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Campuses Turn Up Construction Heat

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Skyrocketing student numbers and a growing demand for “green” facilities are driving rapid campus expansion and renovation.


  1. Alan Whitson, RPA


Construction spending in the college market varies in dollar amounts, but is consistent in its expansion. Campus infrastructure needs constant maintenance, expansion, and modernization to meet educational demands.

Skyrocketing student numbers and a growing demand for “green” facilities are driving rapid campus expansion and renovation.

In 2005, enrollment in the 4,216 colleges and universities that make up the American higher education market hit an all-time high at 17.3 million students. Construction spending for 2005 was $14.4 billion, and is projected to be at an annualized rate of $14.7 billion per year for 2006 through 2008.

How hot is the college market? Campus officials at Texas State University forecast that enrollment at their Round Rock campus will double in the next five years. To address growing enrollment and aging infrastructure, the Texas state legislature earmarked $1.8 billion for new campus projects.

Yet, classroom education is only one of the activities taking place on the nation’s college campuses. Colleges build and maintain many types of facilities, including research laboratories, art studios, utility generation and transmission plants, dormitories, and water-distribution systems. The large research institutions also have specialized facilities such as medical centers, agricultural centers, nuclear reactors, and high-security biomedical laboratories.

Here are some of the trends that will drive the secondary-education market in the next few years.

  • Social, economic, and demographic factors will cause total college enrollment to reach 19.5 million students by 2014, a 12.7% increase. The shift to more female students than male will continue and will be more pronounced with part-time and older students.
  • The relationship between a college and its surrounding community is becoming more complex on several levels. This is especially true when it comes to real estate issues:
    • Some institutions are finding that property they purchased “just in case” is becoming a source of revenue, as developers want to use it, creating more private/public types of arrangements.
    • George Washington Univ., a large landowner in the hot Washington real estate market, is now seen as a “corporate developer first, not an educational facility,” by some of its neighbors.
    • Repeatedly, studies have revealed that college towns are “cool cities,” retirement magnets, or “enlightened” places to live.
    • Migration into college towns will make them more economically desirable than they are now. Colleges may face increasing pressures for affordable staff and faculty housing.
  • Hurricane Katrina’s impact on building materials and supplies and increases in the cost of oil and natural gas have created unexpected deficiencies in operating and capital budgets for the current fiscal year:
    • The “set-it-and-forget-it” approach to operating and capital budgeting is over. Look for increased and ongoing interest from administrators as to when and where the money is being spent and how it ties back to the original budget.
    • Look for a more direct connection between design and construction and operations/maintenance.
    • More staff positions on campus will be created with the goal of improving energy efficiency, including working with students and staff to reduce their energy use. Alternatively, this effort may be outsourced.
    • Interest in alternative energy sources, such as solar, wind, geo-thermal, co-generation, and bio-diesel will grow as prices of petroleum-based products stay high or go higher. This also will drive the trend for “greener” campuses.
    • In an effort to control costs, a college in Scotland is creating two open-space office buildings out of which all staff and faculty will work, i.e., no one on campus will have a private office.
  • There is a growing effort in colleges to examine the design of the learning space-virtual and physical, formal and informal-and the effects of that design on learning:
    • The design trend is to create a sense of place inside classrooms, as well as in student unions and campus open spaces. This is akin to the “branding” of retail and corporate spaces.
    • Look for more research and analysis on what students do and where they are throughout the day, and attempts to find ways to instill learning in all of their environments. Note that this trend may go to extremes and create a backlash against the “plugged-in” culture and the data overload it can create.
  • “Green” is here to stay. This trend on college campuses is being driven more by demands from students and faculty rather than the design community. The recent release of the LEED-NC Application Guide for Multiple Buildings and On-Campus Building Projects (AGMBC) will infiltrate into the daily lives of campus planners, architects, contractors, and product manufacturers.
    • Campuses need to think about doing a better job, once a “green” building is completed, of maintaining it and using it as a teaching and learning tool.
    • Look out for conflicts between those who value high-performance buildings and those who value the latest in architectural fashion. The prize will go to those who can package both good design and high performance within a given budget.
    • If you think college sports are competitive, look out. The big question for “green” bragging rights will be: Who will have the first overall LEED-certified campus? This will be followed by: Which school got the most points?

What does all this mean? While construction spending in the college market varies annually, this marketplace has a consistency to it. The infrastructure of every college campus constantly needs to be maintained, modernized, and expanded to meet the growing worldwide demand for education. Also, by the very nature of this market, there is no one type of building or single way to construct a building. This is a marketplace that is large enough and, at the same time, small enough for everyone to succeed.

B. Alan Whitson, RPA, is president of Corporate Realty, Design & Management Institute, Portland, OR. Whitson’s experience encompasses more than 40 million sq. ft. of facilities in a variety of capacities. He speaks frequently on high-performance buildings including at “Turning Green into Gold” seminar programs. Commercial Building Products and the Institute are presenting two seminar series throughout North America on the construction of high-performance, low- and mid-rise buildings and on renovating for maximum return on investment.