Examining higher education facilities

As technology advances in every field, the college and university students being prepped for future careers in those fields need the tech they’re learning with to keep up. That presents unique challenges for the engineers working on such structures—specifying advanced systems that satisfy the unique needs of each institution. Here, professionals with experience in the area offer advice on how to tackle such facilities and receive top marks.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer October 26, 2018


John Holbert, PE, LEED AP, Senior Principal/Client Executive, IMEG Corp., Rock Island, Ill.

Donald Horkey, PE, LEED AP, Principal, DLR Group, Minneapolis

Kent Locke, PE, NCEES, Associate Principal/Branch Manager, Bailey Edward, Fox River Grove, Ill.

Dennis P. Sczomak, PE, LEED AP, Senior Vice President, Peter Basso Associates, Troy, Mich.

Blake Smith, PE LEED AP, Project Manager, RMF Engineering, Raleigh, N.C.

Jason Sylvain, PE, Partner, National Higher Education Practice Leader, AKF Group LLC, New York City

Matthew Wiechart, PE, CxA, LEED AP, CEM, Principal/Senior Mechanical Engineer, TLC Engineering for Architecture Inc., Orlando, Fla.

CSE: What’s the biggest trend you see today in college and university projects?

John Holbert: The growth of the public-private partnership market beyond student housing. We are seeing it in various other project types across campuses, such as recreation centers, academic buildings, etc. The continued funding challenges faced by many institutions will lead to new funding and delivery models for construction projects.

Donald Horkey: I believe we are fostering a new era in innovative-infrastructure system design solutions that support educational-institution goals and initiatives. Today’s students expect a variety of different types of interaction with their faculty, other students, and even the campus itself. Tapping into the hospitality design expertise at DLR Group, we have been able to create fun, inviting spaces that seamlessly integrate technology. Workplace experts reimagine the academic environment by designing a variety of spaces for students and staff to complete their work, enhance collaboration, and maximize flexibility.

Kent Locke: We’re seeing open, comfortable gathering spaces in all types of buildings and areas with access to power and the internet.

Blake Smith: I’m seeing continued progress in energy-efficient buildings. In North Carolina, many colleges are creating and standardizing their own green goals to implement rather than just going after a single scorecard, such as U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED.

Jason Sylvain: One of the more recent trends that AKF has witnessed in the higher education market is the shift from new construction projects or renovations to deferred maintenance combined with energy conservation.

Matthew Wiechart: The largest sector of college and university projects we’ve seen is science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM), and laboratory spaces. The biggest trends that I see in college and university projects is the incorporation of collaboration spaces for small team learning and provisions for distant learning.

CSE: What trends are on the horizon for such projects?

Sylvain: Our company is working on projects with several higher education institutions to upgrade the existing controls systems serving existing 20- to 30-year-old lab spaces. Each project has very specific requirements, but all projects are focused on ways to upgrade the systems controls and how to create a design strategy that can be implemented on future projects across each campus.

Wiechart: Energy-efficient ways to control exhaust and make-up air through sash position controls and variable air systems.

Locke: Remodeling of library spaces. Creating a functional space to meet current and future needs and to organize the material available into an easily accessible system. Libraries are seeing the need to digitize and modernize. No longer just housing books, they need to educate, inform, and foster community. There are many different heating and cooling requirements, high demand for power, and complex audio/video (A/V) and information technology (IT) needs.

Horkey: We are seeing national and state energy codes evolving to more of a performance-based model. This trend of moving to a “prove it” code structure will affect the design profession’s processes. Design engineers will need to optimize all facets of their designs to meet future aggressive code requirements.

Smith: We see owners continue to progress aggressively toward making energy efficiency a priority on campus. In doing so, we are seeing them creating their own standards and priorities and becoming self-regulated in their approach.

CSE: Are you noticing an increase in the building of new projects, versus retrofitting existing buildings?

Holbert: There is still a good mixture of both types of projects on campuses; however, with many declining enrollments, repurposing existing spaces/buildings is increasing. The integration and collaboration of many types of functions at an institution within traditional single-use spaces (i.e., academic and wellness spaces incorporated into student living spaces) is a very popular option.

