Colleges and universities are building state-of-the-art student unions, dining halls, and other non-academic buildings to enrich the campus experience, boost enrollment, and stay competitive.

The only freestanding dining facility on the main University of Houston campus,
The only freestanding dining facility on the main University of Houston campus, the 25,000-sf Cougar Woods Dining Hall is a glass pavilion nestled in the trees looking out on wooded areas and campus gardens. Design firm PageSoutherlandPage used brick, glass, and precast shell limestone in paying homage to the campus’s traditional architectural vocabulary.
January 02, 2013

Institutions of higher learning are investing heavily in new facilities—student unions, dining facilities, residence halls, and the like—that address the non-academic side of campus life. They rarely serve just one purpose; more often than not, they offer a variety of physical spaces where students can eat, socialize, network, study, and relax. This is partly due to the need for cost effectiveness, but it’s also driven by a desire to integrate the academic with the social, a holistic approach that has been gaining favor with academicians in recent years.

But how much is too much? Have universities gone overboard in providing deluxe facilities? Or is it the case that colleges and universities are merely providing students—and their tuition-paying parents—what they have come to expect?

“Many institutions are constructing facilities beyond their ability to fund the construction without relying very heavily upon public financing or private donors,” said an engineer with a state building authority in the South. “While it is laudable for an institution to try to provide the most attractive and competitive facilities in order to attract students, the added cost burden on tuition and fees often prices the cost of attendance beyond the reach of most students.”

On the other hand, the competition for students has a powerful effect. “Personally, I do not believe colleges and universities have gone too far,” said another BD+C reader. “There’s obviously a market for it. If these institutions do not evolve, they could potentially see their censuses reduced.”

This debate is also being shaped by multiple cultural factors. The advent of social media now means that learning can take place anywhere and everywhere, says David Hatton, Vice President in the Philadelphia office of A/E giant Stantec. “There’s out-of-the-classroom, social experience learning in terms of leadership and how students get along with one another.”

Much of a student’s success is tied to socialization and having community space to get to know and interact with peers, says James Goblirsch, AIA, LEED AP, Principal and Vice President at HGA Architects and Engineers, Minneapolis. This change in the nature of higher education is impacting the design of new residence halls, many of which now provide study areas and learning spaces in addition to sleeping quarters.

Greater demand for the latest technology is also being placed on the institutions. “Because their classes require more group work and project-based work, students need places on campus where they can have whiteboards and projectors and other tools for doing presentations,” says Goblirsch.

Another cultural factor is the heightened degree of interest to which many colleges and universities are giving to the well-being of the whole student. “We have a generation of young people that, for the first time in the history of this country, could have a shorter life span than their parents because of obesity and diabetes,” says Craig Hamilton, AIA, LEED AP, Principal at Cannon Design, Los Angeles. “The schools are trying to encourage healthy lifestyles, and what better place to model that kind of behavior than on a college campus?” The result is much greater presence of health and wellness centers on campus.

The “sound mind in a sound body” philosophy has moved quickly into the foodservice component of university life. Bid adieu to the dingy cafeteria in the basement. The multivariate dining experience is now front and center. “You have more of a marketplace or retail environment,” says Stantec’s Hatton. “The venues are as fancy, if not more so, than what you’d find in a mall because a lot of students come from those kinds of backgrounds and family resources.” These upscale dining spaces are used as much for socializing and studying as they are for the consumption of calories.

Dual and even triple use of spaces to accommodate a multitude of purposes is, if not quite the rage, at least attracting attention from college facilities staffs. (See “Fusion Facilities: 8 reasons to consolidate multiple functions under one roof,” BD+C, February 2012, at www.BDCnetwork.com/fusion.) In some cases, university auditoriums are being built with flat surfaces to accommodate bleacher seats that can be pushed back against a wall when not in use. The college movie theater must now accommodate not just the showing of films, but also provide venues for lectures and musical programs ranging from quartets to full orchestras.

