Battling Budgets

Nov. 1, 2006
Higher-education institutions must find unique and ambitious ways to overcome today's construction challenges.

Higher-education institutions are facing financial crises in their capital programs. Constant increases in the cost of oil, combined with material shortages in copper, steel and gypsum products, have contributed to an inexorable rise in the cost of construction. At the same time, capital budgets are decreasing.

The result is that the education industry is caught in a “perfect storm” of circumstances:

  • Competition for financial resources has increased

    Construction costs have increased significantly, and funding for state institutions has decreased at a nearly simultaneous rate. Access to sources of private money, in the form of private donors, foundations and grants, has opened up to a much broader audience. This means that all private money sources are being pursued vigorously by public, private and for-profit organizations alike.

  • Competition for students has increased

    The demographics of college students are shifting from 18-year-old men seeking a typical four-year college experience toward older women seeking cost-effective and time-efficient degrees. The public perception of the value of a degree also may be shifting. When deciding which college to attend, many students give equal weight to community colleges, four-year colleges and universities (public and private), and for-profit institutions.

    The student pool itself also may be shrinking; recent forecasts show a decline in college-ready high school graduates. The increased competition for a shrinking pool of students may force smaller campuses to adjust their programs and operational procedures radically, and larger campuses may be forced to retrench and re-examine their core mission and future job markets. Both of these situations have resulted in all types of learning institutions fiercely competing over the same students.

  • Consumer expectations have increased

    Students have higher expectations for campus services and learning environments. Students now expect high-tech, sustainably built, extraordinarily functional learning and apartment-like living spaces. The residence halls and mundane, institutional-looking facilities of yesteryear no longer are acceptable to today's student.

Weathering the storm

Architects, planners and designers have to do more with less. A project team should be focused on effectively maintaining scope, budget and schedule. When universities can't increase capital expenditures, design teams can find ways to complete projects successfully even under the tightest budgets:

  • Pick a school's million-dollar space

    Take the time to holistically evaluate the project program and determine which one space should be the focus of the expenditures — the one space that will “wow” students, staff and visitors. For example, a series of labs for materials engineering may function adequately (or better) with a simple, exposed concrete floor, but a conference room or collaboration space may need the extra budget expenditure for acoustic panels and a digital projector.

  • Use common materials in uncommon ways

    When expensive options for cutting-edge materials are out of the question, consider innovative, less costly approaches.

  • Incorporate LEED

    Sustainable projects are nothing new to many college campuses, and now it has become more of a focus of the general public.

By adapting existing building policies (e.g., developing a green-cleaning program), practices (e.g., developing a waste-diversion program) and use of resources, a campus can certify an existing building using LEED for Existing Buildings (LEED EB). The benefits of going through the LEED EB process include campuswide reduced operational expenses because of reduced energy use, reduced effect on the environment and improvements in building performance.

A less obvious, but important benefit is the marketing potential that sustainable facilities provide universities that complete the process. Students and parents are interested in the sustainability levels of college campuses; while they may not differentiate among LEED NC, EB, CS or CI, the fact that a campus has LEED-certified structures may affect a student's choice of where to enroll.

White, AIA, LEED AP, is principal and studio manager of RRM Design Group's education team, San Luis Obispo, Calif.



Percentage of colleges and universities expected to complete a construction project during 2006-08.
Source: AS&U's 32nd Annual Official Education Construction Report

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