Finding a Place to Grow: Campus Expansion Today

Expansion means different things, from the construction of new buildings to the outward spread of facilities on non-contiguous sites beyond the borders of a campus. Schools are seeking creative solutions to balance on-site construction and off-site growth, to mitigate the impact of development on their academic precincts as well as their neighboring communities and to leverage the value of existing properties.

Today’s administrators understand that expansion is unavoidable, as sophisticated facilities attract superior students and faculty. Schools planning for expansion must identify capital projects and determine priorities for what gets built and balancing project needs in view of rising property costs, the availability of land and the interrelationship among buildings and services over increasingly large areas. Whether a school is building a new quadrangle or a 2,000-sq.-ft. addition, the same rules apply.

Greater economic stability, made possible in part by record enrollments, is one reason that institutions are implementing capital projects that would not have been possible five or 10 years ago. Schools are also more real-estate savvy, partnering with private developers and other financial partners to achieve their goals. According to Sandy Tierney, executive vice president of McCall & Almy, a firm that provides real estate advisory services to institutions throughout the northeast, schools are prioritizing new housing, income-generating projects (especially research facilities) and better student amenities that require more space.

New science programs alone require 20- to 30-percent larger spaces than in the past. The same is true for housing and student life facilities, which were long passed over in favor of academic buildings. Shelly Kaplan, associate vice president for Facilities Management and Planning at Massachusetts’ Babson College, attributes the latter trend to“helicopter parents” who hover around their kids. Because single rooms and suites take up more space, new residence halls cost more to build. So do the campus centers, recreational facilities and chic dining halls that students have come to expect.

As institutions expand, they put pressure on the non-academic communities around them, particularly near urban campuses. Neighbors may welcome the economic benefits of expansion, such as higher property values, but are wary of other consequences. Increasingly, administrators are working closely with their neighboring communities to alleviate the effects of traffic, noise and demands on infrastructure that new construction can cause.

Combining the Old and New

Babson College maintains good town/gown relationships by avoiding new construction at the edges of its 375-acre campus that is adjacent to a country club and a residential neighborhood. When the school expanded its Executive Education Center, the parapet wall around the parking deck was raised to shield the headlights of cars from residents who lived near the school. To mitigate environmental impact, administrators build new facilities on existing building footprints and construct parking decks that have the least impact on the land.

Although Babson has limited expansion space, the college has built a number of new facilities in the last 20 years, and Kaplan believes that with careful planning the campus has enough space for the next four to five decades. For example, when Babson added the Arthur M. Blank Center for Entrepreneurship, the architects connected the 18,000-sq.-ft. center to an adjacent classroom and a previously renovated office to capture additional space.

On a number of campuses, the choice to reuse or replace an existing building with a new structure hinges on cost. The burdens of maintaining and upgrading older buildings can outweigh the advantages of building anew. Ironically, the newest buildings are often difficult to upgrade — many post-war buildings were built of poured concrete, and their low ceilings make it difficult to integrate contemporary lighting, technology and electrical systems.

Other schools, like Wellesley College, have had success with reusing existing structures, ranging from residence halls to science buildings. Wellesley wants contemporary, up-to-date facilities, which makes renovation and adaptation critical as the preservation of school’s sprawling landscape is so important, according to Patricia Byrne, vice president for Administration and Planning at Wellesley.

A comprehensive planning process for a new campus center identified an underutilized site for the new 50,000-sq.-ft. structure. The college also built a 20,000-sq.-ft. addition that transformed a private residence into an admissions office and space for a new Humanities program. By renovating its main classroom building, Pendleton Hall, the school created a state-of-the-art learning center.

Campus Identity and Visual Linkages

New programmatic uses may require bigger buildings that may be out scale or character of a given campus, which makes it difficult to integrate complex buildings within the traditional context of the school. However, some schools, like Wellesley and Dartmouth, prefer a centralized campus and have found ways to upgrade despite space limitations. Further, they make an effort to preserve buildings that contribute to the cohesive visual memory of the campus in ways that newer buildings cannot. The dominant Georgian character of the Dartmouth College campus is so important, according to Gordon DeWitt, director of Facilities Planning, that buildings are rarely replaced. A strong maintenance program helps minimize new construction, and most renovations consist of interior improvements that leave the exterior appearance intact.

Other academic institutions have found a middle ground for construction that maintains the character of the campuses, yet allows for expansion. Colby College in Waterville, ME, was able to locate the Anthony-Mitchell-Schupf residence hall near the center of its campus. In keeping with style of surrounding buildings of the campus core, the residence hall’s exterior of red brick with white trim maintained the school’s traditional Collegiate Georgian style. To reduce the physical and visual impact of its large volume, the building was divided into three smaller parts with massing that obscured views of a post-war building that does not match the historic architecture.

