Volume 77 | Issue 6
November 2009

Cautionary Tales: What can be learned from completed renovation and construction projects

Rick Miller

The process of planning, designing, building, transitioning, and opening a college union facility can be one of the best experiences in a professional’s career as well as one of the most educational. Mark Petersen, assistant dean/director of Colket Center at Roanoke College, once said: “After you finish, you then know the things you should have known—and even though it’s a lot of work … you want to do it again!” For those considering or beginning a construction project, union directors who have been through the process—and who recall saying, “If I knew then what I know now”—have some wisdom to share.

Begin with the end in mind
Leadership guru Stephen Covey recommends that to be effective, one must “begin with the end in mind.” Carolyn Farley, executive director of campus life at the University of North Carolina–Wilmington, puts Covey’s principle into practice by suggesting that one “should start with needs rather than the budget.”

Some administrators like to determine financial parameters and then see what can be built within that framework; however, that approach can lead to meeting a budget but not the needs of the campus community. About UNC–Wilmington’s Fisher Student Center project (completed in 2008), Farley said: “Once we had a design we knew would serve us, it was relatively easy to develop the buy-in necessary to find the funds.”
Envisioned futures also are enhanced by visuals. Brian Nichols, interim dean of campus life and student development at Texas A&M University–Commerce, understood this concept as it related to the construction of the university’s Sam Rayburn Student Center. After surveys and focus groups were completed on campus, members of the design team visited institutions to gain external perspectives and ideas about rooms and spaces. Nichols likened the project to visiting a series of championship golf courses, seeking out the signature holes from each, and putting them together to build the ultimate course. The A&M–Commerce team visited a dozen sites, getting ideas from each plus additional input from visits to Disney’s Coronado Springs Conference Center and other Disney properties while attending conferences.

As Neil Gerard, associate dean of students/director of the decade-old Smith Campus Center at Pomona College, said: “Ask for help. Use colleagues … and steal only from the best.”

Sustainability experts

If plans are to build a LEED-certified or green facility, experienced union professionals recommend choosing the firm that can deliver on all levels—including working with construction teams to ensure sustainability goals are compatible with the facility’s standard operations and provision of services. The architectural team must be forward-thinking and knowledgeable about trends. For example, the U.S. Energy Act of 2007 calls for more efficient lighting products to replace existing technology. In 2012, incandescent bulbs will begin to be phased out. An architect can recommend a new lighting plan or lighting consultants to address whether it makes sense to change to LED or compact fluorescents, whether lights need to be dimmable, whether it would be more affordable to go green from the beginning or retrofit later, etc.
Similarly, with the rising cost of water, and knowing that water usage is important, Texas A&M–Commerce chose to go ahead and install waterless urinals in the restrooms in the new Sam Rayburn Student Center. This will help with a water usage savings of nearly 400,000 gallons per year—a tremendous savings in water and money that sets a standard for usage on campus and in the community, all because of a design choice.

Reading is fundamental
While the architects may be the experts, knowledgeable staff are better equipped to transform a “box building” into an intentional place where students, faculty, staff, and the community come together to create, learn, renew, and serve. There are some basic reading requirements for those about to embark on a building or renovation project. Newsletters and RSS feeds can be excellent resources for understanding the trends affecting technology, gaming, student learning, and hospitality. Additionally, union directors recommended learning to read specs, floor plans, and shop drawings.

In fact, “Have your own set of prints,” said Sarah Aikman, Northern Kentucky University’s union director. “… Read them, understand them, and refer to them often.” In addition to the blueprints, spec books (the written description of the building—down to the smallest detail, type, brand, alternate, and model number) are essential references. Put index tabs on the sections and note all changes made during the project. The time will come when the contractors are gone and someone will need to know what that part is and who made it. Learn to document, mark, and reference changes in the specs to keep up with the hundreds of items on punch lists, change orders, and add alts. (See p. 36 for translation.) The language of planning, budget, construction, cost projection, and risk management can be confusing, so those who have been through the process universally said that asking really is better than assuming; questions are free, but misunderstandings are expensive.

Current details about codes pertaining to capacity, fire safety, and ADA compliance also are important to review regularly. Aikman gave the example of a building with meeting room doors that cannot be propped open because they are connected to the fire alarm system—the retrofit is expensive. Staff also must know how to read the fire and smoke attenuation system boards so they know immediately where the situation is. On the first day the A&M Commerce building was open, staff were trying to find and read the manual on fire safety equipment as the alarms sounded, the fire trucks were on the way, and the building was being evacuated.

Conquering space
Having easily accessible storage close to usage areas for staging, tables, chairs, etc., is extremely important for quick turnarounds and emergency set-ups. This is why the facility manager and union director, the end users, need to attend every planning/construction meeting to ensure the plan is executed as intended. What might look logical to an architect might cause operational headaches for a set-up crew. Choosing to locate chair/table/staging storage in and adjacent to large conference rooms means less lost time in set-ups as well as less wear and tear on equipment and crew. But even these decisions may be regretted if inexpensive dollies with squeaky wheels are purchased and distract from events happening in those conference rooms. Facility managers should seek advice from architects and other planners, but they know their space best and so must be involved in space design discussions.

Student organizational space may incur similar debates between form and function. For this reason, Sam Smith, director of Stephen F. Austin University’s Baker-Pattillo Student Center, advised soliciting direct input from students and staff during meetings with the concept designers. He also said to plan ahead for more student groups using facility space as his campus has seen increased involvement since the building opened in 2008. Currently, collaborative and team-oriented space with shared central resources may be the norm for such spaces; however, planners should recognize that organizations are ever-changing, that workplace environments are evolving, and that walls are real for a long time. Design professionals can offer insight about trends in the corporate sector and project the kinds of work space in which students need to learn to be productive before they graduate and enter full-time employment. Flexibility is important; Gerard said that one should design space that can be morphed as change happens.

