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University reconstruction projects: The 5 keys to success

This AIA CES Discovery course discusses the environmental, economic, and market pressures affecting facility planning for universities and colleges.

November 27, 2013 |
The dance/rehearsal studio at Indiana Universitys IU Cinema, an example of high

Universities are in a bind, trying to deal with spiraling costs and the rapidly changing demands of students and their parents. Tuition and fees have been rising faster than inflation, even as the supply of new enrollees has begun to shrink. The explosion in project-based learning methods, cross-disciplinary collaboration, and online courses is turning academia upside down. Mixed online and in-person offerings have emerged, such as one approach known as “flipping the classroom,” in which students are required to view lectures online before their classes for more focused group instruction.

Against this backdrop, competition for students to attend four-year institutions is getting more intense, even as college enrollment experienced its first decline (0.2%) in 15 years, according to the U.S. Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics. With the prospect of shrinking matriculations and with “plausible alternatives emerging” to a traditional higher education experience, experts like Adam Newman, a Managing Partner at Education Growth Advisors, say that colleges face increasing pressure to enhance student academic and lifestyle expectations.

But how to offer higher-quality facilities without significantly boosting tuition and fees? University officials must watch project budgets carefully, but they’re also looking for creativity. Building Teams are responding by using flexible classroom designs and repurposed facilities whenever possible, rather than constructing new, purpose-built spaces. Universities like this approach, as they feel compelled to reposition or renovate for new uses or to add highly desirable features, notably common areas for collaborative work and socializing.

Higher education has also long been at the forefront of sustainable design. In the last five years, green building in higher education has doubled in dollar volume to a total of about $16 billion, according to a report by McGraw-Hill Construction. Sustainability is particularly essential to any facility where design, engineering, forestry, environmental studies, or related fields are taught. Many such buildings are being designed or retooled for direct integration into the curriculum.

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Colleges and universities are looking for solutions to outmoded campus planning, changing facility needs, and ineffective space usage and programming. Building Teams are responding with breakthroughs in reorganizing campuses and repurposing existing facilities. Sometimes the subject buildings are historic, or iconic, or simply outmoded. New building projects are more rare, and for that reason take on increasing significance. Yet a look at campuses across the country shows there is no shortage of new and effective ideas for sustainable, high-performance building design.



Many institutions are faced with a growing demand for usable, up-to-date space from students, faculty, administrators, and partner institutions. Inside Higher Ed recently analyzed the results of an inquiry by the Virginia Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission into spiking college tuition rates. It turns out that “spending on auxiliary enterprises funded by students was the largest driver of these spending increases.” Among the top cost factors, according to the commission, was housing.

With that in mind, colleges and universities are reorganizing their residence halls to raise admission and retention rates and possibly improve student performance. One such campuswide revamp took place over several years at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., as part of a sweeping master plan to organize student residences and some academic spaces into college “house systems,” similar to the models used in England’s Oxford and Cambridge universities and later adopted at some Ivy League colleges.

Using a comprehensive master plan, a project team led by MGA Partners ( planned a rollout of new, low-cost improvements to be staged over several years that would include existing buildings and grounds and about 1,000 student beds, as well as 150,000 sf of new construction. The master plan resulted in four “commons” buildings that became the entrance, identity, and student activity spaces for each of the newly minted college houses, according to the Philadelphia-based firm.



Bonchek College House at Franklin & Marshall College, by MGA Partners (architect) and Wohlson Construction (GC). The Lancaster, Pa., school’s adoption of the “college house” system, based on an English university model, has led to a rise in applications, enrollment, and donations. Photo: Halkin Photography


The modern, low-key buildings are all about 5,000 sf in size and share a fresh, recognizable architectural vocabulary, but all are different in order to reflect their unique place in the school’s original quad; for example, one of the new commons buildings links two adjacent residence halls. Yet all of the “insertions” are intended to unite the students and enhance residence life by including a living room, kitchen, seminar room, faculty master office, small library, trophy case, and fireplace. Each has a large hall for gatherings, studying, and presentations. A sole secure entrance for students and a number of new, handicapped-accessible entrances also enhance the student experience. The project cost totaled about $65 million.

