UA has spent more than $600 million on construction projects since 1999.

The days of bond-funded campus buildings and two-dimensional architectural drawings are drawing to a close at many public universities. The money, for now, is available through public-private partnerships, and plans are made in three dimensions, making for an easier sell to top decision makers.

Campus construction, particularly residence halls, starts with projections meant to keep a college or university years—sometimes decades—ahead of student demand. Those projections, once passed along the campus’s chain of command, tell the mathematical story: We’ll need more dorms, or we won’t.

That’s how it started at the University of Akron (UA), a 220-acre campus with 29,000 students.

In 1999, with only 1,000 beds on campus, the university’s housing officials projected that the school soon would need several times the student capacity, as thousands of students were living in nearby neighborhoods, condos, and apartments. It had been two decades since UA completed its last residence hall. Demand for on-campus housing, officials said, was about to crest.

Since then, the university has spent $626 million on 21 campus buildings, including three residence halls, creating 2,400 new beds for incoming students. UA’s goal is to have 5,000 beds available by 2020.

For more campus construction news, see:

‘Building Excellence’ section of eCampus News Online

Here’s the story behind UA’s latest residence hall, called South Hall, including how it was funded, designed, built, and filled—and how creative financing and cutting-edge technology helped the school come in under budget.

Funding in a rough economy

After projections are finalized and campus officials decide on the number of beds needed and the approximate cost of construction, funding must be secured.

Until the economic collapse of 2008, UA funded construction projects through bond initiatives that had to be approved by voters. Public schools and universities have long relied on these low-interest bonds, but as Ted Curtis, the university’s vice president for capital planning and facilities management, found out, the era of publicly funded construction might have come to a close.

Instead of pursuing the money through bonds, UA funded South Hall—scheduled to open for the fall semester—through a public-private partnership, an increasingly common strategy in higher education as state funding stagnates in a sluggish economic recovery.

Using private funding, however, changed the dynamics of UA’s newest residence hall. The university provided the land to build on, agreed to manage it upon completion, and will make lease payments thereafter. The private financiers dole out the cash to build the hall. Therefore, they own it.

A university committee, after submitting a series of requests for quotations, recommended three private funders for UA officials to consider. The finalists were reviewed, one was selected, and the university had the $33 million it needed to build its newest residence hall, which features 535 beds.

“It’s becoming more challenging every year … to answer demand of our students and demand of enrollment increases,” said Curtis, who has held a position at UA since the late 1990s. “We want to continue to build residence halls for our students, and we know that might be difficult now. … All of our decisions are based on customer needs, and our customers are our students.”

Finding money for massive construction undertakings in an era of austerity—especially at the state level—has proven challenging for public universities with modest endowments, Curtis said, but forgoing needed residence halls would cost UA prospective students who would visit campus and see the startling lack of dormitories.

“My philosophy is very simple: Without customers, you don’t need the campus,” he said. “Students may not keep your campus on their radar scope if they see you don’t have room for everyone. They may head off to something else that they see as better.”

Architecture with a technological twist

UA decision makers, after a thorough search for architectural firms that could complete South Hall in a 12- to 16-month window, chose JCJ Architecture, a national firm with five offices.

For more campus construction news, see:

‘Building Excellence’ section of eCampus News Online

The design phase began in January 2011, three months before construction began on the south end of the UA campus. Jim LaPosta, JCJ’s chief architectural officer, said the university wanted to “create a neighborhood” more than a prototypical dormitory.

LaPosta and others from JCJ designed a residence hall that matched nearby Akron buildings, considered the experience of the pedestrian walking down nearby streets, and included green space upon the school’s request.

These design plans weren’t presented on paper, however. LaPosta used a 3D architectural software called Revit, a Building Information Modeling (BIM)-based technology that lets architects give their clients a multitude of views before plans are finalized.

The computer-based approach also shows architects potential conflicts with design ideas. For example, if plumbing needs to go where a steel beam was supposed to be installed, the construction design can be altered accordingly, saving time and untold money.

Without this kind of software, builders sometimes don’t see a design conflict until construction is underway, often resulting in delays that can send the school over budget.

