Building on a Budget

In search of funds, colleges promote their projects as being part of larger mission or vision.
July 23, 2007

The wealthiest institutions trumpet their multimillion-dollar buildings designed by top-paid architects, financed by private dollars and named after prominent alumni. But the reality for most colleges is that building design and construction happens on a modest budget -- and only after trustees, legislators or voters are convinced that a project will pay dividends.

College officials in charge of campus development have learned to get creative when pitching a building plan. One popular tack: couching a project as being a part of a larger mission. It will attract more people to campus. It will demonstrate an institution's commitment to being green. Or, perhaps, it will unify the college's look; help celebrate its historical architecture.

Take Loyola University Chicago, whose housing stock is "a hodgepodge of styles and periods," according to Wayne Magdziarz, chief of staff and vice president for capital planning. Several years ago, Loyola's trustees adopted a design plan that called for, among other things, a return to the red-brick style that's typical of some of the university's older structures.

A new science building takes on that look, but it is attached to what was a white brick chemistry building from the 1960s whose physical appearance, Magdziarz says, was "universally disdained."

“If money was no object, we'd have knocked it down and built from scratch," he says.

But the building contains expensive labs, and razing it was never an option. Instead, the university decided to stain the building a reddish color to match the new science hall. Magdziarz said it looks as if there's a new facade, and the university spent only a fraction of what it would have cost to build a new science hall.

Alan B. Colyer, director of planning and urban design at the firm Gensler, says it's a challenge to "re-skin" a building from decades ago to make it look like another style, although the practice is not uncommon. He notices more and more colleges wanting their newly designed buildings to reflect some of the original -- or at least older -- buildings on campus.

As colleges struggled to keep up with burgeoning enrollments in the 1950s and 60s, they "slapped up buildings everywhere," often without much attention to consistency, he says. And because much of the growth happened at campuses without great means, utility often triumphed over aesthetics.

"You can see on many campuses when the Baby Boom hit," Colyer says, "and those buildings don't usually hold up over time."

One such structure that continues to bother Magdziarz is a decades-old, 10-story academic building that he considers an eye sore. Curious of campus planners' original intentions, the vice president visited Loyola's archives and found that the blueprint called for a smaller building in that spot. Loyola's new master plan calls for the larger building to come down and for a four-story brick structure that matches Loyola's historic architecture to take its place.

While many colleges want their buildings retro, they also want to incorporate new materials. At Dominican University, in Illinois, a new five-story academic building blends new science labs and green features with 100-year-old Gothic architecture that defines the compact campus. For the first new academic structure built there in nearly 50 years, Dominican used material made to look like traditional limestone, and it also matched the roof style of its older buildings. The new building, set to open this fall, uses a new irrigation and air filtering system, and sensors that help lower electricity costs.

Both the interior features and exterior materials added to the cost of the building, which ended up at roughly $38.5 million -- a modest price for a modern science building. Amy McCormack, senior vice president for administration, says private donors are confident that the amenities will lead to future energy savings, and that the historical exterior will please students.

"We believe the Gothic look is one of our identifying factors," says Jessica Mackinnon, a college spokeswoman. "Many prospective students say it's the first thing they notice. It's the way you expect a college to look."

At the State University of New York at Albany, the challenge is keeping an architectural style relevant. Noted American architect Edward Durell Stone (known for such buildings as the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts) designed much of Albany's main undergraduate campus some 40 years ago in a modernist style. His work was part of a major construction boom backed by the late New York Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller.

The centerpiece of the Albany campus is a rectangular structure that contains a number of three-story buildings under a single overhanging canopy roof. Susan V. Herbst, provost and interim president at Albany, admits that it's not a traditional look for a college.

“It's not the type of college architecture you'd see on television. You have to educate people about it," said Herbst.

A $180,000 grant through the Getty Foundation’s Campus Heritage Initiative will help preserve the Uptown campus in Stone's vision and pay for modernization projects. It also is intended to fund programming that pays homage to Stone's architectural style.

Herbst says the most pressing rebuilding project for the university was the Grand Entry Plaza, the main gateway for visitors entering campus. The cobblestone plaza had plenty of foot traffic, but she says the entryway was less than inviting.

“The way I thought about it – it's important the way people enter and leave a campus," she says. "I'm thinking about visitors and prospective students. All you had to do is take legislators here and say, 'Behold,' and they'd say, 'That needs some work.' "

The Building Pitch

Construction is being completed on a three-acre, $4 million new landscape for the plaza that adds more green space and places for students to sit. The project was estimated at $2.1 million but ended up costing nearly double. Herbst says she calmed fears about the rising price tag by emphasizing to lawmakers that the landscaping would take care of deferred maintenance projects, such as updating an underground irrigation system.

Herbst's tack -- promoting both the practical and visceral components of the project -- illustrates a lesson that Debra Smith, a senior project architect at Murray & Downs AIA-Architects, says she has learned from working with colleges. "Getting money for the small maintenance project can be difficult, but if you have something greater to package you can get it done," she says. (Smith recently wrote an article about community college development in Planning for Higher Education, the journal of the Society for College and University Planning.)

That seems counterintuitive, given that the smaller projects cost less than major ones. But Smith says administrators and lawmakers want to see how a building or landscape fits into the grand scheme. For some projects, it's an obvious sell: An addition to a campus hospital can be a financial boon and serve a social good. For others, it's a greater challenge.

"It's easy to sell the public on the need for a new classroom or lab space, but you have other type of facilities -- things that are important to the overall curriculum and needs of the community but are tougher sells," Colyer says. "A lot of people say, 'The last thing we need is another auditorium for [students] to hold plays.' "

Colyer, who also wrote an article about community college development (co-authored) in Planning for Higher Education, said his best advice for two-year colleges trying to drum up support for such projects is to promote the changing role the colleges are serving. Since more and more students are starting there, voters might warm to projects that make community colleges look more like full-service, four-year institutions. Hence, the theater space and more "campusy" feel.

The Bottom Line

Magdziarz, the Loyola vice president, says his institution uses this common calculus when determining whether to go ahead with a building project: If it's revenue-generating, prove to trustees that the project will cover operating costs and pay back debts with interest over a 20- to 30-year period. If a building doesn't have a direct source of revenue, private funding is needed. Loyola typically will not kick off a project until it has identified 50 percent of the funding sources (either private money or government grants), Magdziarz says.

As state funding for higher education remains tight in much of the country, Colyer said colleges are pressing harder for private funding streams for building projects. He says the last several facility construction project he's seen at four-year publics are privately subsidized, for instance.

And that can present new problems when it comes to the campus master plan. Public institutions want as much say as possible on new projects, but often a private donor wants a certain architect to put his stamp on the project. The result: donors, alumni and college officials at odds about stylistic choices.

If consistency is the ultimate goal, Magdziarz says power to shape the master plan should be with the trustees -- who often outlast presidents and others who want to have their say on building projects.

Magdziarz says colleges looking to save money should also consider how they use their existing property to generate revenue. Loyola has leased to a nonprofit corporation parts of its downtown campus that he says had become "obsolete." The university also is leasing ground floor space to retail companies after for years giving its bookstore the prime location.

“Our mantra is, ‘Never sell unless you are sure you aren’t going to need it forever.’ It's too easy for people at universities to think very short term, but when you apply the long-term view, it takes on a new dimension," he says.

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