Horkey: We definitely are seeing an increase in the building of new projects in our workload. Industry research would support this trend, as capital spending on new construction and additions is expected to outpace retrofit spending. Both private and public institutions are active in new construction and retrofit projects.

Smith: In North Carolina, we have seen a big increase in new buildings over renovations over the past few years. While it is great that so many colleges and design teams are working on these new, exciting projects, there has been one downside-the increased building has driven costs up on the construction side from simple supply and demand. Design teams, including architects and engineers, have to be cognitive of the cost changes in the market to keep projects on budget.

Wiechart: New projects are outpacing renovation projects.

Sylvain: More recently, we have noticed an upturn in the number of new building requests for quotes (RFQs) and requests for proposals (RFPs).

Locke: We see both. Universities are expanding due to the new technology available for laboratories and increased programs/majors offered and the desire to craft programs to fit the individuals and talented professors. However, they are wise to understand that there is space available in many buildings, which is not used all the time, so scheduling and remodeling to develop multipurpose areas to fit a variety of functions is continuing to maximize the space already constructed.

CSE: Tell us about a recent project you’ve worked on that’s innovative, large-scale, or otherwise noteworthy. In your description, please include significant details-location, systems your team engineered, key players, interesting challenges or solutions, etc.

Smith: We recently designed the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) systems for the new 110,000-sq-ft Student Union for Campbell University (Buies Creek, N.C.). This was an exciting project to be a part of, and the building will be the new heart of campus where students, faculty, and guests will gather. Spaces include a fitness center, movie theater, bookstore, food service/student dining, student involvement, and a 900-person banquette hall. Systems include roof-mounted solar panels, water-cooled chillers, variable air volume (VAV) air handling units (AHUs) with demand-control ventilation, condensing boilers, and smart-plate heat exchangers for both general domestic water and kitchen service. The building also was equipped with emergency backup generators so that the student union may be an area of refuge during emergency conditions and still have limited HVAC, food service, and general power on top of the life safety requirements.

Locke: We were tasked to remodel a university’s existing food-science and human-nutrition pilot plant, a laboratory/classroom with highly specialized equipment to resemble industry work environments for food scientists. The department receives different types of equipment from donors to process food. We needed a way to provide a flexible space/flexible design to connect the different pieces of equipment. We designed a utility enclosure around the perimeter of the spaces, which housed domestic cold water, process chilled-water supply and return, 80-psi clean steam and condensate return, compressed air, power, and data. There were access points/stubs where a piece of equipment could be connected. One particular piece of equipment, a 200-gal kettle, boils tomatoes to a reduction using the clean steam as a heat input. Steam from the kettle discharges from an opening at the top. An exhaust system needed to be designed to capture this steam. We designed a flexible, adjustable arm exhaust with a capture ring, which meets U.S. Department of Agriculture/health department requirements. This system can be used for other equipment within a specific radiused area. A conference room was integrated into the design where the department can bring donors into a conversational/educational area, with windows allowing them to see into the clean lab and production lab and view the equipment and associated process. The space was previously only heated and ventilated. A new rooftop, custom VAV AHU serving the area provides the temperature and humidity controls required; it was designed following campus standards, connecting to the campus steam, chilled-water systems, and providing the flexibility in capacity to meet unknown user needs. Special attention was given to the additional structural required to support the unit, and platforms to access and maintain the unit were considered.

Wiechart: Construction on the University of Central Florida (Orlando)’s Trevor Colbourn Hall was just completed. The project incorporates chilled beams to condition spaces. Chilled beams use water, which is energy-efficient, in lieu of air. The building design includes infrastructure to accommodate photovoltaic (PV) panels in the future. It also has a nonportable water system that uses the greywater system on campus to flush water closets and urinals.

