Student Centric

By Barbara Horwitz-Bennett, Contributing Editor January 1, 2006

For a generation of students used to having their own bedrooms, TVs, computers and, in many cases, cars, the expectation—demand, even—for certain lifestyle amenities at colleges and universities is quickly becoming the norm. This is a lesson savvy school designers have learned and are communicating to their university clients so that these institutions can deliver the kinds of buildings that best allow them to be in a position to land these highly desired, if somewhat pampered, prospects.

“You have to have the best facilities if you want to compete for the best students,” says Don Rerko, AIA, director of college and university facilities, URS, Cleveland.

And, according to Mike Brennan, AIA, senior vice president, HSMM, Roanoke, Va., the competition among institutions is very strong. “Most [schools] are looking for ways to differentiate themselves with expanded programs, modernized facilities, diverse residential opportunities and a host of amenities,” he says.

It’s this last category, says Gary Pateau, a senior vice president of development with Altanta-based Carter, that’s really influencing a lot of campus construction. In fact, in his opinion, the two things that play prominently into a student’s enrollment decision are housing and recreational facilities.

Despite seeming a low item on the totem pole—given the need for core building and infrastructure improvements, due to years of deferred maintenance at many institutions—Pateau argues that fancier dorms and student centers are not such a frivolous investment, according to the numbers. One of the reasons higher education is a strong marketplace, he says, is due to the influx of the echo boom generation, which will continue to roll through college campuses until 2012.

But for colleges to take advantage of this strong demand, adds Mike Mistriner, AIA, principal, Cannon Design, Buffalo, N.Y., university officials have to recognize that this market is ever-changing and institutions must adapt to the needs and desires of incoming students.

As a result, dorms and student centers are a far cry from the Spartan surroundings their parents may have endured. Take Boston University. As students walk through the doors of the new fitness and recreation center, designed by Cannon, the multi-story view includes the top of a climbing wall, a swimming pool with the Charles River in the background and even a juice bar from which students can watch roller hockey games in the three-court gymnasium below.

And when it comes to food, traditional cafeterias are quickly vanishing in favor of higher-end dining options, often with a variety of fast foods that “rival the best shopping center food courts,” says Rerko.

Chic dining—as well as retail—was the underlying theme of California State University, Los Angeles’ $23-million, 100,000-sq.-ft. bookstore/dining facility. Anchored by Barnes & Noble, the recently completed facility designed by HGA Architects & Engineers, Los Angeles, beyond simply a large food court, offers banquet and conference facilities. It also includes computer labs, office space and some library space.

In fact, student centers are becoming such major recreational havens that many offer entertainment options such as movie theaters. In other words, universities are looking at the kinds of food and entertainment offerings students traditionally have gone off-campus for and are now providing these goods, services and venues on campus.

On the housing front, small, basic accommodations and gang showers have gone the way of the 8-track and beanbag chair.

“Today’s facilities more closely resemble private apartments in their configuration and amenity packages,” says Brennan. “Suites and efficiency apartments are more prevalent, as are amenities such as vending, ATMs and technology infrastructure.”

For example, Chuck Nixon, AIA, vice president, principal and higher education market sector leader, Carter & Burgess, Ft. Worth, Texas, noted his firm recently designed a $22-million, 160,000-sq.-ft. residence hall and commons at the University of North Texas, where features included not only lounge areas, but such services as a cyber cafe, game room and media room. The firm is also designing a $19-million, 71,000-sq.-ft. housing facility at the University of Texas, Tyler, with plans for a 14,000-sq.-ft. academic wing.

This last point is notable, adds Jeff Zokas, AIA, university and civic studio leader, HarleyEllis, Detroit, as campus services consolidation is another major trend that’s affecting campus building design. For instance, at some universities, departments such as registration, career services and financial aid—previously scattered around campus—are now being pulled together under one roof.

“It’s all about convenience and accessibility,” says Zokas.

Similarly, campus libraries are no longer exclusively quiet rooms lined with books, but facilities that also offer meeting areas and include coffee shops and business centers where students can research, write, copy and bind their assignments in a one-stop shop.

While such top-notch amenities might seem outrageous, Nixon cautions, “If you don’t provide all of these things, students will go somewhere else.”

And the trend for more accommodating spaces is penetrating beyond dorms and student centers. Because a lot of learning goes on outside the classroom, Zokas says, more casual gathering spaces are being designed into academic buildings, as such nooks and crannies, which enable students to “meet in a comfortable setting to continue their learning experience, drink a cup of coffee, share ideas and thoughts and occasionally goof off.”

Of course, such spaces must be wired to enable a half-dozen or so students to be able to plug in their laptops and get to work.

Rerko believes this is the ultimate reflection of what he calls the “Nintendo generation,” which is accustomed to more hands-on interaction. And universities are responding by providing more interactive laboratories and spaces to support alternative teaching methods and group activities. But this philosophy of accommodation goes well beyond the classroom and the campus. According to Pateau, many institutions of higher education are reaching out to their communities in an effort to attract businesses to the area that complement their students’ educational experiences. For example, by bringing in a major hotel/conference center, hospitality management students have a place to intern. Similarly, manufacturing facilities established near college campuses are great training grounds for students—and act as possible future employers.

Of course, the sometimes-Bacchanalian lifestyle of college students doesn’t help “town-gown” relationships, so schools have to employ special tactics. According to Herman Bull, president of Jones Lang LaSalle’s public institutions group, Washington, D.C., many colleges and universities are making an effort to learn more about the needs of their local communities.

