Unique electrical and power considerations for university buildings

Utilizing creative and flexible solutions in electrical, power and lighting systems can help meet the changing needs and loads for different buildings on college campuses

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer October 4, 2023
The new auditorium at St. Mary’s College has lighting and sound specifications that create a challenge for engineers. Courtesy: Tom Holdsworth, Mueller Associates

Power insights

  • Standby, emergency and backup power systems in college and university projects vary from campus-wide generators supporting critical areas to distributed generation for specific spaces like dining halls and labs.
  • Smart lighting, incorporating daylighting, occupancy sensing and tunable white lighting has created a more environmental and cost friendly option for labs, classrooms and other university spaces.

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

Are there any issues unique to designing electrical/power systems for these types of facilities? Please describe.

Richard Loveland: Designing electrical or power systems for these types of facilities involves addressing specific capacity requirements based on user needs. While these requirements may not be entirely unique, they do vary depending on the facility’s purpose. For instance, power provisions need to accommodate connectivity demands, usage needs within laboratories and space requirements. Different areas within the facility, such as a gaming or computer classroom, may require significantly more power compared to a standard classroom or lecture hall. The key lies in understanding the programming and user needs of the building to accurately determine the appropriate electrical capacity.

What types of unusual standby, emergency or backup power systems have you specified for such facilities? Describe the project.

Richard Loveland: We have designed campus generation where large generators back up an entire campus. This allows students to remain in dorm rooms and classes to continue during a power outage. Other campuses utilize distributed generation to support the critical spaces such as dining halls and labs. But in an extended outage students may have to move to temp housing since dorms may not be supported by generators.

The new auditorium at St. Mary’s College has lighting and sound specifications that create a challenge for engineers. Courtesy: Tom Holdsworth, Mueller Associates

The new auditorium at St. Mary’s College has lighting and sound specifications that create a challenge for engineers. Courtesy: Tom Holdsworth, Mueller Associates

What are some of the challenges when designing high-voltage power systems in college and university projects?

Richard Loveland: One challenge is the diversity of loads within the campus. Understanding the various power requirements and load profiles of different buildings and facilities is crucial for properly sizing the campus distribution system. Another challenge is designing the medium voltage loop for the campus. Creating an efficient and reliable medium voltage distribution network involves careful planning and consideration of factors such as load distribution, voltage drop and equipment coordination.

How has smart lighting influenced classrooms and laboratories? What tactics should electrical engineers use when designing these systems?

Richard Loveland: This depends on the definition of smart lighting. This can be smart controls that utilize daylighting, occupancy sensing and vacancy controls. Additionally, smart lighting can involve color-changing capabilities, often utilized for branding, signage, or creating visually appealing environments in tech or gaming spaces. Another aspect is tunable white lighting, which allows customization of light color from warm to cool tones. This customization caters to individual preferences for reading and studying, ensuring optimal lighting conditions.

How does your team work with the architect, owner’s rep and other project team members so the electrical/power systems are flexible and sustainable?

Matthew Goss: Our team works consistently and collaboratively with project architects and owners to ensure our systems are flexible and sustainable. We achieve this through constant and open communication. Owners and architects are part of our design review process and are engaged constantly throughout our design lifecycle. Their involvement is the only way to ensure a collaborative design that meets the needs of the owner or client.

Richard Loveland: One aspect is achieving flexibility of furniture through floor systems that allow for adjustable layouts according to the requirements of a classroom, without being limited by the power solution. Another aspect is utilizing tunable white lighting, which can enhance student and staff focus by adapting the light color. Additionally, creating large, flexible multipurpose spaces provides versatility in usage. Throughout these processes, we closely collaborate with the design team to provide informed solutions that meet the users’ needs. These are collaborative design processes.

What kind of lighting designs have you incorporated into college or university project, either for energy efficiency or to increase the occupant’s experience? Discuss the use of holistic lighting or other lighting techniques.

Richard Loveland: We have incorporated color-changing lighting to enhance appearance, branding, signage and create engaging environments in tech or gaming spaces. Additionally, tunable white lighting allows customization from warm white to cool white, providing flexibility for personal preferences. The choice between warmer or cooler lighting for reading and studying is subjective, varying from person to person.

When designing lighting systems for these types of structures, what design factors are being requested? Are there any particular technical advantages that are or need to be considered?

Matthew Goss: The last lighting system we designed for a college/university space was for an athletic gymnasium that the university also used as a space for special events. This situation necessitated selecting a system that could meet not only NCAA athletic lighting requirements but also the special events’ requirements. Because of the specific operating requirements, we chose a flexible solution that allowed for precise light level control. In addition to specific light level control, the fixtures also had to be impact rated given their installation in an active gymnasium.

Richard Loveland: When designing lighting systems for these types of structures, critical components include the presence of ceilings, ceiling heights, space finishes, finish colors and space usage. Each of these elements plays a role in determining the appropriate lighting design for the facility. The usage of the space drives the required light levels. For example, classrooms, laboratories and research spaces typically require higher light levels to support detailed work and visual clarity. On the other hand, circulation areas and general spaces may necessitate lower light levels.