Sylvain: Yale University’s Schwarzman Center comprises three historic adjoining buildings on the New Haven campus: The University Commons, Woolsey Hall, and the interconnecting Memorial Rotunda. In May 2015, Yale University embarked on a grand renovation and expansion project of University Commons and Memorial Rotunda to serve as a 105,000-sq-ft student center and an educational, social, and cultural hub. The design team was tasked with modernizing the historic facility in terms of its architecture, technology, and building systems while preserving the building’s original character. Schwarzman Center also served as a hub for underground utility services, feeding blocks of campus buildings. The expansion of the belowgrade spaces in Schwarzman dislocated substation vaults with the potential to disrupt utility services to approximately 20 buildings. The utility services included high-pressure and low-pressure steam, pumped condensate return, high-pressure fire water, and five layers of electrical power. Although there was no ideal new location for these vaults, we generated eight different locations for Yale’s consideration, which included ladder diagrams showing the buildings that would be affected. We then developed a scheme to minimize the impact to these buildings by scheduling the work in five phases, and we produced a set of drawings for each of these phases.


CSE: Each type of project presents unique challenges-what types of challenges do you encounter on projects for college and university facilities that you might not face on other types of structures?

Dennis P. Sczomak: A challenge that seems to be unique, or at least much more common on college and university projects, is the large number of project stakeholders with whom the MEP engineer has to navigate and address their concerns. This can be in stark contrast to, for example, a private-sector developer-led project with one key decision-maker. On college and university projects, particularly at larger universities, it is common to attend meetings with multiple, very involved stakeholders present from both the facilities staff and the project’s user group. Team meetings with 20 or more stakeholders is fairly common, as is the MEP engineer receiving design-review comments, often pages of them, from each. I think some MEP firms struggle in this kind of project-team environment while others thrive. I think the key to success is maintaining a never-ending mindset of partnership while also never losing sight of your role as third-party expert. In the end, I think the built project can be much more successful to the many stakeholders’ needs when they are involved in decision-making throughout the design process in a collaborative, consensus-building design process.

Horkey: Our higher education clients tend to be more sophisticated than most clients. The level of understanding of the design and construction process that our clients demonstrate allows for the design firm to streamline each design phase and still deliver high-quality design solutions. Layering in each institution’s design standards and guidelines allows for consistency of the final construction product. The time required for institutional review can slow the design process and upset the team continuity due to these time delays if not managed in the overall project timeline and budget from the beginning phases.

Locke: The users/departments/programs using the campus facilities develop their own programming for the proposed spaces and obtain their own funding. Campus facilities have standards that the designers need to follow. During the initial stages of the project, when vetting out the scope of work and associated budget, quite often it is discovered that the user’s budget cannot be achieved due to the upgrades required to meet the scope of work while meeting facility standards. Working closely with both groups to create a successful project offers a unique challenge.

Wiechart: Pricing and budgets are always an issue; balancing client-published design standards with tight budgets and complicated programs. To get the job done within budget requires alternatives that deviate from standards and offer the owner creativity to keep it all in balance.

Sylvain: Some university and college projects offer a unique opportunity to work with younger end users (students) who focus more on how a building will impact the world around it than on energy savings to save costs. From what our company has experienced, this enlightened sensitivity allows the projects to be more progressive in terms of energy use and allows us to advocate for more advanced energy-design solutions.

Smith: Special consideration is always made to the project’s schedule with university/college facilities. Small to medium-size projects may be able to have construction disruption during the summer to minimize the impact on day-to-day life while students are off campus. Design can play a large role in keeping the construction schedule on time, through thoughtful/quality designs, early packages to release long lead items, and being responsive during customer acceptance when/if issues come up.

CSE: How are engineers designing such facilities to keep initial costs down while also offering appealing features, complying with relevant codes, and meeting client needs?

Horkey: Our engineers focus on optimizing the sizes of all systems, as seen in optimizing central plants and air distribution systems, by analyzing the effects of energy recovery, building-occupancy variations, enhanced lighting improvements, multiple building envelopes, and improved fenestration. By accounting for all these components, we rightsize the mechanical and electrical infrastructure to meet the needs of the building.