According to Franklin & Marshall, the move to the college house system has contributed to an increase in applications—up 27% in 2012—as well as to greater enrollment and retention of freshman and sophomore students.

Other colleges and universities are strengthening student engagement, enjoyment, and educational success by concentrating on their campus centers. A few, such as those at Colorado State University and the University of Cincinnati, are high-profile architectural statements, while many more employ incremental improvements.

Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., first expanded its historic landmark building, known as “Main,” in the 1970s. Its College Center complex, designed by Shepley Bulfinch (, added much-needed space and a modern touch to James Renwick’s original 1865 design. More recently, the college’s Department of Buildings and Grounds engaged Sloan Architects ( to assess how the 60,000-sf multipurpose building has fared in meeting the “continuously changing needs and the wear of time,” according to Alexandra Sloan, AIA, Principal. 

“Due to the scale of this renovation, and the need for the building to remain in continuous operation, it has been broken down into a multi-phase project that spans over the course of three years,” says Sloan. As a first step, the Building Team considered the glass-enclosed cube volumes that are now occupied and managed by a national bookstore chain. While the glass boxes clearly marked the entry and served as a welcoming gateway to College Center with good retail visibility, the project team recommended a bridge structure to provide better connections between the old building and the new.

The plan also sought to enhance the utilization and efficiency of the dual complex. “One of the main goals for this renovation was to increase student activities on the upper floor, and to reorganize the functions within the building to better utilize the space,” says Sloan. The design connects the two floors with an open, central stairwell and adds new offices for relocated staff so that student services could be closer and more visible to students. Alterations to other interiors, HVAC and restroom upgrades, ADA accessibility improvements, and a full exterior renovation complete the plan for getting more out of Vassar’s College Center.



According to the Delta Cost Project (, public community colleges added the most students over the last decade. Yet many such systems have been saddled with woefully inadequate facilities, many of them built in the 1970s with relatively poor aesthetics, circulation, visibility, and adaptability.

At West Valley College in Saratoga, Calif., a new student center building cut off two outdoor plazas from each other, blocking traffic and pedestrian circulation. The college called in BFGC-IBI Group (, which introduced broad spans of opening glass walls and door systems to the main floor of the student center structures. The thermally broken aluminum system replaced existing single-glazed, bronze-finish storefront windows. One of the installations reconnected the two separated plazas, creating a new channel for foot traffic, restoring the plazas to regular use by students and faculty, and improving wayfinding by providing new sightlines.

The high energy performance of the glass system improved the building’s sustainability, reduced its heating and cooling load, and increased the penetration of natural daylight. It also reduced solar heat gain by virtue of the low-e glass specified for the fenestration, helping the project move toward LEED certification. 



An office area at Yale Shared Services. Workplace changes at many colleges and universities are consolidating administrative functions while also improving office environments for better collaboration, creativity, and productivity. The concept of “shared services” comes from the commercial office sector. Photo: Robert Benson Photography


Established private universities in well-developed areas, especially urban locales, face a different problem: surrounded by development-averse neighborhoods, they often have little or no room to expand.

Princeton University faced such a town-gown dilemma in trying to find suitable office space on campus for its Department of Public Safety and, ironically, its Office of Physical Planning. With square footage at a premium, the administration began to look at existing unused and underutilized built space on campus.

The school settled on an adaptive reuse plan for its former boiler house. Built in 1928 to house heating infrastructure, the facility was marred by a 1959 addition that obscured the original Collegiate Gothic façade. A design team led by Clarke Caton Hintz ( and University Architect John Hlafter, along with Westcott Studio, set out to make the most economical use of the interior space, while simultaneously restoring and preserving the boiler house’s idiomatic character. After demolishing the addition, construction began on the insertion of new floor levels within the boiler house.