“They’re even retaining consultants to understand how to best integrate their activities with the [town’s] local planning efforts,” says Bull.

A big part of this joint planning effort focuses on the multi-deck parking structures required to house the cars many students now bring to college. Such coordination is critical, according to Brennan, because many campuses are looking to reclaim inner-campus surface lots for new buildings. “Many of these decks are best situated at the perimeter of the campus to act as car ‘filters’ to maintain a safe pedestrian environment on the central campus. And since these are difficult facilities to fund, many municipalities and universities are looking at ways to share cost and capacity of these decks,” says Brennan.

Green can produce gold

Yet another area where universities are trying to earn Brownie points with both their host communities and potential students, according to Brodge, is by building green. About a dozen major universities now require all new buildings to be LEED-certified. A number of community colleges, most notably the Los Angeles Community College system, are also on board.

“You can see the momentum ramping up, as sustainable design is clearly a trend that every university is beginning to think about,” says Zokas.

While there is definitely interest in sustainability, Nixon is quick to point out that budget is still a major factor, and frankly, many universities aren’t necessarily interested in incurring the additional expense required to seek LEED certification. “Universities are very aware and sensitive to LEED and sustainable design, but most see the certification process as costly and burdensome, with no tangible benefit,” says Brennan.

But those in the academic community who do see the investment as worthwhile, Bull observes, have been receptive to such a process, which involves concept, policy, research and application. Cannon has certainly promoted the green movement. According to Mistriner, in working on a new residence hall at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa., the college’s students were actually recruited to help research materials on this LEED-hopeful project. Such an outreach, he feels, goes a long way. “We have often reached out to students to get their insight on the potential uses of a new facility, and have included students in campus master-planning and design workshops,” he says.

As a result, the Allegheny dorm employs ground-source heat pumps, a hybrid ventilation system and low-flow water fixtures, chosen in part by the students. “Student governments are sometimes very active working with the building team for recreational centers and students unions, because they’re funding it, so they’re really the client,” adds James Matson, AIA, associate vice president and director of higher education with HGA.

Such was the case for a $38-million math and science building at the East Los Angeles Community College campus, where HGA’s M/E team was required to work together with the college’s 3-D modeling class during the schematic design phase.

HarleyEllis has also benefitted from being in the classroom, as it was actually required to lecture a college’s A/E program as part of its design effort in constructing a new student center in the Detroit area. The designers shared their approach and process, and even discussed options they had considered, in addition to conducting construction tours.

“It was truly a great learning opportunity for them to observe a building appear before their eyes from a clean sheet of paper,” relays Zokas.

Pateau had a similar experience, where students were involved in the building team selection process, and also with a recent project where Carter performed work on a women’s college and was required to include women on the actual building team.

Busy times

Whether it’s designing flashy dorms and student centers or dealing with buildings that are simply wearing down due to too many years of deferred maintenance, the next few years will continue to provide M/E/P engineers with plenty of university work.

Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger, speaking at a recent conference organized by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, says it best: “It’s a very particular historical moment that we’re in. With an imperative for growth, most universities seem to grow a million sq. ft a decade. Even two million is not unusual.”

Classroom of Tomorrow

One arena where institutions of higher education can distinguish themselves is with distance learning via interactive online technology.

“We’re already starting to see course content and streaming video that can be downloaded and played on iPods,” observes Enrique Melendez, information systems program manager, Carter & Burgess, Washington, D.C. “As a matter of fact, soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are utilizing such technology in war zones to continue their education.”

Consequently, to support such cyber-activities, classrooms must be outfitted with a host of technologies such as projectors, DVD players and document cameras, all tied in to a remote resource management system so that the equipment can be up and running as soon as the professor begins his or her lecture, says Melendez.

Peering even further into the future, Jeff Zokas, university and civic studio leader for Detroit-based HarleyEllis, predicts we’ll soon see even smarter classrooms that will know a professor’s preferences for lighting, temperature, etc. He adds that the instructor’s digital desk will bring up a personalized lesson plan and students will utilize special digitalized pens to log into a centralized system where notes, taken on digital pads, will be saved and easily accessed for later study.

“Technology is changing so rapidly,” observes Zokas, “so it’s hard to predict, even five years from now, how advanced classrooms will become.”

A New Breed

With the rising cost of tuition and an increased demand for higher education, community colleges are experiencing rapid growth. “Community colleges are booming all over the country as considerably cheaper, convenient options,” says Chuck Nixon, AIA, vice president, principal and higher education market sector leader, Carter & Burgess, Ft. Worth, Texas.

And that’s not all. These two-year institutions are redefining themselves as respectable, viable academic options as opposed to the place where students go if they can’t get into a four-year college.

“They’re striving to elevate their image and academic capabilities,” observes Mike Brennan, AIA, senior vice president, HSMM, Roanoke, Va. “Many are converting from a trades-oriented academic program to a technology-driven curriculum. Many are also establishing satellite campuses to address the growing demand, as well as increasing their distance-learning capabilities.”

Consequently, student bodies are becoming ever more diverse, ranging from the unsure teenager trying to figure things out to 40-something folks retraining for a new career. Meanwhile, other students are simply looking to save on tuition costs by spending their first two years at a community college, according to Don Rerko, AIA, director of college and university facilities, URS, Cleveland.

And although statistics show that approximately 60% of students receive degrees from the colleges they initially enroll in, studies have also found that by attending community colleges first, the dropout rate at universities decrease as students are more mature once they transfer to these institutions.

In any case, lots of construction activity is occurring in this market and is expected to continue, especially in the state of California, which has recently approved hundreds of millions of dollars for community college projects.