David Quenemoen, AIA, Senior Vice President at PageSoutherlandPage, Houston, says there’s no doubt in his mind that well-designed campus-life facilities can make a school more desirable to prospective students and could even have a long-term benefit to the institution. “If students have a more positive experience while they’re in school, whether it’s due to better housing or campus amenities, it leads to stronger alumni ties,” says Quenemoen.

With that background, let’s take a look at several new developments in non-academic facilities on college campuses.

Doing more with less, thanks to creative financing mechanisms

There is a widening gap between the haves and the have-nots in the world of higher education, says Kate Diamond, FAIA, LEED AP, HMC Architects’ Principal in charge of higher education. “The public institutions, particularly in California, are having a really hard time and nobody is talking luxury, though quality-of-life projects are continuing to be developed,” says Diamond, who is based in Los Angeles. “The question is how do we do more with less and continue to deliver real value?”

PageSoutherlandPage’s Quenemoen agrees. “State institutions have to be careful not to create the perception that they’re gold-plating everything,” he says. “They want to be seen as efficient with their money and smart about the decisions they’re making.”

HMC Architects is trying to balance the more-with-less equation with a health counseling and wellness center for the University of California–Riverside. “The student fees need to go as far as they can, and we want as cost-effective a solution as possible,” says Diamond. “On the other hand, we’re building a 50-year building and want it to be a really attractive place where students will feel they’re getting top-grade professional service, as if they were out in the private sector.”

The new Aztec Student Union at San Diego State University is being financed by a student-fee referendum. The 200,000-sf building has been designed by Cannon Design to achieve LEED Platinum status, putting it on track to become the first campus-life building in the state university system to do so. It will replace the existing student center and will offer lounge and study spaces, several dining options, a variety of meeting rooms and ballrooms, a multipurpose theater, a bank and travel agency, and 5,000 sf of recreation space.

Hamilton says it was SDSU’s students who pushed for the highest level of sustainability for the new facility. “It’s much bigger than the old building, but the campus has grown significantly, and it will allow them to handle a much larger student population,” he says.

Institutions of higher learning are getting creative in their financing sources for non-academic projects, especially residence halls. HGA’s Goblirsch sees a growing trend for new campus-life facilities, notably student residences, to be funded by public/private partnerships. “There’s still quite a bit of developer-built student housing,” he says. “A lot of campuses can’t come up with financing, and there’s a movement to have the facilities privately owned and operated in a joint agreement with the university.”

John Jokerst, Senior Vice President of Development at real estate development, investment, and advisory firm Carter, based in Atlanta, notes that while enrollments and the associated demand for student housing continue to rise at “significant levels,” funding for capital improvements has been depleted. “As a result, student-housing projects are being funded, both on and off campus, by the revenues that they generate, whether through tax-exempt foundations or private developers,” says Jokerst, whose firm recently turned its attention to equity-driven deals related to complementary housing solutions off campus.

Pushing to get more first-year students to live on campus

HMC’s Diamond says recent research indicates that first-year students benefit from living in a traditional two-person room on campus and sharing a common bathroom with others on the same floor, as well as study and socialization areas. “The research reinforces well-known patterns of how one builds community,” she says. Having new students live on campus keeps more of them in school, improves their academic success, and makes them a lot happier, she says. “That’s why there’s a big push to have students live on campus for the first year.”

Integrating living and learning through sustainability

It’s still under construction, but when it is completed, the 215,000-sf Institute for Urban Environmental Sustainability (IUES) at Chicago’s Loyola University will link traditional classrooms, student housing, and dining facilities with a passive greenhouse learning space that teaches students how to live sustainably in an urban environment. Food will be grown in the greenhouse for student consumption.

Jim Curtin, AIA, Principal and Head of Student Housing for design firm Solomon Cordwell Buenz, Chicago, says the IUES is “a complete melding and sharing of academic and residential spaces. In theory, you could run the entire day within that overall complex, going to school during the day and coming back to your residence at night.”

