Trends and information to know to design better college and university buildings

Environmental considerations and building for future flexibility are top considerations when looking at college and university buildings

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer September 20, 2023
Classrooms like this one demonstrate how flexible design and added technology create spaces that can serve multiple functions over long periods of time. Courtesy: LAN

University insights

  • The electrification of heating systems is gaining traction in college and university buildings as institutions seek to decarbonize and reduce energy consumption.
  • COVID-19 has had a lasting impact on building design, with increased emphasis on ventilation and air purification. Engineers are now incorporating technologies like enhanced filtration, bi-polar ionization, and UV-C systems to create cleaner and safer building environments.

September 2023 MEP Roundtable. Courtesy: CFE Media and Technology

September 2023 MEP Roundtable. Courtesy: CFE Media and Technology


  • Christopher Augustyn, PE, Senior Project Engineer, Department Facilitator, Affiliated Engineers Inc., Chicago
  • Matthew Goss, PE, PMP, LEED AP, CEM, CEA, CDSM, Mechanical, Electrical, Plumbing & Energy Practice Leader, CDM Smith, Latham, New York
  • Richard Loveland, PE, Senior Vice President, BVH a Salas O’Brien Company, Bloomfield, Connecticut
  • Tom Syvertsen, PE, LEED AP, Vice President, Mueller Associates, Madison, Virginia
  • Kristie Tiller, PE, LEED AP, Associate, Director of Mechanical Engineering, Lockwood, Andrews and Newnam Inc. (LAN), Dallas

What’s the biggest trend in college and university buildings?

Christopher Augustyn: Electrification of building heating systems continues to gain traction in university buildings. More institutions are looking to consulting engineers for ways to decarbonize their building heating and domestic water heating systems, and to detach from central steam heating plants while utilizing less energy overall. This becomes especially challenging in cold weather climates like Chicago, since current electrification equipment technology is limited in its ability to produce high-quality heat over an extended period when outside air temperatures are subzero for multiple days. In addition, clients usually request full-size redundant, emergency backup heating systems that use a fossil fuel source, which significantly increases budget.

Matthew Goss: The biggest trends we are seeing from our clients in the college and university buildings and facilities spaces are decarbonization, energy efficiency and resiliency. Institutions are looking for options and solutions to decarbonize their energy sources and identify opportunities to electrify, through technologies like geothermal heating and cooling. They are also looking to utilize renewable energy technologies and continuing to implement energy efficiency projects that save operational dollars and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Lastly, clients are looking to incorporate additional layers of resiliency, whether through redundant equipment, cogeneration or energy storage technologies. Resilience allows them to continue operations during disruptions that would otherwise stop operations.

Richard Loveland: The biggest trend in college and university buildings is the focus on providing amenity-driven campuses that attract students. This includes expanding high-end dormitory options, incorporating state-of-the-art athletic facilities, both for Varsity athletes and the general student body. Additionally, there is a growing emphasis on expanding dining options to offer a variety of food choices. Another significant aspect is the integration of technology-driven classrooms to create a new era of learning environments. When designing these spaces, it is crucial to be thoughtful about energy efficiency and reducing the carbon footprint of the campuses.

Tom Syvertsen: We have seen the trend of constructing multifunction buildings that house several programs, built to encourage collaboration between departments, while also benefiting from the economy of scale of larger buildings. Larger buildings offer options to economically select more efficient systems, while also creating the challenge of serving varied occupancy, schedules and types of spaces, which are often interwoven throughout the building. In some buildings, it may make sense to apply multiple types of systems to different parts of the building, making the mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) design more complex to design and document.

Classrooms like this one demonstrate how flexible design and added technology create spaces that can serve multiple functions over long periods of time. Courtesy: LAN

Classrooms like this one demonstrate how flexible design and added technology create spaces that can serve multiple functions over long periods of time. Courtesy: LAN

What future trends should engineers expect for such projects?

Richard Loveland: Engineers should anticipate that the amenity-driven concept will persist as a future trend in college and university building projects. As campuses continue to compete for students, there is a growing demand for that something extra that can set them apart. This means that engineering professionals should expect a continued emphasis on creating attractive and functional spaces that go beyond necessities. Incorporating innovative amenities, advanced technologies, and sustainable design elements will likely be key considerations in meeting the evolving expectations of students and institutions.