To make the best use of the increased available area—about 26,000 gsf—the team convinced the university to abandon its traditional use of gypsum wallboard and stud walls in favor of a modular wall system for the two-story atrium and office fronts, according to Marlyn Zucosky, IIDA, formerly of Westcott Studio and now Partner and Director of Interior design for JZA+D. “Princeton University typically doesn’t use this type of product,” she says. 

But proposing a modular wall system proved a relatively easy sell. First, the “floating system elements” did not require precise field measurements before fabrication, which speeded up delivery and shortened the construction schedule. Second, the systems provided flexibility for changing needs, allowing walls, partitions, and sliding doors to be moved, removed, or added to with only minor disruption to operations, making the facility one of the most adaptable office buildings on campus.

Third, and most important, the use of glass partitions increased the penetration of natural daylight throughout the interiors. They even provided a bonus, in the form of a tax benefit for accelerated depreciation. The result is a preserved traditional façade in keeping with the university’s architectural character, containing a high-performance campus office facility. “The boiler house interior produces a dialogue between the building’s original industrial character and the crisp, modernist aesthetic of the new offices,” says Zucosky.

Princeton is hardly alone in looking for innovative ways to make its administrative offices more efficient. Some institutions of higher learning are adopting shared services, a private-sector model for centralized administration and operations that serve multiple departments. To make the leap to this proven and cost-effective setup, a growing number of universities are seeking facility renovations that will accommodate the changes. Offsetting the construction budgets is the promise of reduced operational costs as well as soft benefits like enhanced interdepartmental collaboration, thanks to a supportive workplace design.

“Shared services is practically a standard in the private sector, but it is making headway among institutional organizations,” says Ronn Kolbash, Assistant Vice President of Shared Services at Yale University, who helped implement the concept for the state of Ohio. “The model applies differently in higher education, as universities have more diverse needs,” he says.

For the design of its shared-services facility, Yale enlisted local firm Svigals + Partners ( The plan called for an administrative services facility to be carved out of a business services center located in a New Haven redevelopment area known as Science Park. The designers undertook an analysis of shared-services staff work habits. If a team member used a workstation less than 60% of the time, the standard workstation would be replaced with a “touchdown space.” The shared-services workplace would have no enclosed offices, thereby reinforcing the university’s “80-20” mandate: 80% open offices and no more than 20% traditional walled offices in any given workplace interior. Saved space in the planning process would roll over into collaboration areas, alternative workspaces, and even “recreational zones.” As Kolbash notes, “You want to maximize space to be the most productive for the whole, not just one person or some people.”

Most intriguing is the solution for the central hallway, which the design team envisioned as an area for informal collaboration. Programmed as an egg-shaped circulation area, “the design process focused on how to create a sense of place, a space that helps you clear your mind and find a connection with someone else,” according to Chris Bockstael, AIA, Associate Principal with Svigals and Project Architect for Yale Shared Services. The space provides comfortably furnished zones, such as an Art Niche, a Living Room (with 80-inch LCD screen), and a Meeting Space (with oversized whiteboard). The bright yellow oval room and modernist furnishings bring intensity and scale to the otherwise relaxed workspaces.

Its unique ceiling treatment, a bold arrangement of vertically hanging acoustical panels, serves to disguise the open plenum and attenuate noise levels—and is a work of art in its own right. “The environment affects the task,” concludes Kolbash, “and the innovation space has demonstrably improved collaboration at YSS.”



Another way that universities are reinventing their campuses is by reconfiguring departments that appeal not just to students and faculty but also to the public at large. The obvious example is the college athletic program; less obvious are academic programs in the sciences, fine arts, and performing arts and music. A university’s museums, galleries, and events are a valuable cultural draw for their local and even regional communities. In some university towns, the scale of the changes is significant enough to help create entire new cultural districts.