The IUES offers a lot of flexibility, Curtin says. Students who live there will be able to share some of the academic spaces in the evening: “You get an enhanced diversity of use,” he says.

The building’s high-performance systems include a hybrid geothermal system that will result in net-zero-energy consumption. It also features a manufacturing facility that takes waste by-products from the dining halls and distills it into biodiesel to run campus buses.

Schools with a traditionally large commuter base are utilizing new quality-of-life buildings to entice students to live on campus, as well as to forge stronger bonds between resident and commuter students. When the residence halls currently under construction at the University of Houston are completed, UH will have one of the highest percentages of students living on campus of any university in Texas, says Jeffrey Bricker, AIA, Associate Principal of PageSoutherlandPage.

One of the university administration’s concerns was that students were dining off campus rather than making use of the meal plans their parents were paying for. To address this problem, PageSoutherlandPage designed Cougar Woods Dining Hall as a bridge between the original student housing zone and surrounding housing sites.

The 25,000-sf, freestanding hall is a glass pavilion nestled on a wooded site. Its shed roof opens up the dining areas to views of the campus and creates a distinctive architectural form. PSP used brick, glass, and precast shell limestone to reflect the palette of existing UH buildings, but varied the pattern of brick colors to make the building stand out. The interior features exposed ductwork and polished concrete floors. “We were trying to keep the detailing simple but presentable, focusing everyone’s attention on the views,” says Quenemoen, the lead designer on the project.

Now, about 20,000 meals a week are served at Cougar Woods Dining Hall. Quenemoen acknowledges that it’s not just the architecture that’s keeping students on campus, but “a combination of the architecture and the food.”

Turning the Student Union into the 'University Center'

Anderson University Center at Hamline University, St. Paul, Minn., is rapidly becoming one of those iconic buildings that defines a collegiate campus. Hamline’s old student center, which was built in 1960, was hardly a welcoming place for students to gather, nor did it create much of a connection to the city. The new center provides this much-needed gateway, plus a long list of amenities—retail and meal-plan dining, a Starbucks, a convenience store, a meditation room, an outdoor terrace, and a 10-seat computer bar.

8 more trends in campus-life buildings

  • Multipurpose buildings that allow for a wide variety of activities, including dining, socializing, studying, lounging, recreation, and exercise
  • Flexible meeting rooms that expand and contract as needed, depending on the size and type of event
  • Comfortable, modular furniture that can easily be moved and reconfigured for impromptu gatherings and study groups
  • A variety of dining options/venues, including sushi bars
  • Retail components such as coffee shops, banks, and travel services
  • Emphasis on health and wellness, often in tandem with fitness and recreational activities
  • Sustainable design and construction integrated in ways that are visible to students (such as a “green dashboard” that monitors energy use)
  • State-of-the-art computer and audio-visual technology

Shepley Bulfinch and general contractor McGough Cos. of St. Paul collaborated with a task force that included faculty, students, and staff. To achieve even wider outreach, the Building Team hosted mini-road shows, where stakeholders could offer feedback on design concepts, and a furniture fair, where they could test sample furnishings. Visits to campus-life facilities at other schools were also part of the research.

The planning process resulted in a new vision for the proposed building. It would not be a student center or student union, but a university center. “It was an endeavor to bring students, faculty, and staff together to exchange ideas and knowledge and have a social space together on campus,” says Angela Watson, AIA, LEED AP, Principal at architecture giant Shepley Bulfinch.

One of the catalysts for the project was that the university couldn’t figure out where Hamline students went on weekends; they seemed to simply disappear. The 75,000-sf Anderson University Center has turned things around 180 degrees, according to Watson. “The place is just buzzing all the time,” she says.

“They were really concerned about creating a front door, an iconic moment where you see the building and identify it as the university,” adds Shepley Bulfinch’s Luke Voiland, AIA, Project Designer.

Those goals were met, says Alan Sickbert, Hamline’s Dean of Students. “In our eyes, it’s a place that meets the needs of all students, faculty, and staff,” says Sickbert.