Tom Syvertsen: The largest future trend in terms of heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems in institutional education buildings is decarbonization. The concept states that heat produced using electricity in lieu of burning fossil fuels on-site will use less and less carbon as the electrical grid greens with renewable energy sources. The term electric heat conjures thoughts of expensive electric resistance heating, but the latest technologies produce heat using compressors, such as in heat pumps, and can have coefficients of performance of 3.0 or greater, depending on the heat rejection medium and conditions. These systems become even more attractive when the waste heat or chilled water byproduct can also be used for applications in the building that would otherwise use additional energy to generate this heating or cooling.

Christopher Augustyn: To achieve full electrification, multiple solutions and system types will need to be explored and combined until equipment technology advances. Water-cooled dedicated heat recovery chillers can be used year-round and air-source heat pumps can be used for most months of the year to handle simultaneous heating and cooling needs of a facility. Energy and ice storage can generate heating or cooling during off-peak hours for use during occupied times of the day. In addition, these systems can be used during necessary defrost cycles of air-water cooling equipment.

Some universities do not have the initial capital to electrify their heating system on Day One, but they request that their buildings be electrification ready. This includes providing space either outdoors, or within the mechanical room, for future electrified heating equipment, and sizing heating terminal devices and coils for low temperature hot water (as low as 100°F supply temperature).

Matthew Goss: Engineers should expect to be able to design systems that offer efficient and resilient operations. Aside from selecting technologies that maximize the utilization of cleanly generated energy, systems designed should be energy efficient and provide the same level of operational flexibility or modularity to account for future modifications or adjustments. Additionally, engineers should prepare to design for some level of resiliency and/or redundancy as it provides operational flexibility to colleges in times of need.

How do changes or new designs from COVID-19 still impact these buildings and projects?

Christopher Augustyn: Increased ventilation and air purification are growing topics, even post-pandemic. Owners are focused on the creation of clean, safe and healthy building environments. Whether it be through enhanced filtration, bi-polar ionization or an ultraviolet disinfectant system, every new project starts with idea sharing on clean space creation, especially compared to pre-pandemic times.

Some clients also request supplemental ‘pandemic emergency’ exhaust systems, where at the push of a button, entire floors or wings of a building can go into 100% exhaust mode. This requires designing central air systems with larger heating and cooling coils in air handling units to accommodate increased volumes of outside air.

Tom Syvertsen: COVID-19 certainly left a mark on the HVAC industry as owners and engineers scrambled to determine how to reopen buildings safely. Some methods were energy-intensive, such as the increase of ventilation and the associated tempering of the air. However, the industry is now focusing on equivalent clean airflow rate, which relies on the treatment or filtration of recirculated air, in combination with outdoor air. The new ASHRAE Standard 241: Control of Infectious Aerosols, issued in June 2023, details methods to reduce the risk of airborne disease transmission, and looks to become the standard for healthy buildings of the future.

Matthew Goss: Changes or new designs from COVID-19 have impacted buildings and projects in a few ways. They have changed how we look at, evaluate and design building ventilation systems. In addition to typically providing a more enhanced control and monitoring system, we have found ourselves providing enhanced filtration systems and using other technologies. Specifically, we’ve evaluated and designed for the installation of UV-C and Bi-Polar ionization.

Richard Loveland: The changes and new designs necessitated by COVID-19 have had a lasting impact on college and university buildings and projects. During the pandemic, there was a heightened focus on increasing ventilation rates and implementing higher filtration systems. These measures aimed to enhance indoor air quality by providing more fresh air and achieving better minimum efficiency reporting values ratings. While building codes have evolved over the years, these two concepts – increased ventilation and improved filtration – will remain key considerations in design discussions for years to come. It is important to note that implementing these measures may result in increased construction costs. However, it is crucial to have a thoughtful conversation to determine the appropriate approach for each project. Balancing the benefits of improved indoor air quality with the associated costs is essential to ensure the health and well-being of students, faculty and staff in college and university buildings.

If enrollment continues to decrease, what changes do you anticipate seeing?

