Working With Students as a Facilities Resource Benefits Everyone

The last several years, a few of us have had the privilege of working with dozens of students in a totally different relationship. A full-time professor and chair of his department was responsible for developing a learning process for his students that uses facilities professionals as a resource. Working with us, he and a multidisciplined group of engineering students design a real-life project. Jointly, we try to select a project that has a good likelihood of occurring, but has not yet been targeted for funding.

The most recent project for this team of students is designing a 1,500-car parking terrace on the southwest corner of our campus. That area currently sports a 1,000-car surface parking lot that is basically square and totally fills the site. One of the unique challenges that this site offers is that it has a 25-ft. grade change from east to west. It also contains lots of utilities, a light rail station on the western edge, a four-lane street with light rail tracks to the north and the university’s football stadium to the east. Between this lot and a six-lane state highway to the south, there stands a small historical building that must be preserved. It is a very challenging site.

A group of us, as facilities professionals, and including staff architects and engineers, have had occasion to meet with the students several times during the maturation of their project. They had to present the project to us as if they were a design team we had actually brought on board to build this terrace. They had to address all facets of design: constructability, vehicular paths of travel into/out of/around the structure, fire truck access, seismic issues, utility relocation, new utilities, ADA, security and safety, cost, codes and other permitting requirements, our campus design guidelines, pedestrian paths of travel in/out of the structure as well as around it and more. We are also sensitive to the appearance of this structure, mainly because of its visibility and the nature of surrounding facilities. Parking structures are rarely attractive and only when aesthetics are stressed.

The student group wowed us, both at the schematics presentation as well as the design development. (We’re still waiting for construction-level documents and presentation.) The team leader did an excellent job structuring the presentation, making sure that the different levels of information layered properly over the preceding presentation. The students had done their research, displaying knowledge of the site only occasionally demonstrated by our paid consultants. Their mapping showed a level of detail that was impressive, as well as quite accurate. They had visited other structures, elsewhere in the community, to better understand the way traffic flows and moves. When one of us posed a question for clarification, one of the students typically had the right answer at his or her disposal.

The weakest link in their project was the area of gathering information from the user group. They had neglected to talk to the very people who would be using or who would be in charge of operating this facility. They had not discussed the needs of the stadium, apparently assuming that they only had to be concerned about serving the clientele for football games. They had not considered other functions and concerts, nor were they aware of the new (Olympic) Legacy Visitor Center that is being built adjacent to the site. As a result, the design of their hypothetical structure was in conflict with some of those other needs.

By the end of this school year, their project will be complete. Most of the students will graduate, ready to deal with real projects in the real world. Our interaction with them has provided an experience that will help each of them be successful in their own chosen fields. From our perspective, we receive the benefit of interacting with bright, young students, helping us remember why we’re really here. I get a lot of personal satisfaction out of contributing to the education process for these kids. Finally, we have the benefit of already having had a substantial amount of homework done, against which we can eventually test the work of paid designers, when we are at last ready to proceed with this parking structure. In a few months, there will be another group of students eager to attack another hypothetical project. We will be ready to listen to them and to help them grow.

Bring ’em on!

Pete van der Have is director of Plant Operations at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. He can be reached at .