The first floor of the three-story building accommodates meetings and events of various types and sizes via reconfigurable spaces; it’s large enough to accommodate a sit-down dinner for 480 people. “The central atrium is a double-height space with a great view of the campus,” says Voiland.

The second-floor dining facilities offer a variety of environments and seating, while the third floor houses space for campus programs and student organizations. Also on this floor is the Wellspring, an oval room that offers a quiet place for prayer and contemplation.

One of McGough’s first tasks was to excavate about 45,000 yards of dirt for a two-level subterranean garage that provides sorely needed parking.

Dan Malecha, McGough’s Senior Project Manager, says the building’s curvilinear facade required careful planning: “I think there were 37 different radiuses involved, but Shepley Bulfinch worked out all those radius points in Revit and we downloaded them into our system.”

Malecha also notes that although the center is built to a high standard of sustainability, the university chose not to seek LEED certification. “They’ve been working toward sustainability for 20 to 25 years,” he says. “They were doing LEED before LEED was cool.”

Marrying traditon to contemporary thinking

In some cases, it’s useful to turn the traditional way of thinking on its head. “Student unions and other quality-of-life facilities on most college campuses, particularly in the public sector, usually start off with the money,” says E. Mitchell Kilcrease, Student Union Director at Oklahoma State University–Stillwater. “Then they figure out what they want to do, which is a horrible way of designing a building. We wanted to quantify the challenges—to treat it almost as a research initiative.”

Kilcrease’s so-called research initiative involved the renovation and expansion of the original 1948 OSU–Stillwater student union. Students were heavily involved in the planning of the new facility, says Kilcrease. The committee conducted focus groups and site visits to other schools around the country, and ultimately developed what Kilcrease calls a “very robust business model” that would generate revenue to cover operating costs.

Next, the steering committee focused on creating a building that would meet their priorities and honor campus traditions, including the architectural vernacular. The exterior complements OSU’s modified Georgian-style architecture, with some of the same materials carried inside as well.

To say that the resulting new student union at Oklahoma State University-Stillwater is big would be an understatement. At 366,000 sf, it is the largest student union in the world, according to David Huey, AIA, LEED AP, with the Tulsa, Okla., office of A/E firm Dewberry. “It’s unusual for a campus that has around 21,000 students, but it’s truly a one-stop-shop.”

Dewberry and its Building Team partners—architecture consultant Workshop Architects, M/E consulting engineers Phillips + Bacon, and construction manager Flintco—reconfigured and backfilled new uses into more than half the existing structure while adding new space. Student Life offices and meeting spaces formerly hidden in the basement were relocated to prominent space on the second floor, while the bookstore (designed in consultation with Burgess + Kremer Design Group) and foodservices were completely replaced and expanded on the first floor.

Foodservice consultant Ricca Newmark helped create 10 food venues—five franchises (such as Johnny Rocket’s) and five run by the university. The ballroom was renovated, other new assembly spaces were built, and the offices of the Board of Regents and campus legal counsel were relocated to previously underutilized space within the roof structure at the fifth floor.

The Building Team excavated down one story in the old loading-dock area to construct a 40,000-sf outdoor plaza, and built a 250-seat amphitheater at the east end. “This opened the north face and created a storefront for the bookstore to allow easy access from the plaza and bring natural light deep into the building,” recalls Huey.

Unlike most student unions, OSU’s houses the admissions, registrar, and financial aid offices. Kilcrease explains the rationale: “Every student that considers going to OSU comes to the student union first. When they make the decision to attend, they come here for enrollment and orientation. When they start taking classes, they visit the building three to five times a week. At graduation they get their cap, gown, and photo from the bookstore. Then they bring their families back for home games and other activities, and the cycle starts all over again.”

The bottom line for AEC firms: The higher education market remains strong.+

         
 

Comments on: "Trends Report: New facilities enhance the quality of campus life"