Tom Syvertsen: If enrollment decreases, or even if it varies within a program from year to year, the buildings may need to be able to adapt to these needs. Spaces with flexible configurations and MEP capabilities will be important to help meet these requirements. Adequate power, provided in flexible and adaptable locations, such as in the floors, combined with multilevel lighting allows spaces to easily convert from lecture to collaboration. Inclusion of plumbing fixtures within the space allows a classroom to be used for simulation or light lab use. Anticipation of occupancy and program will need to factor into the HVAC loads and ventilation to allow systems to adequately react to a change in use.

Richard Loveland: In the event of continued enrollment decreases, it is anticipated that campuses will have the opportunity to refine their focus on specific target groups. This can have a significant impact on the types of projects pursued and the overall needs addressed by the campus. Large universities often face challenges in balancing the diverse needs of their student population, which can result in a backlog of projects.

With a decrease in student population, there is an opportunity to customize projects to focus on the specific needs. This customization can lead to tailored facilities and services that align more closely with the interests and requirements of the target student groups. By identifying and addressing the unique needs of the reduced student body, campuses can create a more effective and engaging environment that supports their educational and personal development.

Matthew Goss: If enrollment continues to decrease, institutions will restructure and reutilize existing building spaces on campus to consolidate and repurpose operations. Doing this will allow for the consolidation of both space and operations. However, to accomplish this, building infrastructure and systems must be flexible to support multiple potential use cases.

Radford University's Artis Center for Adaptive Innovation and Creativity accommodates several different programs, including the arts, health sciences and technology. This serves as an example of how necessary creative solutions and flexibility can be. Courtesy: Hord Coplan Macht, Mueller Associates

Radford University’s Artis Center for Adaptive Innovation and Creativity accommodates several different programs, including the arts, health sciences and technology. This serves as an example of how necessary creative solutions and flexibility can be. Courtesy: Hord Coplan Macht, Mueller Associates

How are engineers designing these kinds of projects to keep costs down while offering appealing features, complying with relevant codes and meeting client needs?

Christopher Augustyn: The key to designing appealing systems while maximizing cost-effectiveness is finding upfront cost trade-offs. For instance, using a chilled beam system is very energy efficient, but the cost of the beams and associated piping systems can be expensive. However, one of the major advantages of using chilled beams is the potential to significantly downsize the main air handling system and all ducted components, sometimes by half or more, which saves on cost. Understanding trade-offs like this are key during schematic design and budgeting, to ensure accurate price capturing in later design phases.

Energy rebates are also another great way to keep costs down while using newer technologies in mechanical systems. Many energy companies are offering significant rebates for systems like magnetic bearing chillers, heat pump systems and other newer high-efficiency equipment.

Matthew Goss: More engineers are often working with their equipment vendors and manufacturers to utilize unconventional or off-the-shelf solutions versus potentially utilizing a custom-engineered solution. In addition, engineers are considering modularity and flexibility and may design a solution that gets built out over time through additional phases of work.

Richard Loveland: Campuses are starting to review possibilities for complete electrification. Designing with construction cost in mind, a balance of electric and fossil fuel usage can reduce cost from complete electrification and still provide the energy benefits while providing the comfortable well-ventilated indoor environments.

How are college and university buildings being designed to be more energy efficient?

Tom Syvertsen: College and university buildings, like many institutional buildings, are part of the trend of leveraging new technologies to gain efficiency in energy use. For example, equipment that can provide simultaneous heating and cooling, such as dedicated heat recovery chillers or heat pumps, are being employed to capture waste heat and put it to use for reheat. Or, conversely, in the heating season, the building’s plant may be producing a free chilled water byproduct that may be used to cool racks and equipment that support the ever-growing technology needs of the programs.

Richard Loveland: One key aspect is the design and optimization of building envelopes. The building envelope, including walls, windows, roofs and insulation, plays a critical role in reducing thermal transfer to the exterior. By enhancing the sealing of the building envelope, the energy required to heat or cool the indoor spaces is minimized. Another area of focus is the efficient treatment of ventilation air. A significant portion of energy consumption in buildings is attributed to conditioning and treating ventilation air. As building envelopes are improved, the introduction of energy recovery systems becomes more feasible. Energy recovery systems, such as heat exchangers, can capture and reuse the energy from exhaust air to precondition the incoming fresh air. This process significantly reduces the energy needed to treat ventilation air, thereby improving overall energy efficiency.

