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Engineering On-Campus Improvements that Benefit the Education Community

Higher education construction projects confront planners and designers with a number of special and unique considerations within the broader institutional market. College campuses often aim to be deeply integrated into existing communities and may require expert individuals or teams with municipal experience and strong relationships with town leaders. Welcome to our first article exploring a perspective on work for higher education clients, focused on the importance of long-term planning and dealing with the time constraints of working around term time and intermittent funds.

A campus can resemble a miniature, self-enclosed city, yet one that still interacts with the town or suburbs surrounding it. Colleges and similar facilities don’t just house classrooms: They may have medical and public safety facilities, on-site housing accommodations, cafeterias, and libraries, plus all the infrastructure that connects these facilities. How do modern and traditional planning techniques come together to address the unique challenges these projects present?

Planning for Permanency

One of the keys to understanding engineering for higher education projects is recognizing that what you create will likely be there for generations. For site layout and design, this involves a thoughtful and thorough approach to all aspects of the project’s development:

  • Many colleges and universities maintain a campus master plan to guide future growth and development.  Has this document been reviewed for its impact on future planning, site design issues, constraints, and opportunities?
  • Is the available land sufficient to serve the needs of the proposed facility and future expansion, or might this constrain future growth?  Are the subsurface conditions adequate for the building that is currently planned and for any future expansion?
  • Will the necessary utility services be adequate for ultimate buildout of the facility and will the expected facility use result in a higher demand for power, water, etc.?  Are stormwater management facilities sufficient to accommodate future improvements?

This “building for the long-term” attitude is also reflected in the construction phase of the project, where robust efforts are common to ensure that critical elements of construction are observed and documented, materials testing and special inspections as required by the relevant building codes are conducted for quality assurance, and sometimes even require serving as the client’s full-time project representative if the need arises. All of this is geared to confirming the project is constructed in conformance with plans and specifications and will stand the test of time. 

More recently, designers and planners are focused on a future where sustainability is of greater concern than in previous decades. Aspects to consider might be the integration of solar and thermal energy, alternative types of insulation and beams, and provisions for more people walking or on bicycles. This sometimes leads to more robust and stringent requirements than commercial buildings around materials and energy use, and enhancing the multi-modal access around the campus such as wider pedways, additional pathways to connect buildings, and more facilities for bikes, scooters, and transit options. 

Working Within & Around One’s Surroundings 

Campus engineering rarely means working with a completely blank slate. Many higher education settings are built around existing communities, including the infrastructure and utilities that serve those communities. Higher education institutions often already own the land that they build on and need to make the best and highest-value use of their available property. Conversely, if they have to acquire new property, they need a trusted, knowledgeable resource to advise on development requirements and cost-drivers so they can begin gathering parcels that will allow for expansion. Doing this deliberately and confidentially can avoid unnecessary conflict or cost escalation due to speculation.

Another element of considering a project more holistically is understanding how it fits into the other parts of the campus. Does the look and feel of the building match or conflict with existing architecture? From a civil engineering perspective, does the layout of a building or facility take advantage of the surroundings? This issue was a key piece of a recent transportation project completed for the University of Missouri, where ES&S leveraged our past experience to provide context-sensitive solutions for issues such as pedestrian crosswalks on a busy thoroughfare adjacent to the campus. What exactly did we do?

  1. The project was a bit controversial with the nearby neighborhood because we would be limiting access to left turns by adding a median, triggering worry about an unattractive addition to a high-traffic road. To counter this concern, a design was proposed that incorporated unique aesthetic qualities similar to the University’s white stone building architecture along the corridor. 
  2. Another design element was the location. ES&S was aware that the campus master plan defined particular “visual corridors” that were to be preserved on campus. One of these was perpendicular to this roadway and maintained a view of the University’s iconic Memorial Union. We were able to align the crosswalk in a manner that avoided an inadvertent blocking of the line of sight with infrastructure (no matter how attractive it might look!). 

Building the Right Relationships
That’s why it’s vital to build and maintain constructive relationships with campus stakeholders, planners and public works officials, elected officials, and other relevant agencies within the communities where the client’s campus is located.  Engaging partners who know the local area and already have contacts within the region can go a long way to the successful delivery of your project. 

Working to the School Timetable
As well as getting buy-in from the local community, higher education projects often have to be completed swiftly. For renovations, expansions, or maintenance of existing facilities, this often means only working during the summer vacation months. This might influence the magnitude of the work that can be accomplished, how the project will be packaged or phased for construction, or the products and materials to be used (e.g., high-early strength concrete or precast/prefabricated materials). Looking ahead during the planning process to resolve permitting issues well before construction is to begin can avoid troublesome and costly project delays. This includes items such as identifying jurisdictional waterways or wetlands, making certain there is clear title to properties or whether replatting or variances are required. Perhaps there is a need to clear property of trees in advance of seasonal restrictions (think Indiana Bat habitat). 
This also applies to site characteristics, such as surcharging a building location in advance of construction in order to induce projected soil consolidation to avoid excessive settlement issues down the road. 

Finding a civil engineering partner that understands constraints such as these is critical to ensuring your project hits desired timelines and quality expectations, while meeting regulatory requirements of local, state, and federal agencies. Work with a team that can help you leverage technologies like publicly available LiDAR imagery to assess infrastructure or BIM modeling to present your designs in a meaningful way to stakeholders and other relevant parties. Planning and design for higher education presents multiple complexities, but they become a lot simpler with a partner that's been working in this segment of the industry for decades and can leverage a wealth of local knowledge and the relationships to keep projects moving. In mid-Missouri, this partner is ES&S.  
If you want more information on engineering for higher education or any of the topics in this article, feel free to contact ES&S to discuss your requirements in more detail. In our next article, we’ll move further into the campus, looking at those on-site improvements that designers and engineers can include to benefit the entire education community.

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