Assessing Building Needs

Everything accomplished on a college or university campus, it seems, depends on collaboration. Assessing the need for new buildings is no different. But for the best results, who should be involved in the process?

“Assessing the need for the kinds of new buildings on college campuses—and their sizes and features—requires a multidisciplinary team,” says Christiana Moss, principal of Studio Ma, an architecture and environmental design firm based in Phoenix. She says this typically includes the campus architect, the university’s real estate and capital projects leaders, facility managers and department heads.

“To determine how the new buildings should perform, look and feel then requires detailed input from the user groups including students, faculty, administrators and more,” Moss adds.

The priorities of key leaders should be considered early in the process, according to John Kirk, a partner at the New York architectural firm Cooper Robertson. 

“While everyone associated or affiliated with the college or university should be part of the dialogue, ideally key leadership should identify needs based on a vision for the institution and the institution's core mission,” he says. He also notes that a good architect should be engaged to verify for the university whether that means new buildings, repurposing existing buildings or making better use of space that’s already available. 

Kirk’s firm recently assisted Drury University in Springfield, MO, in developing a master plan. The process included a “listening tour” of more than 20 meetings with campus constituency groups. This discussion revealed the need for a new student center, which has been designated as one of the institution’s top three priorities in the school’s upcoming capital campaign.

Start at the Top  
In all cases the campus president needs to be involved even if that is only for awareness and approval, says George Stooks, AVP for facilities and planning at SUNY Geneseo.

“My experience with presidential involvement runs the gamut from not seeing it until it is finished to wanting to be involved in reviewing concept drawings to the selection of finishes,” he says. “The members of the cabinet in the responsible area also need to be involved, along with a range of responsible parties within that chain of command.”

At the same time, cooperation at other levels is also essential. In addition to communication with campus leadership, Stooks advocates a partnership between the facilities unit and the departments that will be the end users.

A campus steering committee is typically comprised of vice presidents, the provost and other decision-making leaders, according to Stephen Coulston, a principal in the Austin office of global architecture and design firm, Perkins+Will. This can be supplemented by an advisory committee that includes a cross-section of other constituents such as students, faculty department heads and city officials.

“The overall goal is for all affected stakeholders to see the manifestation of their thoughts and feedback integrated into the plan,” he says.

Look Ahead
Obviously, any building development requires significant analysis. Moss recommends multifaceted master planning and other early-phase planning to fully understand the long-term changes expected for the campus. This might include housing plans, a study of the Greek community, analysis of changes in the science department or athletics programs, and a comprehensive look at the whole campus and beyond to the outlying areas. The process should bring deliberate and thoughtful engagement of the entire university community, according to Moss; especially students.

“In our planning and building assessment studies, we’ve interviewed hundreds of students and surveyed thousands,” she says. “This helps us to synthesize the varied and dynamic needs and aspirations of the student community before advancing any campus changes.”

She adds that the research phase can often include collaborative brainstorming in design charrettes to get detailed input on specific solutions.

Moss cites a new graduate housing complex at Princeton University as a project where creative planning reflects sustainability goals and strategic direction for the entire institution. Set on 14 acres, the complex accommodates over 700 graduate students in 74 townhouses and 255 apartments while connecting to the surrounding trees and Lake Carnegie at the southern end of the Princeton, NJ, campus. Estimates are that the more efficient structures offer the potential to reduce carbon greenhouse gas emissions by 40-plus percent over a 10-year period.

A five-year master plan with a gap analysis is recommended by Robin Whitehurst, a principal at Bailey Edward, a Chicago-based architecture and engineering firm. The plan should include long-term planning goals and student population projections. A facility condition assessment should also be undertaken to identify buildings that are obsolete, difficult to re-use or possibilities re-purposing.

“The key is that this must be kept updated,” Whitehurst says. “If the master plan, gap analyses and condition assessments are kept evergreen, the university’s needs will be better anticipated.”

Jeffrey Murphy, partner at Murphy Burnham & Buttrick Architects in New York, points to the consensus a master plan process brings to a college or university setting. This includes bringing key players and constituencies within the institutional community to the table to identify needs and aspirations. Questions cover areas such as barriers preventing the school from attaining its mission, facilities or amenities needed to provide the best learning and living environment for students, and what works on a given campus as well as what falls short.

His team then takes this basic information and synthesizes it, working closely with a leadership team from the college or university.

Expect the Unexpected
“There is always something unexpected in the process, which is immensely fascinating,” Murphy says. “The most profound suggestion or observation may come from a student, food services staff or member of the local community, and this can impact a critical component of the master plan.”

Murphy’s firm followed this approach in working with New York University to land a Getty Campus Heritage grant which supported assessment of 116 buildings in the historic core of the campus. The plan grouped similar types of buildings and developed treatments to lend consistency to how buildings were maintained on the campus. The consensus process involved discussions with the local community, university architects, maintenance staff and faculty users.

“The outcome of the feedback and input led to a plan that had university and community buy-in, and once the plan was implemented it improved the condition of buildings across the campus,” Murphy says. “This is the type of constructive outcome all planning efforts aspire to.”

James Matson, vice president at Minneapolis-based HGA Architects and Engineers, says more than the details of initial construction should be considered.

“It’s critical that a feasibility study consider all aspects of the building life cycle, such as maintenance and operations,” he says. “These are inherently detailed attributes, and front-end studies tend to be high-level in nature, but engaging the maintenance and operations group early will help establish priorities and eliminate surprises during design.”

Consider All the Angles
Stooks notes that leaders need to take an assertive yet balanced role in gathering the team and moving projects forward when there are obstacles to progress.

“Recognizing the fact that in higher education there are endless opinions and ideas, there are times when decisions need to be made to move forward,” he says. “This is where leaders need to know when, what, and how—which could very well mean tapping the expertise of their facilities and planning team.”

Perhaps most important is ongoing review and planning.

“In the assessment of new construction, take a comprehensive view of what the institutional needs are on a regular, periodic basis to ensure you don’t have a situational patchwork of solutions,” Coulston says. “Thoughtful and thorough assessments involve long-term thinking about user needs and future adjacency opportunities.”

A wide range of factors should be evaluated and accommodated for on a campus-wide level, he adds. They might include transportation, parking and mobility options, utilities and infrastructure building, space allocation, storm water management, and community engagement.
Based on the holistic assessment, a clear and focused set of priorities can be identified with institutional consensus and direction from leadership about where energies should be focused.

“Once you’ve identified those overarching priorities, continue the process on a more granular level,” Coulston says. “Then define needs on a project-by-project basis.”

Five Tips for Assessing Building Needs
Robin Whitehurst of Chicago-based architecture and engineering firm Bailey Edward offers these tips for assessing building needs:
1. Ask, what are the drivers? Is it growth of undergraduate/graduate populations that require more facilities? Or, is it a need to change pedagogy, and provide different types of facilities to provide better learning environments?
2. Project the impact growth will have on each college or major unit.
3. Do a gap analysis to determine if current facilities are adequate for the projected student populations and make sure future facilities fill those gaps.
4. Define the types of spaces that will be required, size of classrooms/labs that are needed.
5. Assess the condition of existing structures to see if they can be adapted to needed uses and identify underutilized resources.