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Competitive pressures push academia to improve residences, classrooms, rec centers [2013 Giants 300 Report]

College and university construction continues to suffer from strained government spending and stingy commercial credit.

July 22, 2013 |
The new James B. Hunt Jr. Library at North Carolina State University, Raleigh, d

Economic recovery has been slow, and the overall higher ed market is still fairly flat, according to a 2013 report by consultant Paul Abramson, using data from Dun and Bradstreet (

Nevertheless, better investment performance is improving the mood of donors and easing some of the pressure on endowments. “The market is beginning to open up, with pent-up demand pushing projects to get funded and into design and construction,” says Steve Rhoades, Associate Principal and Client Executive at KJWW Engineering Consultants.

Recruitment pressure has convinced some clients to green-light capital projects. “One of the key drivers of growth is the need for colleges and universities to stay more competitive in amenities: more luxurious dorms, state-of-the-art athletic facilities, technologically advanced classrooms,” says Thomas Goemaat, President and CEO of Shawmut. Goemaat says his firm has seen a “significant and sustained uptick” in academic work in New England and the Tri-State region of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.

Large facilities that combine academic and medical objectives are capitalizing on the synergy between education, science, and clinical services. For instance, the University at Buffalo (N.Y.), whose UB2020 master plan has been simmering since 2004, will break ground this fall on its $375 million School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences Building. At half a million square feet, the HOK-designed facility is the linchpin of UB’s plan to create a whole new Downtown Campus. The city will build a Metro station below the structure, and a children’s hospital (run by the nonprofit Kaleida Health) and privately owned medical office building will rise next door.


2012 University Revenue ($)
1 Cannon Design $71,000,000
2 Perkins+Will $49,726,543
3 Stantec $36,704,077
4 EYP $30,000,000
5 SmithGroupJJR $25,600,000
6 Gensler $22,140,000
7 IBI Group $21,432,712
8 Flad Architects $20,350,000
9 Wight & Co. $18,072,200
10 Sasaki Associates $16,865,404


2012 University Revenue ($)
1 Affiliated Engineers $47,202,000
2 URS Corp. $39,211,852
3 AECOM Technology Corp. $33,000,000
4 Buro Happold Consulting Engineers $28,695,000
5 Burns & McDonnell $25,635,000
6 STV $21,121,000
7 Parsons Brinckerhoff $19,000,000
8 Clark Nexsen $18,141,790
9 Vanderweil Engineers $15,062,100
10 KJWW Engineering Consultants $13,554,873


2012 University Revenue ($)
1 Whiting-Turner Contracting Co., The $818,113,140
2 Turner Corporation, The $701,340,000
3 Skanska USA $437,058,228
4 Structure Tone $354,907,900
5 PCL Construction Enterprises $340,500,075
6 Mortenson Construction $246,330,000
7 Swinerton Builders $229,439,950
8 DPR Construction $227,149,377
9 Sundt Construction $225,748,514
10 Austin Commercial $225,311,911

The partnership aspects of the UB project illustrate a trend toward creative public/private development. “There is a growing understanding that institutions can no longer afford to function independent of their host community—a change that has been driven in part by growing financial pressures,” says Mike Medici, AIA, Learning Practice Leader at SmithGroupJJR. “This is leading to an increase in community development partnerships as institutions seek to leverage their impact as ‘economic engines.’”

In Camden, N.J., Rowan University is finishing its $139 million Cooper Medical School education building—home of a new med school, the state’s first such project in more than 30 years. The curriculum emphasizes problem-based learning, with academic facilities tailored to group work plus hands-on simulations with robots and even a virtual reality CAVE. The project, designed by HDR, embodies higher ed’s current concern for programs that prepare students for a tough job market.

With thousands of traditional dorms still in use, the need for more modern residences also continues to generate work. Some responses have been dramatic, such as the 21-story Tree House just built by Suffolk Construction at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Boston. Amenities of the 493-bed apartment-style facility include a health center, café, and “Pajama Floor” where students can play games, watch TV, study, or work out while doing laundry. Hardin Construction (just acquired by DPR) recently delivered projects comprising nearly 2,000 beds for four academic clients in Georgia—all spurred by a desire to meet “modern consumer expectations,” according to Director of Higher Education Carlos Torres.

In another competitive strategy, some schools are replacing old-style student unions with recreation centers emphasizing wellness. Buildings may include student services offices, clinics, or classrooms for related subjects.

Auburn University at Montgomery (Ala.) positioned its 74,000-sf Wellness Center as a new front door for the entire campus. Constructed by BL Harbert International, the facility includes outdoor fields, two basketball courts, weight and cardio rooms, two multipurpose rooms, an aquatic center with outdoor spa, an indoor track, climbing wall, and juice bar, plus classrooms, lecture halls, and a lab for the Department of Physical Education and Exercise Science.

Finally, the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, now with 669 signatories, continues to influence construction. Some schools are eyeing net-zero and the Living Building Challenge for a variety of building types. And though central plants may not be glamorous, many clients now recognize the tantalizing ROI offered by improved infrastructure. In an extreme example, Rist-Frost-Shumway engineered a new 15,800-sf wood-biomass heating plant with cogeneration for Colby College in Waterville, Maine—a milestone in the school’s quest for carbon neutrality.

As in other sectors, energy performance of existing buildings is also becoming a high priority for higher ed. “The old piecemeal approach that advocates randomly adding sustainable applications won’t do the trick; more holistic building energy strategies are required,” says Vuk Vujovic, Director of Sustainable Design at Legat Architects.

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