Merging Programmatic Needs

As institutional priorities change, older buildings with single functions — student centers, classroom buildings, residence halls, dining facilities and libraries — are giving way to mixed-use buildings that accommodate a range of services, which increases efficiency and frequently saves on costs.

By mixing functions, schools can avoid some of the complications that inevitably accompany construction, such as zoning issues. When plans for the University of New England in Biddeford, ME, met opposition from local residents, the school added a new conference center and classroom building onto the school’s existing library, dining facilities and bookstore to create the George and Barbara Bush Cultural Center at the center of the campus.

Northeastern University partnered with Squashbusters, an inner-city youth program that encourages academic achievement through the practice of squash, to build a new athletic facility. Squashbusters raised money for construction, while the university agreed to donate the land and maintain the building in exchange for use of the facilities during off hours. The project also gave Northeastern a chance to upgrade their urban campus with a bold, contemporary building that masks a parking garage and creates a modern backdrop to a small public park.

Moving to the Edge

As campuses become increasingly dense, schools are finding that underutilized property on fringe locations offer opportunities for expansion. Classroom buildings located within the traditional core of academic campuses are, more often than not, saved, while functions like housing that require large buildings are being built on the edges of campuses where large sites are available.

Pennsylvania State University took the opportunity to replace low-density married-student housing with a new residential quadrangle, Eastview Terrace. By demolishing the 1940s complex, Penn State added contemporary housing for 800 students, created a new gateway to the campus and maximized the value of an existing property. In addition to much needed housing, the school gained flexibility for planning and the opportunity to improve relations with the adjacent residential neighbors.

Currently, Penn State is embarking on the first phase of Graduate Circle, a three-phase project that will replace a 1950s residence hall with new graduate housing. Efficient site organization yielded a series of low-scale three- and four-story buildings that utilize less space, leaving acreage for future facilities and parking. As an added benefit, the housing units will connect to new community spaces and courtyards.

Expanding Off-Site

Other schools are looking farther out, often beyond their existing campus boundaries, to find room to grow. Colleges and universities, particularly urban campuses landlocked by their surrounding neighborhoods, are moving functions to off-site locations. Specialized departments or housing can usually be relocated without negative impact on efficiency or convenience.

Penn State decided to build a new law school that would consolidate its Law departments, formerly scattered among different branch campuses, to a central site. The move, which required a piece of land large enough to accommodate classroom buildings, parking and housing, as well as future growth, led to a site at the edge of the state college campus. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is building a 600-unit graduate residence in an emerging area of Cambridge, five blocks from its main campus, while neighboring Harvard University moved a portion of its medical research facilities to the Charleston Navy Yard in Boston.

Dartmouth College added new housing by consolidating the functions of its medical school in Lebanon, NH, to a site five miles distant from the main campus. When the medical school moved, the school bought the hospital property that formerly housed half of its program. Currently, the school is redeveloping the 20-acre site to provide residential facilities, allowing the school to add hundreds of units of new housing, yet maintain the traditional character of its core.

The Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Massachusetts is creating a new 15-acre biotechnology campus for business and research called Gateway Park. Because the biotech functions of the new campus are aligned with outside businesses, the school considered the physical separation from the main campus to be a benefit.

New Models of Partnership

Increasingly, colleges and universities are partnering with private businesses, local developers and even city agencies to plan for future growth, which not only expands the scope of their projects, but also the way in which they develop them. Long before WPI conceived of Gateway Park, MIT was collaborating with the private sector to support growth initiatives. Most recently, the university expanded onto a 10-acre site in Cambridge’s Kendall Square, which has drawn top-notch biotech companies.

Other schools have successfully worked with public agencies to investigate options for expansion. Brown University, hemmed in by an historic residential district, is developing properties in downtown Providence. The university collaborated with the City Historic Commission and the Rhode Island School of Design on a real estate study to explore the school’s expansion and is now shifting programs to other locations. Unable to house its freshman class, Boston’s Berklee School of Music had demand for new housing but no place to build. In order to explore the acquisition of new properties, the school worked with the city to develop a master plan that would benefit both the college and the surrounding neighborhood.


Regardless of the scale of the challenge presented by the healthy growth in enrollments, college and university administrators are clearly up to the task. Ingenuity and real estate acumen combine to help schools accommodate the future and to continue to be good stewards of beloved campuses.

Christopher Hill and Charles Tseckares are partners at Boston-based CBT/Childs Bertman Tseckares Inc.