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Minding the Gap

How to integrate design, capital funding and academic planning during a recession.

Education facility planners frequently face a gap between available funding for the construction of new facilities and an academic program's projections about the size of facility needed to meet future aspirations. Although many different circumstances and scenarios may cause this disparity, the path to reconciling differences can be achieved by carefully balancing present-day funding limitations with the anticipated physical design requirements of the facility.

In the current economic climate, more architects and construction managers may find themselves caught between what seem to be mutually exclusive goals. Some colleges already are halting construction projects until conditions in credit markets improve or additional grant funding can be secured. Designing a higher-education facility that accommodates today's needs while providing for — or at the very least, anticipating — a program's future needs still is essential. Even though funding for higher education is decreasing, the number of students seeking admission is expected to increase, creating yet another gap to bridge. But lack of funding shouldn't mean the end of construction planning. And more important, it shouldn't mean the size of a project must be compromised.

Several higher-education institutions of varying sizes and budgets recently have succeeded in bridging the gap between their capital funding limits and future academic planning goals. The following case studies illustrate how these institutions' objectives were achieved. Although the gaps resulted from different circumstances in each case, the architects carved out a similar path to reconciliation through solid design:

Gap 1: Funding delays

When it came time to design and build a new school of management for a mid-sized public research university, an overheated construction market and a lag between the appropriation of funding and the project's initiation led to a 20 percent gap between the $28 million budget and the desired program. The program called for a 200,000-square-foot building, but by the time the project moved forward, the funding could support construction of only 160,000 square feet.

Because the original budget was set at the height of a construction boom, the university dean, construction manager and architect shared a conviction that prices would fall as design and construction progressed. Each party felt that constructing a facility 20 percent smaller than the dean's original program goals would limit the development of the school and therefore, would be a mistake. The three parties worked together to find areas in the program that could be deferred for several years, in order to “free” up enough budgeted dollars to build an additional 40,000 square feet of shell space.

Just as the planning team had anticipated, construction pricing fell as the project was “bought out” over the course of the 15-month construction period. This made it possible to not only build the additional 40,000 square feet of shell space, but also finish it out completely.

Gap 2: Reallocated funds

About $21 million was appropriated for a new 107,000-square-foot home for the chemistry department at a large state university. After the architect was hired and schematic design was completed for the building, the university had an unanticipated opportunity to make a major acquisition of real estate. The campus planners decided to pay for part of the acquisition with about 30 percent of the dollars originally allocated for the chemistry building, which meant the chemistry department would have 30 percent less space for classrooms, labs and administrative offices.

The dean of the chemistry department believed that the original programming was essential for the department's future success. In working with the architect and construction manager, the team developed a plan to build the full shell building envisioned in the schematic design, but to finish out the interior space in two phases, including mechanical systems. The designers took great care to situate future areas that could be shelled in relation to the internal circulation of the building, so that the occupants of Phase I would not feel as though they were in an incomplete facility. To accomplish this task, the team created a temporary closure wall and left room in the mechanical systems for additional equipment to ventilate and cool future space. Within one year of occupancy of Phase I, funding was raised to complete the entire facility.

Gap 3: Campus visioning

Sometimes funding gaps can occur as a result of disparate campus visioning between university planners and academic program leaders. In the case of a rural public health school at a major state university, the dean believed that a 110,000-square-foot facility, including 69,000 square feet of office space, was needed to accommodate the academic program and its faculty growth. Funding for the project, however, supported just less than 90 percent of the dean's desired office program.

The architect's solution called for three distinct, but connected buildings, which included a 25,000-square-foot research laboratory building, a 15,000-square-foot classroom building and a 61,000-square-foot office building designed to accommodate the construction of an additional 8,000 square feet of office space in the future. It also created a bid-alternate in the drawings that showed the office building with the additional 8,000 square feet shelled in within a 69,000-square-foot structure. When the project was bid, the alternate was within the budget, and the larger office building was constructed.

As it turned out, the university didn't end up using all of the shell space for faculty offices, but instead used a large portion of it for a nursing-skills teaching laboratory and classroom. Although the shell space wasn't used for its intended function, it still provided the university with the flexibility for growth in an area not envisioned originally. This shows that no plan or vision can completely anticipate an academic program's future, but that filling additional flexible space is rarely a problem for university facility planners.

Gap 4: Build and they will come

When it comes to planning future research facilities, higher-education leaders may find themselves in a Catch-22: they can't attract the researchers without a new, state-of-the-art facility, but they can't raise the capital for the facility without attracting the researchers. Recently, a research campus at a regional medical school planned to build its fifth biomedical lab facility within an 11-building master plan. During the planning phase, it was determined that the fifth building's size should be based on available funding and the program's current enrollment. Realizing the capacity for expansion, the dean of the program did not want to stifle the potential for future growth by limiting the size of the new building.

Working closely with the dean, designers devised a plan to increase fund-raising momentum and build beyond current need. This “build it and they will come” solution centered on the creation of a generic laboratory layout. This plan enabled the shell building to proceed with design and construction before the specific users of the facility were finalized. Once the users are identified in the future, then detailed design would begin on their specific laboratories, within the parameters of the generic lab layout. This project was initiated when funding was available to complete the 12-story shell and finish out the entry level, mechanical floor and four of the 10 laboratory floors. Breaking the architectural design and planning into shell and finish out, and designing the shell and systems to accommodate incremental completion and occupancy of the building, enables the university medical school to leverage initial funding to support rapid growth. Building undedicated space also will facilitate recruitment of prestigious scientists and their research, with its associated funding.

Planning for change

Traditionally, university and college facilities have had clearly defined, fixed programs and matching budgets to accomplish program objectives. But if the economic downturn has taught us anything, it's that our world is a dynamic place with many moving parts. Change is constant. In the world of higher education, this phenomenon always is present as universities and colleges grow. Designing education facilities that balance today's limitations with tomorrow's possibilities may be one of the most important roles an architect plays.

Dilworth, AIA, LEED AP, is the design principal of Omniplan, a national architecture, planning and interior design firm, Dallas. He can be reached at [email protected].

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