building on the University’s College Park Campus. It houses specialized laboratory spaces designed to meet strict criteria for vibration sensitive and electromagnetic interference control. Also included in the Phase I facility are standard research laboratories and faculty offices. A café, lounges, and open areas are provided to encourage interaction and collaboration among the disciplines.

CSE: What are the newest trends in college/university retrofit projects?

David P. Callan: We are seeing an emphasis placed on amenities, in an attempt to attract students. Also, we are seeing increase in technology infrastructure spending in classroom, research, and housing.

Michael Chow: Most colleges and universities are requiring BIM. The use of BIM has allowed them to reduce the risk of issues on large, complex projects.

Mike Walters:
Although there are numerous technical/system trends in retrofit projects, the largest trend I’ve seen in the last several years is the focus on addressing-and ideally lowering-total cost of ownership. This is being done via a variety of project levers including exceptional energy performance requirements, a focus on simple systems, and on continuous commissioning or building analytics.

CSE: What are some challenges you have faced in coordinating structural systems with mechanical, electrical, plumbing, or fire protection systems?

Najafi: We’ve had the privilege of designing mechanical, electrical, plumbing (MEP) and fire protection (FP) systems for a wide variety of educational uses, including new facilities, renovation of existing facilities, as well as modernization and expansion of historic facilities. Regardless, the key to a successful project is close coordination with all disciplines. On any type of renovation project, the biggest challenge is the lack of accurate documentation for the existing conditions. Small renovation or system modification projects are often undertaken without updates being made to the as-built record drawings. Since modern, more energy-efficient HVAC systems require more space than the older systems they are replacing, knowing what’s in the ceiling currently is key to avoiding problems during construction. In earthquake and hurricane prone zones, upgraded structural packages may be required to meet ASCE/SEI 7-05: Minimum Design Loads for Buildings and Other Structures. In cooling towers, if the steel is not installed properly, it can twist and interfere with the operation of the cooling tower. It is important to coordinate closely with both the structural engineer and general contractor to make sure that the additional steel is braced properly and that the mechanical equipment is plumb so that the equipment sways in unison with the structure.

Callan: When working in existing buildings it is always a challenge to find routing for various distribution systems. Technology aside, the best way to avoid conflicts is to check thoroughly during the survey phase of the project. There is still no substitute for old-fashioned hard work.

Chow: Colleges and universities may not have accurate as-built/record drawings. It is critical to always do a thorough field survey even if you have as-built/record drawings.

CSE: When dealing with space constraints (tight floor-to-floor conditions), what tips or tricks can you offer to other engineers? What type of clash detection systems or software do you use to help avoid problems?

Chow: A thorough field survey is recommended. Modeling the space in BIM helps an engineer see all the different elements (HVAC, fire protection, lighting, etc.) in a space. This provides the engineer with a design tool in dealing with tight floor-to-floor conditions. Autodesk Revit has a clash detection tool that helps avoid issues.

Najafi: Mechanical systems often require significant space, and tight floor-to-floor conditions can be a difficult scenario to navigate. We have had success by taking these constraints into account at the beginning of the design process and selecting mechanical systems that require less ductwork and offer lower profile equipment but that are still very efficient. In spaces with tight ceiling spaces, we look to water- and refrigerant-based systems where the only ductwork required is for fresh air, which helps to significantly reduce ductwork. We also use Revit, which allows our team to coordinate with the entire design team, and it allows us to use clash detection to alleviate problems before we get to construction. Revit has been a helpful tool in the coordination process, and we use this in conjunction with detailed coordination meetings among the design team to find holistic solutions. In one project, the design team’s holistic approach included changing the structural design approach, which moved from I-beams to trusses allowing ductwork to pass through beams, and the architect also helped to create solutions with featured ceiling areas that allowed room for ductwork. Overall, tight floor-to-floor constraints create challenges that require the entire design team to get creative, and in the end, these types of buildings often have the most creative and exciting solutions.

I think clash detection can be a valuable tool during the design process. However, I have noticed a reliance on the technology, on the part of architects and engineers, leading to a false sense of security. We have to remember we are building an actual building, not a virtual one.

CSE: How do you see the design approach for such facilities changing in the next 2 to 5 years?

Najafi: Sustainability and U.S. Green Building Council LEED design are hallmarks for design for years to come. The conventional design approaches are becoming a thing of the past, and more sustainable and environmentally conscience design is here to stay with systems such as geothermal, chilled beams, photovoltaics, solar thermal, and beyond.

Callan: One major change is the emphasis on speed to market. Many owners are more interested in getting it done quickly on a fixed budget. At times, quality in construction can take a back seat. Additionally, universities will continue to struggle with funding for operations and maintenance. It is easier to solicit donations for new buildings, named after the donors, than it is to get contributions to a perpetual maintenance fund. As the new buildings age and deteriorate, it will be too expensive to maintain them, considering all the amenities and high-performance systems they contain.

CSE: Can you please list some key ways in which college and university structures vary from other commercial buildings?

Chow: Most colleges and universities have more stringent requirements than many commercial buildings. Examples include: using all copper wiring; no MC cable may be used; limited use of electrical metallic tubing (EMT) conduit; green initiatives such as design shall be 15% to 20% better than the ASHRAE Standard 90.1 energy code; and the requirement of LEED certification.

Najafi: The variety of spaces that you find in a college and university building is far greater than anything you might find in a commercial building. In addition to having classroom spaces with enhanced audio-visual and Internet capabilities, our educational clients want open gathering spaces to encourage a flow of ideas among the disciplines, small group study areas for teams to work on projects, high-bay areas for robotics, enhanced security so that buildings can be open 24/7, etc. All of this has an impact on the design and the cost of the MEP systems.

Callan: There are numerous ways that the buildings differ in architecture and space function. From an engineering standpoint, one of the major hurdles relates to the wild swings in occupancy for many campus buildings. Modern campus buildings need to be more adaptive.