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University Facilities Planners Prioritize New Construction and Renovations

Commitment Remains as Strong as Before the Pandemic
Published 4/28/2021
Carousel Theatre

There is no question that the pandemic has taken a toll on higher education institutions, but they are planning for a future that includes fully engaged students and campuses bustling with activity. A Tradeline survey of 115 colleges and universities and the architectural and engineering firms that serve them shows they are focused on renovation, modernization, and major new construction of everything from life sciences facilities to theaters; 36 percent reported that they have several major new projects in the planning or pre-planning stages, with only 6 percent reporting that there is little to no project planning on campus. Fifty-eight percent reported that they have one or two major projects in the planning or pre-planning stages. Higher ed institutions are very active.

“There’s a lot of folklore in higher ed right now,” says Andy Powers, campus architect at the University of Tennessee Knoxville. “There are a lot of people guessing what’s going to happen: ‘Online teaching is going to take over; we’re not going to need any buildings, professors, facilities people, dorms, dining halls.’ But we’re certainly not seeing that. Our students are clamoring to get back in the classrooms, to be social, go to athletic events. Most of our students were not attending class in person this last year, but they were on campus.”

“Is there any serious questioning about whether students need to be on campus? I don’t think so,” says Kacey Clagett, principal and founder of Appleseed Strategy, a consultancy for architects and engineers.

The experience from the past year might remove some hesitancy to use a hybrid model of in-person and remote learning, she adds, “but people want to be around people. You do need those places for hands-on learning.”

Institutions that had to concentrate on figuring out how to operate during the pandemic can now shift their focus back to construction projects, some of which were delayed in 2020.

“The survey results matched a lot of my general feeling from what we’re seeing from our higher ed clients,” says John Starr, principal and director of Higher Education Design at Lord Aeck Sargent. “Many of them have had projects on hold, just dealing with the day-to-day impacts of COVID—trying to figure out how to conduct online learning and less-densified in-person learning. In the background, projects that were already in design or under construction have been churning away. But many institutions did put a few projects on the shelf, so I think that’s what your chart showed.”

Construction is not just in research and the life sciences, as one might expect after a pandemic—though they certainly predominate—but arts and academic spaces, as well.

We predicted that professional school projects in business, engineering, and computer science would move ahead, but what has been surprising is there are still plenty of libraries and classrooms and general education facilities,” says Elliot Felix, founder and leader of brightspot strategy, a Buro Happold Company. “James Madison University had a large library renovation and expansion in their capital plan; they’ve just selected a design team. And UC Berkeley is planning a new classroom building.”

Felix predicts a renewed interest in the arts, as well: “I see a shift in focus on campus, more about community and creativity, the things that you can’t do as well—or at all—online. So, fewer large lecture halls but more studios and maker spaces.”

[A full exploration of these issues will be presented at Tradeline’s University Facilities 2021 conference in Austin in September.]

Survey Results

Each year, Tradeline surveys thought leaders in higher education to gauge their facilities priorities in the coming year and in the longer term. In January, 135 respondents from 115 institutions and consulting groups across the country reaffirmed their commitment to pursuing their facilities goals. “Renovation and modernization” was the number one focus for 33 percent of the respondents, exactly the same percentage as pre-pandemic results, and 27 percent said their primary focus is “major new building or buildings.” That figure was nearly the same as it was pre-pandemic, when 29 percent of respondents listed that as their primary focus.

These results were surprising to some.

“I would have expected a shift away from new construction toward renovation and planning,” says Felix. Both of those are happening but, there is no shortage of new construction activity.

“There are a lot of firms that are very busy, including us,” says Felix. “Anecdotally, I’m seeing that a ton of professional schools—business, engineering, medical, public health—were the projects that kept on trucking through the pandemic.

“There are a couple of things going on,” he explains. “Graduate school enrollment is going up, and they tend to be donor-funded and have relationships with an alum or another benefactor. I think that’s what’s driving this up. I also see a lot of STEM buildings, which are seen as having an impact beyond the university, for instance, in terms of economic development. They improve state and national competitiveness, fulfill workforce needs, and solve specific societal problems.”

