Colleges spend big to look cool
On the campus of Southern Oregon University in Ashland, the sight of cranes, excavators, and forklifts is a familiar one this academic year.Skip to next paragraph
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With three major construction projects currently under way - a library, a residential hall, and a student center - SOU, known primarily for its theater program, hopes to be well on the way to becoming a 21st-century campus.
"What we are finding is that the buildings that are 30 to 40 years [old] are needing considerable renovation" because they are aging, says Ron Bolstad, SOU's outgoing vice president for administration.
And SOU is not an anomaly. Though difficult to track exactly how many universities are involved in construction projects at any given moment, schools across the nation are adapting to significant technological advancements and student enrollment growth by remodeling, renovating, and expanding outdated architecture.
At the University of Arizona in Tucson, for example, about 50 construction projects are either under way or in development, says Melissa Dryden, senior program coordinator for the university's facilities design and construction department.
"It is a $500 million program," she says. Projects there range from student housing renovations to new engineering buildings.
Last year the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., opened its new Stata Center, a $300-million complex designed by celebrity architect Frank Gehry.
The state-of-the-art building houses labs for computer science and artificial intelligence, classrooms, a child-care facility, and a gym. Next December the school will open its $156-million brain and cognitive science project, a complex built around an atrium that will house MIT's main center for neuroscience and brain research. Both buildings are part of an ongoing $1-billion construction program.
The University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia is also in the midst of several projects, including four new structures (a life-science complex, a bioengineering facility, a veterinary-medicine training and research building, and a humanities building) and the renovation of three housing high-rises and a nursing building.
On an annual basis, the university budgets $150 million for construction, and also has a five-year capital plan budget of $700 million.
All this results in a $25-billion higher education construction industry (a category that includes everything from community colleges to major research institutions), says Jim Becker, managing director for higher education with Skanska USA Building.
The goal of much of the new building: establishing or maintaining programs that interest students.
Most construction projects "generally tend to be related to student life and making sure the university is current in terms of education and research in areas that are germane to society," says Mr. Becker.
Specifically, this means student housing, parking facilities, classrooms, and buildings related to science and technology, such as medical or engineering labs.
Many of today's students don't want to live in a crowded dorm with a bathroom down the hall, and they don't want to see a professor lecture in front of a chalkboard.