Wiechart: Getting creative doesn’t have to mean more expensive. In the example of Trevor Colbourn Hall, using chilled beams meant shallow ductwork that then translates into a reduction in the floor-to-floor height and the overall building height, saving money on the building skin. Communicating alternatives while keeping an eye on the budget keeps projects on track. Being creative is a team effort.

Smith: Having design meetings with the facilities owners and operators is crucial through all stages of design, starting with schematic design up through construction documents. It is the design team’s responsibility to make the owners aware of what systems they are buying and their costs and impacts from a maintenance perspective. Cost-estimating exercises help keep costs in check as well so that designs still can be modified early to reduce impact and time.

Sylvain: Our company finds that one of the keys to keeping a project on target from an MEP design and budget point of view is to design with complete transparency. Many of the issues with MEP design stem from the owner’s needs not being understood. One of our first steps in the design process is to hold an MEP design charrette, which is open to anyone on the design team and the owner. Our intent with these meetings is to discuss multiple design approaches and to hear how they will affect the non-MEP design teams and the final product. This process allows our company to better design a streamlined system that meets the owner’s needs and has minimal impact on the other design teams. Cost considerations are a major part of those discussions.

Locke: We work closely to understand the client needs or expectations. Lighting usually is a line item in the budget that always draws attention. By using LED technology, incorporating these fixtures into architectural detailing, and reducing the number of fixtures while still meeting the client expectation, we can reduce the costs, cooling load, and future maintenance costs.

CSE: Are there new trends in technologies that are being incorporated into colleges and universities?

Sylvain: Our firm has been working with several universities to incorporate passive heating, cooling, and ventilation systems into their major projects. These systems vary in complexity, from operable windows and two-pipe fan coils to operable windows with integrated monitoring controls and valance heating-and-cooling units. We also have been working with several universities to design spaces that are close to the internet of everything (IoE). These spaces use smart building management systems (BMS) that work with either occupancy sensors or with a scheduling software. The BMS then controls HVAC, power, lighting, A/V, etc. to allow for the systems to have different setpoints during unoccupied times.

Locke: LED lighting is almost a standard these days. Water-source heat pumps with geothermal fields are being used and expanded in an effort to minimize controls and maintenance yet achieve energy savings.

Wiechart: Security is a major concern. Incorporating security features while maintaining a collaborative, inviting environment is the goal. College students want to feel safe without compromising the open feel of an inviting campus.

CSE: How has your team incorporated integrated project delivery (IPD) or virtual design and construction (VDC) into a project? Define the owner’s project requirements and how the entire team fulfilled them using these methods.

Sylvain: Although AKF has not yet had an opportunity to follow through with an IPD or VDC project, we have been hearing from more owners inquiring about going in this direction on future projects.

Wiechart: We haven’t seen a true IPD delivery in higher ed in Florida. Some owners have taken the approach of a “forced marriage” where design and construction teams are selected together but carry separate contracts with the university. The teams need to work together to achieve success, yet ultimately the owner has the final say.

CSE: Colleges and universities frequently are on the cutting edge of technology. How has your firm met technology challenges? What special communication, technology, or other high-tech instances have you worked on?

Locke: We worked with a pharmaceutical college to create a three-room suite in which all the furniture could be rearranged for different learning applications. All the tables and fume hoods were on casters and could be rolled across the special flooring either to a teachable setup for a lab environment or to a closet down the hall for storage. The A/V was specifically designed and installed to provide teaching in all possible teaching arrangements. The lab hoods were equipped with cameras within them so the handling of product can be viewed by all. Blinds could be pulled down to hide the lab sinks for a classroom environment. Lighting control was integrated with the A/V system to provide different scenes as required for teaching. Strategic location of floor boxes was coordinated with the different layouts to make sure all the equipment could be connected to the system. Another project we designed is a surgical innovation and training lab. There was underused space in the basement with a plaza above. We designed a learning environment in the basement by designing natural-light features/openings from the plaza above and using the existing structural columns as multiconnection utility chases for the robotic machines used in surgery. Different lighting schemes with flexible equipment arrangements gave the instructors a variety of exciting learning platforms from which these future doctors can learn robotic surgery.