The most recent Architectural Billing Index (ABI) from The American Institute of Architects supports the survey, with positive scores in all building sectors and all regions in the U.S. (calculated as a three-month moving average) for the first time in three years. For the second month in a row, the ABI score was above 50, which indicates an increase in billings. The ABI score for March was 55.6, which is an increase from February’s 53.3. Scores for both new projects inquiries and new design contracts, based on monthly data, strengthened to 66.9 and 55.7 respectively.

“Anecdotally, we can see that many universities are resurrecting projects that were on hold from the past year or so and are now being reactivated,” says Starr. “Public institutions are looking at renewed funding from their states.”

University of Tennessee Knoxville

Many of these positive trends are playing out in spades at the University of Tennessee Knoxville. The fall 2020 class was the largest in the university’s history—by 10 percent— and retention was 95 percent. Moving into 2021, applications were up 20 percent over the previous year, and enrollment continues to grow.

Support has come in from donors and the state, as well as students.

“We’re very fortunate that the governor came out this year and supported higher ed in a big way,” says Powers. “The state funded our badly needed nursing building. We were turning away hundreds of nursing students a year, and there’s obviously a big need for nurses.”

The total project cost is $67 million, which is 80 percent state funded. It will be in design selection this summer.

An addition that will double the size of the forensic anthropology building, a project that was put on hold during the pandemic, is back on. And the university is partnering with a private developer on a collaborative space focused on materials research. It will house scientists from the Tickle College of Engineering, the Herbert College of Agriculture, and others, and will provide much-needed high bay and lab space. 

The university is also investing $15 million dollars in a Carousel Theatre replacement, half of that raised from private donors during the pandemic. The remainder of the funding is coming from the university.

“The fact that this theater project is now advertising to go into the design phase is a good sign,” says Starr. “The arts really have been hurt in a major way, and donors continue to give in a major way because their portfolios are looking good.”

Powers agrees. “There’s a lot of really good financial news,” he says.

“The cost of money is low right now,” says Clagett, adding that other institutions have had similar success raising money during the pandemic. “That’s happening everywhere,” she says. UC Berkeley, for example, is building a new $400 million data hub for its Division of Computing, Data Science, and Society with a key donor in place.

Moving Forward

University planners are as anxious as anyone to move past the pandemic and focus on the future, but might find themselves reluctant to relax some of the precautions they’ve put in place over the past year.

When faced with a crisis, “we as architects and designers have a tendency to swing it 180 degrees in the other direction,” says June Hanley, principal planner at HDR’s Higher Education Studio. “I have to remind my colleagues and my clients, when you do a new building or you renovate, you want to renovate it for a 50-year life. Don’t do something now in reaction to this pandemic that is going to shoot you in the foot later.

“There is a general tendency to think, ‘How are you going to fix it so they can stay 6 feet apart?’” she says. “But eventually, they’re going to want those classrooms back at capacity. I’m encouraging people to think for the long haul.”

Some of these conversations may take place in master planning sessions. In a recent national benchmarking survey by the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP), 60 percent of the 85 institutions that responded said it was "likely" or "extremely likely" they would do a campus master plan within the next year.

“Facilities groups and VPs for administration are starting to look at their older master plans and saying, ‘Well, is there going to be a real sea change in how we operate in the next five or 10 years because of this?” says Starr. “It’s too early to tell.”

“There is a growing trend of looking at the business model of what a college should be doing,” says Clagett. “A lot of entities are looking at how to leverage their assets to create better outcomes for the students and make colleges and universities more financially resilient—with research and innovation parks and incubators, for example—and how to be a good steward of the community in which they are residing.

“On the academic side, you may be shifting to a new emphasis on different areas,” she says. “There’s a huge amount of STEM, which requires specialized facilities, so that’s going to drive things for a while.”

Like many institutions, the University of Tennessee Knoxville is required to develop a new master plan every 10 years, and update it every five. They were due for an update when the pandemic hit and were granted an extension. “There will be a lot more reality in our master plan now that we could take a breath, think about what happened, and let it inform what we think will happen in the future,” says Powers.

Some projects that were put on hold in 2020 might find their way into these revised plans. The most notable project that was curtailed on the Knoxville campus was a major renovation and expansion of the football stadium. “It’ll come back,” says Powers. “It will be in the new master plan. We’ll have a draft ready by this time next year.”

By Lisa Wesel