“You move things around in the design rather than in the field. It’s an enormous advantage, because we can build your building much more smoothly than we could without this [technology],” LaPosta said.

Presenting a 3D model of a campus construction project like UA’s South Hall also helps presidents, provosts, and the university’s board of trustees better understand the intricacies of the finished product.

“Once we finalize on a design, [3D modeling] helps sell it,” Curtis said. “Any time you can move people through the presentation, it’s an exciting medium.”

Traditional architectural sketches and designs have never been layperson friendly, LaPosta said.

“The owner can get a 3D view so they really understand it,” he said. “People struggle to translate building plans, for good reason. For an average person, to look at traditional building plans is a little unclear. You don’t have that with [3D modeling].”

For more campus construction news, see:

‘Building Excellence’ section of eCampus News Online

JCJ architects who worked on the UA project said their South Hall design was based partly on observations from other campus residence halls built over the past decade.

 

UA officials noticed that students gravitated to residence halls’ laundry rooms as a social hub during parts of the school day, so JCJ made sure to combine South Hall’s laundry room with a lounge area.

“You can hang out while you’re doing your laundry,” LaCosta said. “Doing that was necessary because the laundry room had been a popular place to go and talk. … We wouldn’t have known that without taking a look at other [residence halls].”

Designers and architects, before submitting finalized plans for the university’s newest residence hall, agreed to include red and brown brick, stone, and plenty of glass to relay a sense of transparency.

“We wanted something that gives it dignity and permanence and an untiring style of architecture,” Curtis said.

Don’t wake the students

JCJ decision makers and UA officials said they wanted to avoid two inconveniences during construction of South Hall. They didn’t want heavy construction machinery clunking around the south edge of campus at all hours of the morning, and they didn’t want the project to create a circuitous detour for students, faculty, staff, and especially visitors.

Bruce Kellogg, project manager for JCJ Architecture, said the noisiest construction equipment wasn’t permitted to work on South Hall before 8 a.m., even when other parts of construction started hours earlier.

“We wanted to account for students sleeping,” Kellogg said, adding that there weren’t any student complaints relayed to JCJ during the yearlong project. “And we know not many students are out of bed at six in the morning.”

UA worked closely with university police to rope off portions of the southern tip of campus affected by the construction of the newest residence hall, but made sure not to interrupt cross-campus walks with lengthy detours that would frustrate students and faculty.

“Especially during construction, we have to keep the campus running smoothly, and keep it well oiled,” Curtis said. “There’s no room to clog things up.”

Construction hours and detour details were sometimes relayed to students and staff via social media.

For more campus construction news, see:

‘Building Excellence’ section of eCampus News Online

Meanwhile, Kellogg and LaPosta kept an eye on nearby power lines that lie close to the South Hall construction zone. Any misstep, they said, would have proven more than a nuisance for the UA community and surrounding neighborhoods.

“If we had accidentally cut one of those lines, we would have wiped out power for a pretty large area,” Kellogg said. “We had to be very careful about where he laid our foundation. Otherwise, it could have been lights out for a little while.”

Parental approval

Curtis said the amenities included in South Hall—and the other recently constructed residence halls—have made for a gratifying move-in day in late August, when parents drop off their children at the UA campus.

The demand for a residence hall with state-of-the-art security cameras, acoustically controlled rooms made of masonry and precast concrete floors, and individual bathrooms has driven the construction of UA’s three most recent student living areas.

All 535 beds in South Hall were reserved just weeks after the university announced it would build a new residence hall.

“We’re seeing that parents are willing to pay a little more for their children to be in a new building,” Curtis said. “They want these things for their children, and we’re more than happy to give it to them.”

That demand, Curtis said, could be driven in part by unsafe neighborhoods in the greater Akron area, where parents might fear for their children’s safety.

Upscale student housing is an effective student recruitment tool not just because it impresses visiting students. Parents, Curtis said, gush about the campus’s newest residence halls.

“Parents will come up and thank us with sincerity for providing this type of housing for their children,” he said. “It’s a wonderful feeling during move-in day. … It’s thrilling to have your customers thank you.”


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