Matthew Goss: Buildings are being designed with more automation and controls systems in place as they provide the ability for system visibility and monitoring. Additionally, technologies that incorporate higher-efficiency equipment and heat recovery are being incorporated into projects to design energy efficiency.

What is the biggest challenge you come across when designing such projects?

Richard Loveland: One of the biggest challenges encountered when designing college and university building projects is navigating the complexities of user interface and programming. As the amenity driven environment grows, there are more opinions of what should be included within a building. Narrowing down the program helps us select systems that provide the most efficient design while meeting the user needs.

Matthew Goss: The biggest challenges that I come across are typically related to existing facilities. Specifically, space and infrastructure constraints can be challenging when working within existing spaces. New equipment with additional options or enhancements that include heat recovery or enhanced filtration will likely take up additional real estate in existing constrained areas is challenging.

How has your team incorporated technology into school buildings? What unique engineered systems have you designed related to this technology request?

Matthew Goss: My team has incorporated enhanced filtration and clean air technologies, including UV-C, into school buildings. While we’ve included them, they’ve been challenging due to existing facility space and power constraints. The engineering team has only overcome these challenges by working and coordinating with the facilities’ engineering and maintenance teams.

Richard Loveland: Technology is an ever-changing field. While the discussion of technology usually leads to wired and wireless access for computers, audio/visual and cell phones, it has now grown to the smart building environment that includes lighting controls, temperature controls and overall building management. Facility groups are now found carrying tablets to trouble shoot building systems and operations. Providing these smart building approaches reduces maintenance time and troubleshooting.

This diagram demonstrates possible routes toward decarbonization, including the electrification of campus buildings. Courtesy: Affiliated Engineers, Inc.

This diagram demonstrates possible routes toward decarbonization, including the electrification of campus buildings. Courtesy: Affiliated Engineers, Inc.

What technologies are you incorporating into design that is used in classes or laboratories? What innovative ways are colleges and universities including building systems to assist with coursework?

Richard Loveland: Collaborative classrooms have become a new standard for interactive learning. These classrooms feature visual monitors distributed throughout the space, equipped with technology that enables students to share information from their own devices with the entire class. This fosters teamwork and encourages students to work collectively, sharing ideas, presenting experiments and analyzing data together. Platforms like Zoom, Teams or Google Meet offer students and educators greater flexibility, enabling interactive and collaborative learning experiences both within the classroom and in remote settings — creating a worldwide environment.

Matthew Goss: Our design teams are incorporating more demand control and ventilation management systems into the design of our systems for laboratories. In addition, wherever feasible and allowable, we’re designing and engineering heat recovery systems to maximize overall system performance and energy efficiency.

How are engineering systems in university buildings designed to accommodate future expansion and adaptability?

Christopher Augustyn: A common methodology for future expansion and adaptability is sizing a building system for a worse-case scenario at an individual floor level, while maintaining a consistent diversity factor when sizing the central system. This allows for certain building users and groups to renovate or expand portions of a building without forcing the owner to unnecessarily oversize the whole HVAC system. With this approach, the owner has flexibility to renovate spaces while maintaining a reasonable overall project budget. Main risers, air handling and exhaust systems are sized for current Day One programming, while duct and pipe systems on each floor are generously sized for future flexibility.

Richard Loveland: Minimal increases in capacity of all building systems (HVAC, electrical, technology, etc.) can usually be done for minimal upfront costs. This can provide a university with future flexibility for modifications and expansions to their spaces. For example, a flexible classroom designed for 30-40 students with increased ventilation and additional square footage can easily be transformed to a lecture classroom or demonstration space to hold 50-70 students with low upfront costs.

Matthew Goss: We design systems with more flexibility or modularity in mind. They need to be able to accommodate future space modifications, especially in terms of capacity. Systems are engineered to last a long time, and buildings are engineered to last even longer. Understanding that spaces will be repurposed is critical to providing appropriate and adaptable designs.