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Looking at the Big Picture in Academic Building Design

© Kat Nania Kendon / Shepley Bulfinch
By Shelley Vanderweil, PE, LEED AP BD+C
February 1, 2015

Many opportunities arise over the course of a building project, particularly for academic buildings embedded in a campus. The design team (architects, engineers, and construction partners when possible) plays an important role in applying big-picture thinking and lessons learned from past experience to identify the opportunities and guide the client to consider them for the benefit of the institution. 

Taking a big-picture, “campus view” of infrastructure, potential upgrades and code issues can help the client get the most out of a building project, while also ensuring the minimization of unanticipated or undesirable scope creep. At many larger institutions there are opportunities to design satellite facilities -such as steam to hot water conversion plants or electrical substations to feed multiple buildings - which can reduce overall campus infrastructure and maintenance as well as long term capital expenditures and utility space requirements. Put simply: spending more now to spend less later. For this to be a viable option, the future plans of the institution must be well enough understood for the client to be comfortable pursuing such an expenditure, and the design team has to be able to think nimbly, have high-level discussions with the client to estimate probable future building scope in order to make load assumptions, and avoid getting bogged down in the details, which are usually unknown. Additions and renovations offer opportunities to backfeed existing, aged or unsuitable systems with new systems; similarly benefitting the institution by reducing longer term maintenance, space requirements and cost. Taking a campus view is also necessary to understand and control - to the extent possible - scope creep. Academic institutional projects involving additions or renovations to existing campus structures have the potential to trigger code or other upgrades in the existing buildings, and anticipating this, discussing it with the owner, and developing alternative paths to meet the owner’s goals if the desire is to avoid these upgrades is important to project planning and ultimate success. 

Another way the design team can work to benefit the client is by using its experience with past projects to benefit the current project, while recognizing its unique aspects and its overall context, and tailoring the design accordingly.  Similar experience can be used to inform system options and to provide valuable cost benchmarking early in the process. However, it is important to note that while relying on past experience to benefit the project, the design team must recognize that a given project serves a particular purpose, and has particular constraints, so the same approach or systems or level of quality are not necessarily suitable for an institution - even as compared to its own campus buildings. For example, an enabling project functioning temporarily while a major renovation takes place across campus may not need the bells and whistles of the major project, depending on the future plans for the enabling project.  The design team must recognize this and be flexible and creative in suggesting appropriate system options. Finally, the design team should bring past experience to the table to benefit not only the client, but also the design team to avoid repeating past pitfalls - for example, by setting schedules for owner decisions to minimize adverse schedule and cost impacts, raising red flags and concerns early, and not being afraid to have difficult conversations, all of which will serve to mitigate risks. For many clients, the design team is the expert in project development, and no matter how savvy the client, lessons learned from past projects - good or bad - and the feedback loop are an invaluable asset for the design team to apply to each and every project, to make the most for the client out of the project on the boards.