This was the case at Indiana University, where a performing arts center revamp to incorporate a major film studies department changed the local arts dynamic as it advanced capital planning. As part of a master plan conceived more than 15 years ago, the Bloomington campus is now home to a 300-seat, high-fidelity movie theater. The so-called IU Cinema—an art house and repertory theater with holdings topping 50,000 reels—occupies what was an obsolete 1930’s WPA-built theater, complete with 176,000 cubic feet of stagehouse and fly loft space. Renovated facilites serve not only the Film and Media Studies program but also the Department of Theatre, Drama & Contemporary Dance.

The design, by MGA Partners, is a high-performance example of adaptive reuse, preservation, and economical reorganization. Partner and Director of Design Daniel Kelley, FAIA, proposed an insertion into the massive backstage and vaulted fly loft. This created space for a studio theater and a dance/rehearsal studio at a fraction of the cost of building a new structure. And by retaining as much as possible of the working character of the original space, the rough brick, catwalk stairs, and original rigging helps connect the students visually to a unique part of American theater history. 



A former boiler house at Princeton University was reconstructed for use as high-productivity administrative office space, designed by Clarke Caton Hintz, with Marlyn Zucosky of Westcott Studio (now with JZA+D). Photo: Jeffrey Totaro


The design scheme also made significant changes to the theater to transform it into a top-flight venue for film art. IU Cinema is one of a very small number of renovated theaters equipped with THX-certified sound reproduction, a widely recognized standard for high-fidelity audiovisual reproduction that applies to movie theaters, screening rooms, computer speakers, and similar equipment. Certification standards are stringent; many of the 22 speakers required for surround sound had to be inserted into chandeliers, which had to be skinned with acoustically transparent material. The fixtures had to be built and installed to resist swaying that might result from the vibrations.

The speakers could not be mounted on many parts of the theater walls because the walls are arrayed with Thomas Hart Benton murals dating back to the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. The project included restoration of the murals, in cooperation with the Indiana University Museum. When a film is being presented, ceiling-mounted masking obscures Hart’s pictorial representations of Indiana history.

This painstaking work has made Indiana University’s IU Cinema a breakthrough on two levels. The design and construction amounted to a highly successful, if radical, intervention in a valued historical building. And IU Cinema’s Director, Jon Vickers, believes that the project will put Bloomington on the cinéaste’s map, making it “one of the best-recognized cinémathèques in the country.”

On a somewhat smaller scale, colleges and universities can reposition built assets to better serve departmental focus in the arts. “For universities with performing arts majors, we see increasing need to allow for multipurpose spaces that also support varied performance needs, with better audiovisual capabilities, lighting, and reconfigurable furniture systems,” says Andrew Franz, RA, LEED AP, Principal of Andrew Franz Architect ( “This helps for the impromptu and site-specific performances that many department heads believe activate the campus.”

Sloan Architects’ Michael Sloan, AIA, sees the integration of technology—for both Web access and expanding audiovisual requirements—as a primary feature of the renovations. At Vassar College, Sloan employed adaptive reuse and historic preservation techniques along with the careful introduction of new technologies to update facilities.

For Vassar’s Rockefeller Hall, the renovation incorporated friendly educational technologies into the lecture rooms, while restoring these spaces to their original and historical beauty, says Sloan. The retrofits included a user-friendly lighting and control system, complete with appropriate period light fixtures and modern energy efficiency. Antiquated wood seating was refurbished and upholstered, and stretched acoustical panels were set into the dome ceiling to achieve optimal acoustics. “We were also able to provide the rooms with a new fresh-air and cooling system, while maintaining superbly low sound levels,” he says.

The college’s Blodgett Hall auditorium was redesigned to show movies. At the same time, the Building Team saw an opportunity to restore much of the old auditorium’s architectural grandeur inexpensively and simply through the application of new finishes and by adding comfortable, durable seating “in the appropriate style,” according to Sloan.

