Smart college, university building design

College and university campus buildings have a lot going on—classes, research, dining, and sleeping. Added to the challenge: life safety, air quality needs of research facilities, sustainability goals, and other issues. A group of engineers offer advice on how to tackle college and university projects and achieve a degree of success.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer December 19, 2013


Robert Garra, PE, CDT, Vice president, electrical engineering, Cannon Design, Buffalo, N.Y.

Randy Hassler, PE, LEED AP, Principal, McClure Engineering, St. Louis, MO

Andrew Slater, PE, Electrical engineer, HGA Architects and Engineers, Milwaukee, WI

CSE: What sorts of challenges do colleges and universities pose that you don’t encounter on other projects?

Robert Garra: With limited operational budgets, colleges and universities require implemented systems—cooling, heating, electric—offering the best energy-efficient solutions with the least amount of maintenance. Capital funds are not plentiful as they were in the past, so we, as engineers, are designing building systems to last up to 100 years, and systems need to be robust to respond to this design challenge. 

Randy Hassler: Some campuses have master plans they are following; others do not. However, many do not have funding for infrastructure modifications or improvements to support new building projects, and often project budgets are established prior to understanding the required infrastructure improvements. This is different than commercial projects that have public utilities with either no charge or very minimal charges subsidized by future utility revenue. One university client of ours generates utility revenue in two ways: first they charge each project a first cost assessment based on utility demand, and second they charge for monthly utilities with an additional percentage added to the cost. This money is then used to fund utility infrastructure expansion and maintenance. This allows planning for building utility budgets to be consistent project to project, and penalizes high energy demand buildings. Another university client includes an endowment in the initial project fundraising that is then used for the ongoing maintenance of building and utility infrastructure.

CSE: How have the needs and characteristics of colleges and universities changed in recent years?

Andrew Slater: With the recent and unfortunate news events, the technology to communicate with the entire campus immediately has been an increased need among educational institutions. As we are seeing on many campuses already, the use of mobile devices to communicate emergencies and/or general news immediately to the campus population is increasing. The use of mass notification systems or the capability to add such items to immediately communicate emergencies through digital displays, mass e-mails, and/or mobile devices to the campus populations has been increasing.

Hassler: Disaster preparedness is an area that we are seeing in projects that we had not a decade ago. The ability to feed and shelter the students during a disaster has been the most common. This requires backup power of entire key buildings such as the kitchen/dining facility, student unions, housing, etc. Because colleges and universities play an active role in shaping future generations, they have been on the forefront of sustainability. This requires communication to the facility and students of the sustainability efforts that the campus is engaged in. Dashboards to display sustainability information are becoming common. Small-scale demonstration projects specifically designed as an education tool are used, often requiring that visibility and display be included in the design. Technology is always changing; the latest technologies that affect our designs are: remote learning, wireless access, voice over IP, cell towers, electric vehicle recharging stations, etc.

Garra: Higher education is in the process of change, continually responding to new economic, technological, organizational, and consumer needs. Institutions are trying to maintain a competitive advantage to attract students, whether they’re being diverted by online degrees or physical campus attributes. We see this generation as very passionate about sustainability and conservation; therefore, many capital projects include additional and active sustainable design features such as photovoltaic (PV) arrays, green roofs, or other environmentally friendly options. The increased challenge of green design is an exciting opportunity for engineers. Today’s environmentally aware students recognize both obvious and subtle building attributes. Balancing students’ expectations and the institution’s budget is a driver for a positive design challenge to properly address both parties. 

CSE: What do you need to take into account when engineering systems into colleges and universities?

Garra: Engineering systems are most likely part of a campus network and shared between multiple facilities. We see central utility plants that distribute chilled water, steam, emergency power, primary power, and technology infrastructure around the campus. Logistical coordination among municipal departments, the campus, and design team may be required for utility paths. System-wide campus distribution needs to be understood before one can fully proceed with specific building design—recognizing how one building can have a ripple effect on the entire property.

Slater: Cost-effective flexibility is probably the most important item to account for when implementing electrical systems into college and universities. Most capital expenditures are limited, and designs for new construction are often requested to be operational with little maintenance for a minimum of 30 years. Flexibility of these systems helps the campus evolve for future demands and uses. Many situations in existing campus renovations that I have been involved in included taking existing classrooms and altering them into computer labs. Other renovations included adding controls into a space for energy-saving strategies. For these situations the system requirements between the two spaces differ dramatically. The ability to additional systems to support the new usage must include a flexible design.

Hassler: Most colleges and universities have their own campus utility systems (i.e., chilled water, steam/heating water, geothermal, electrical distribution, etc.). You have to take the time to learn and understand the utility sources and how they operate them in order to design building systems that will perform with the source. Seasonal differences are one area that sometimes requires additional dialogue with the facilities department. For example, if the chilled water loop operates with a summer supply temperature of 45 F and is reset to 47 F during winter, then the ventilation unit can be selected at 45 F entering water temperature, but a fan coil unit for a interior load or data closet would need to be selected at 47 F. We have seen misapplications such as designing a chiller plant with 16 delta T applied to a system of existing buildings with 10-deg coils and/or 3-way valves; or the reverse of this, designing new loads that are less than the plant delta T; or designing for entering chilled water colder than what the plant operates. Another common error is not accounting for pressure drop / temperature drop from the plant; such as selection a steam heat exchanger at 10 psi on a low-pressure steam plant where the steam would be generated at 12 to 13 psi, the distribution system may have a pressure drop of 2 to 5 psi, and the control valve may have 3 to 5 psi of pressure drop, leaving 3 to 5 psi for the heat exchanger. Knowing at the beginning of a project any sole source vendors and also which equipment vendors are well represented with good service in the local area, and then designing around those vendors, is important. 

CSE: Please describe a recent project you’ve worked on—share problems you’ve encountered, how you’ve solved them, and aspects of the project you’re especially proud of.

Hassler: It is not uncommon for college and university infrastructure to be 50 or more years old and reaching the end of its service life. At Washington University in St. Louis, they needed to remove and replace the original commons and food service building for the residential area of campus, which contained the chilled water plant, heating water plant, and electrical distribution. We designed a replacement central chiller plant (2200 tons), three regional hot water boiler plants, and new utility infrastructure consisting of chilled water, heating water, water, fire water, natural gas, fuel oil, electric, and telecommunications. This was the equivalent of performing a “brain transplant” for approximately 20 acres of campus serving more than 20 buildings. 

CSE: How has the economy impacted your work in this area? Have you seen the number of projects decline with the recession, and improve now that thing are on the uptick again?

Slater: Our company did see a big slowdown for the second half of 2011 and through about the first quarter of 2012. However, the last 6 months we’ve been seeing a nice rebound.

Hassler: We experienced a shift in projects from new construction projects to maintenance/obsolescence projects, and energy-savings projects, which is one of our specialties. As budgets become tight we often see a refocus on reducing utility cost and saving energy. This is a pendulum that continues to move back and forth. New construction projects have been returning again at colleges and universities, and many other market sectors. 

CSE: How often are you called on to retro-commission colleges and universities, as opposed to new construction building? What are some key differences between the two?

Hassler: Retro-commissioning is approximately 25% of our commissioning work.