Colleges spend big to look cool

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

On the campus of Southern Oregon University in Ashland, the sight of cranes, excavators, and forklifts is a familiar one this academic year.

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.

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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to significant technological advancements and student enrollment growth by remodeling, renovating, and expanding outdated architecture.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.

Instead, they hope to be living in well-equipped dorms full of modern conveniences and to attend classes in lecture halls with high-speed Internet connections and video hookups.

They also want the assurance that they are getting the most for their money in terms of technological skills and knowledge that can be used in the workforce.

"Students are demanding more," says Bob Meadows, assistant vice president for facilities and the university architect for Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind., where design on an 800-unit housing facility is in progress.

"They want to see visuals in class, and they want to be connected to the Net," he says. "Students just expect that, and we have to deliver."

Universities also need to find space for emerging programs, says Steve Westfall, president of Tradeline Inc., a California-based company that helps facilities planners gather information and resources for new building projects. In some cases, these programs can be housed in existing buildings, but usually they require new facilities.

A lab built in the 1960s, for example, isn't equipped to handle programs like nanotechnology, or even computer science.

Aside from new construction, common upgrades on campuses include adding air conditioning and sprinkler systems, putting in new windows, and installing structured wiring.

Renovations related to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, such as adding wheelchair ramps, are also widespread, says Alan Greenberger, a principal with MGA Architects in Philadelphia.

"There are a myriad of [ADA requirements] old buildings tend not to meet," says Mr. Greenberger. "You wouldn't renovate because of these ... but by law [the building] must meet these codes once you do a certain percentage of renovation."

Despite the need for campus additions and improvements, it's not clear whether the current "boom" will continue.

Funding for most current projects - which typically comes from some combination of private donations, state grants, and bonds - was secured five years ago, says Mr. Westfall. But today, states are more wary of the economic climate and are not quick to allocate funds for construction, he says.

Furthermore, the cost of construction materials increased 10 percent in 2004, according to Ken Simonson, chief economist with the Association of General Contractors of America, forcing many universities to scale back or abandon plans.

SOU falls into that category. Higher construction costs pushed the library project $3.2 million over budget.

As a result, funding was cut for an expansion and remodeling of a theater building. At the same time, square footage of the new student center was reduced, and high-end materials were replaced with less expensive varieties.

Construction on the housing building was deferred, requiring contractors to work six days a week to finish by the 2005 fall term - a necessity if the university is to earn back building-related expenses through student housing fees. The tradeoff, unfortunately, is higher year-to-year maintenance costs.

"The buildings will not fall down. They are still durable," says Mr. Bolstad. "But in order to proceed with construction, we have had to sacrifice some of the cost of efficiently maintaining [them]."

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