For improved acoustics, the team devised a fabric-wrapped, floating acoustical panel system between the ceiling beams, which improves the film appreciation experience while also minimizing undesirable sound transmission. Behind the scenes, a new projection room was specified to allow for the showing of a wide variety of film types, including 35mm, 16mm, and digital video projections.

The vertical acoustical panels enclosing the outer walls reflect the same Gothic Revival style of the building, while absorbing unwanted acoustical reverberation. “The newly implemented accessibility provisions, along with an ultra-quiet HVAC system, a new projection screen, and an authentic theater appeal, make this the ultimate place to enjoy a movie,” says Sloan. He adds that the key to these highly technical projects is close coordination among facilities and AV personnel, acoustic consultants, MEP engineers and critical equipment suppliers.



Integrating the mechanical, electrical, and AV systems in collegiate performing arts projects is equally crucial to the success of reconstruction projects for engineering buildings, laboratories, and medical school facilities, where technical obsolescence and end-user flexibility are never-ending concerns.

At Yale University, cross-disciplinary research has demanded a variety of facilities strategies to support breakthrough research and continuously groom and recruit the next generation of top scientists and principal investigators. The Yale Medical School is relocating some of its newer research centers, including several highly focused institutes, to the West Campus, an assemblage of properties and existing buildings about seven miles from the main campus and Yale–New Haven Hospital.

“At West Campus, there is extensive laboratory space where experts from diverse disciplines are working side by side using innovative technologies to address important issues in science, art conservation, health, energy, and the environment,” according to the university. The expansion also houses facilities for archiving museum and library overflow collections and is the new home of the School of Nursing, the oldest university-based nursing school in the world (established 1923).

One of the facility strategies employed at West Campus has been the tactical reconstruction of a 136-acre property with laboratory and office buildings formerly occupied by Bayer Pharmaceutical. After Yale acquired it about five years ago, the site was transformed into W-B 24, a scientific research core of the Integrated Science & Technology Center. Designed by Svigals + Partners, the 460,000-sf complex hosts scientists in biophysics, cell biology, and nanobiology. DNA sequencers, cell culture stations, and microscopy suites are complemented with bright, colorful offices and ample conference spaces.

In a unique take on the facility type, the designers employed environmental graphics and university branding to enliven the space and enhance camaraderie. Such symbolic elements, logos, and typeface applications are believed to enhance competitiveness, productivity, and esprit de corps. Window films, signage, paints, and fritted glass partitions patterned to recall a molecular structure enliven the scientific work setting. “Our approach was to strategically combine existing resources with key enhancements and a bright, fresh new look that would attract the leaders of these brand-new scientific institutes,” says Robert Skolozdra, AIA, LEED AP, a Partner with the firm. “This reduced costs by as much as 50% as compared to a total gut renovation, yet W-B 24 also has been instrumental in helping recruit directors and principal investigators.”

Another key to making the lab spaces work was providing generic solutions for the many unknowns of scientific research. The nature of emerging scientific institutes and their research programs is constantly in flux, so Building Teams must focus on adaptable uses and space allocation models that can change easily over time, according to Skolozdra.

Typical solutions include reconfigurable casework, plug-and-play MEP systems, rolling cabinets, and other modular, pre-engineered solutions. Existing fixed lab benches in the Bayer buildings were refurbished using electrostatic painting and fitted with new wood shelves and wood-faced rolling cabinets, adding a warm look while remaining flexible, economical, and durable. New welded seamless floors were spliced into the existing floors, and epoxy lab bench surfaces were cleaned and brought back to like-new condition by the construction team. The original recessed fixtures were replaced with pendants that provide both ambient uplighting and direct downlighting, while meeting the latest LEED standards.

University lab reconstruction projects also need to focus on ways to create comfortable, uplifting, and fresh interiors. Recent projects at major research universities in Maryland, Michigan, and California have used retrofit strategies to add daylight—through the use of glass furniture and partition systems, for example—as well as ample wood surfaces and wood-grain floors and casework. Brightly colored walls, lightweight furnishings, and nature-inspired textiles further reinforce the friendly, welcoming appearance of today’s new university research centers.

