Student-housing development is only one aspect of real estate construction in the higher-education sector — universities are also investing in their on-campus buildings and other structures to provide the best learning environment for students and to keep their campuses looking fresh and appealing.
BNBuilders and C.W. Driver Companies have been heavily involved in education builds as part of their breadth of services. SoCal Real Estate spoke with James Awford, a principal at BNBuilders; and Tom Jones, a project executive at C.W. Driver Companies, about the types of construction projects universities are spending their money on in SoCal and the ins and outs of these projects.
What types of construction projects are universities spending the most money on in SoCal?
Awford: Universities continue to spend money on a variety of project types, including student-life facilities to enhance the quality of life for students on campus. Our university clients are investing in student housing and dining halls, student recreation and fitness centers, and student centers to provide essential services and facilities for students on campus. Because students have many choices, student life facilities continue to be important to attract and retain the anticipated enrollment growth on university campuses.
In addition, we’re seeing universities invest in facilities to expand research programs and attract principal investigators (PIs) to their campuses. Universities are building new and/or renovating older facilities with state-of-the art laboratories, and expanding research programs, including collaboration with the private-sector companies in a variety of industries.
Jones: Universities are focusing their construction efforts on science buildings and student housing. Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) studies continue to be in high demand and are a major draw for students pursuing a career in technology. With enrollment growth, student housing is not only a key recruiting tool for students seeking a full college experience but also a revenue generator. Universities are finding creative financing for student housing through public-private partnerships to improve or build new student housing and generate revenue for minimal up-front costs.
What are universities’ chief concerns regarding these builds?
Awford: While cost and schedule are always important on any university project, speed to market is always a major concern when building student life and research facilities. For example, students sign leases long before construction is completed, so student housing facilities have firm deadlines for construction completion. When building these facilities, we understand the university has made commitments to the students, and needs to ensure the facilities are ready for occupancy when the students arrive on campus. For research facilities, universities may make commitments when recruiting PIs to enhance their research programs. This can raise concerns with universities having to build highly technical facilities in a short amount of time or within an existing building to accommodate special requirements for a research program. In each of these cases, universities have similar concerns but different budget and schedule requirements to ensure commitments to students and staff are achieved.
Jones: Universities are increasingly concerned with addressing rising student populations and replacing buildings that are at the end of their life cycle. More students are seeking higher education than ever before, and university facilities are not always equipped to keep up with the growing demand. Facilities built in the 1950s and ’60s have outlived their initial purpose and capacity and are due for replacement.
Rising costs are an additional concern. We’ve seen double-digit inflation due to market factors in some areas.
What are the concerns of running these projects while school is in session, and how are problems overcome?
Awford: Building while school is in session creates specific challenges, especially when working within an occupied facility during construction. These include safety, maintaining ongoing campus operations during construction, understanding existing conditions, mitigating unforeseen conditions, and careful planning to integrate these facilities within the existing campus environment. To overcome these concerns and others, we work closely with universities and design partners to analyze the existing conditions and impacts of surrounding facilities. We develop a project-specific safety program to protect the students, staff, and visitors at all times. We also study existing conditions to understand how existing facilities and infrastructure may impact the new work. We can verify existing conditions through advanced technology such as laser scanning, ground-penetrating radar, and/or surveying to have accurate and reliable information about how the new facility or upgrades will integrate with the existing conditions. In addition, we utilize Building Information Modeling (BIM) to coordinate the design disciplines within the existing conditions and use Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality to simulate how the design will be executed in the field. Using a combination of field verification and techniques, we provide valuable data to analyze different options for executing the work, including cost and schedule impacts. This critical information helps to make informed decisions with confidence.
Jones: Student/faculty safety is always of primary concern as well as not interfering with campus operations. We have a firm belief that good fences make good neighbors. Building a good separation between the campus and construction is critical. We’ve built sound walls in strategic locations around sensitive areas and adjusted working hours around events and “finals week.” We also logistically plan around the campus and surrounding areas for staging, transportation of materials in and out of campus, and interaction between crews and university attendees. The bottom line is we want to be as inobtrusive as possible.
What is the timeline like on these projects, and what factors can change that?
Awford: The timelines on these projects vary. With student housing projects, fall semester typically drives the timeline for construction completion because the students are returning from summer break or arriving on campus for the first time. Many student-housing renovations are done during the summer breaks from mid-June to early September while the students are off campus, allowing the builder to perform a large amount of work in a short amount of time. With research facilities, there are other factors that may impact the timeline, including whether the space is within a fully occupied 24/7 research facility, the arrival of a new PI or program, the inclusion of specialized laboratory equipment or system requirements, any shutdown requirements to bring new systems on-line, and other impacts to campus operations. These, and several other factors, are carefully planned to develop the right schedule and phasing plan to execute the work while maintaining ongoing campus operations and being ready for the students and staff to occupy.
Jones: Generally, projects such as these take between one-and-a-half to two years from programming through pre-construction and about the same amount of time for construction. Changes in design and scope can greatly affect these timelines. Other factors include funding and market conditions.
What else should our readers know about education real estate construction projects?
Awford: Education construction projects can have a variety of stakeholders and decision makers depending on the university and type of facility. It’s not uncommon to solicit input from multiple departments, user groups, and university staff to understand how they intend to use the facility, especially if it will be occupied during construction. The input of these stakeholders can be extremely valuable to set expectations, avoid miscommunication, manage cost and schedule requirements, and deliver the project in the most efficient manner. Sometimes, they may come with different backgrounds and priorities for the project. However, builders who understand the dynamics of the university and manage this process effectively typically deliver higher quality projects on time and within budget with everyone involved contributing to the success of the project.
Jones: Construction on universities is commonplace. While many universities have large facilities departments that manage the design and construction themselves, partnering with a builder that has deep-rooted experience in constructing higher-education buildings can prove to be advantageous to helping the university achieve its goals of creating rich, academic and student-centered experiences.