At 22,000 sf, Yale’s new Nanobiology Institute is an example of this growing trend. The spaces “unite scientists from engineering and biological sciences to explore the relationships of synthetic and living molecules at the nanoscale,” according to Yale. In addition to private offices, ample new amenities and break zones will help keep scientists comfortable and energized, with several modern, glass-walled meeting areas just off the lab and two remote conference rooms, including a large seminar room.

Glass alcoves that look out onto the naturally landscaped campus are a noteworthy feature of the interiors. The architects also designed work carrels for post-doctorate and lab researchers, and located them where the building originally had perimeter offices, opening up outdoor views and daylight for dry bench areas and generic support zones deeper in the floor plates. Required customization and redesign tweaks accommodate specific types of equipment, such as the latest technologies in high-powered microscopy, including confocal and fluorescence microscopes that utilize floating tables, darkroom curtains, overhead racks for equipment storage, clean air walk-in chambers, and specialty lighting.

“This is a new opportunity for Yale to recruit for this and other new institutes,” says Jay M. Brotman, AIA, Laboratory Studio Director at Svigals + Partners.



At most universities today, cap-ex planning strategies put a heavy emphasis on the reuse of existing assets coupled with the latest in environmentally preferable building methods. “Green building techniques do more than make universities more efficient and healthier. They also improve many of the measures that students use to describe their satisfaction with the college experience,” says Franz. Many architects in higher education have also begun to incorporate sustainable design elements as a pedagogical tool.

For Lehman College, a City University of New York school in the Bronx, Perkins+Will New York delivered a LEED Platinum science facility for research and teaching. The facility embodies a new academic typology whereby the structure functions as a tool for active learning, in this case supporting the college’s strength in plant sciences.

Students and faculty have access to the rooftop greenhouse and a rainwater collection system used for irrigation and toilet water, so that they can control variables as needed for instruction and experimentation. Another interactive system supplies graywater to the central courtyard framed by the new building and the existing Gillett Hall. This water supply regulates the wetland system constructed within the courtyard and features planting beds, retention tanks, and an outdoor laboratory. This “open lab” serves double duty as a learning space and as an urban oasis for the surrounding community.

The 300,000-sf facility offers both research labs and instructional space. Teaching labs are constructed flexibly to serve as research labs when programmatic demands, or research methodologies, change. Likewise the facility’s seminar rooms can easily be modified to serve as graduate assistant bullpens. The design also focuses on 24-seat lab/lecture rooms, which improves overall utilization rates.

For the University at Buffalo’s new School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), Perkins+Will’s design brought the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science & Engineering Departments under one roof, while supporting the institution’s goal of net-carbon neutrality by 2030 and LEED Gold certification for new building projects. 

The building’s energy performance exceeds ASHRAE 90.1-2004 by 33.8% above the baseline, through such features as enhanced insulation, high-performance glazing and fenestration, energy-efficient lighting systems, and plentiful natural daylighting. The SEAS building also employs stormwater capture for water-efficient landscaping, waterless urinals, and high-performance HVAC systems.

The SEAS design recognizes the importance of casual interaction and spontaneous collaboration to scientific research. SEAS is nominally programmed as two separate “blocks”—one for computational research, the other for applied (hardware) research—but the blocks are joined at the facility’s core by a multistory, glass-enclosed gallery.

This atrium serves as a science commons, with broad sightlines and open stairs to encourage spontaneous interaction among staff and students. The gallery also offers windows into the research being performed in the adjoining labs.


High-level architectural designs like these are a reminder that the online world simply cannot provide the same educational experience as the physical campus. Yet projects like the SEAS building are designed to incorporate more and more of the audiovisual requirements that will be needed in a future environment that is already blending hybrid learning with in-person pedagogy.

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