Ups and downs
Small choices along the way can become big factors. Don Luse, who has overseen several renovation projects as union director at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, advised: “Check to make sure the elevator can accommodate tables and chairs on carts that need to be moved.” He said to make certain there is adequate turning and moving space around corners and into elevators before purchasing items such as staging, tables, and chairs that require dollies.

Elevators need to be carefully selected not only for size but also for weight capacity. A&M–Commerce’s union had an oversized freight elevator, but it had a lower weight capacity than the passenger elevator. Imagine the facility’s busiest day and biggest show, and go from there. Nichols said to think about future usage when deciding on elevator type, brand, function, and location. Back-of-house elevators are the workhorses for set-up and food service, so staff will need to determine which models are most reliable and which companies have the best response times on repairs.

The program of requirements (POR) should specify size, load, capacity, type of opening, and ease of control. However, Patrick Brown, director of the University of Vermont’s 2-year-old Davis Center, cautioned: “Understand that there are code words that sound good, but to ask lots of questions.” Vermont’s new center has a service elevator instead of a freight elevator that staff “will get to live with for a long, long time,” Brown said.

Ins and outs
Verifying the specifications is helpful, but it is not everything; what looks good on paper (or on a computer screen) might be radically different in real life. Loading docks are one example. The University of Vermont actually had the architects and engineers demonstrate that trucks could make the reverse turn in and out of the Davis Center’s loading docks without hitting a wall. The result: shifting a major wall at the loading dock.
One piece of advice on docks learned on the A&M–Commerce project was to look at the different kinds of trucks used in the facility’s daily operations and pass that information along to the architects. What works for a food delivery semitrailer might not work for a band’s 24-foot rental truck. Check the deck height of campus vehicles as well; daily delivery of equipment, books, and supplies by internal operations are hampered when the dock is designed just for a standard tractor-trailer.

Plan ahead for technology
A particularly common thread encountered while talking with facility designers and directors is to integrate the technology needs but plan ahead. As the reliance on electronics grows, facility planners recommended a generator for back-up, emergencies, and preservation of data equipment, servers, and security systems.

Gerard submitted that when one thinks there are enough ethernet ports, phone jacks, and power outlets, that may only be the beginning. After project completion, many schools have added outlets in areas where student usage called for changes. Go ahead and put in the infrastructure for conduits and wall runs for future projects, and note on the finished plans where these assets are located. Additionally, planners might consider cable runs across high hallways, floor pockets, and above the ballroom ceilings that might be needed in the future.

With everything digital changing rapidly, be ready to replace all that coaxial cable with CAT 5 or CAT 6 to ensure that high-definition screens can really perform up to expectations. Projectors, screen technology, wireless speakers, LED lighting, and stage lighting controllers are always changing, but at some point the facility must be constructed, knowing that future upgrades will be necessary.

Control devices, software, hardware, and other media can be integrated to limit the expense and time consumed with such changes. Campus professionals advised having one company facilitate the design, installation, and integration to eliminate warranty and service issues.

Northern Kentucky “separated the audio-visual systems and installation from the general contractor’s scope using one company to design the bid package. They then oversaw the installation, testing, and training for the entire system,” Aikman said. This single-source integration helped in the training prior to opening as well as adapting for the future. Keep in mind the ADA equipment and requirements needed for rooms that can be integrated with sound systems during installation. Assisted listening devices, while not required for all rooms, are becoming increasing popular and requested at many facilities.

The installation on projects like college unions can take almost as long as the build itself. The complicated task of calibration, testing, and synching controllers for sound, lighting, and media should only be done by an experienced company with a proven track record.

Hard hats for everyone
Four months out from completion on Northern Kentucky University’s new union, the university president asked if the main staircase could be widened to make it appear grander and larger. After investigating the possibilities, it was decided that the change was too expensive. A lesson to be learned: “Encourage your university president to tour the site frequently. Ask if they would like any input into specific areas throughout the project,” Aikman said. Additions to that list would be the vice president of business affairs and other key stakeholders such as vendors or major tenants. They will often see details relevant to their area that slipped through the reviews but that can be easily changed with little or no charge. Go ahead and buy those extra hard hats and safety glasses to conduct periodic and planned walk-throughs with key people to keep them in the loop—just always check with the contractor first.

It also might make sense to ask campus community members in wheelchairs to go through the building before it opens. While the facility design may meet code, features may not be accessible. Following the construction of its union in 2003, the University of Arizona realized that installing automatic door remotes out of arm’s reach from the doors required individuals to scramble to grab the unlocked door before it relocked. This was even more difficult for those in wheelchairs, and a retrofit was expensive. At A&M–Commerce, automatic door remotes were installed close to the doors, but just before the facility opened, an individual “testing” the facility in a wheelchair pointed out that his feet would get wet when scanning his card because of the device’s proximity to a downspout. These small changes can be become major annoyances, which is why pre-opening tours are so important to remedy problems before they grow.

The transition to a new building begins with the groundbreaking, and the campus community must continue to be involved and informed about the project. Provide virtual tours, news reports, furniture testing, and color selection options to build ownership and buy-in, Farley said; “Had funds been available, I would have hired a part-time marketing person to help with the ongoing updates and visuals to keep the campus informed about our progress.”

Auxiliary enterprises will want to have their budgets preplanned with new rates and expenses and meet with major users and conference planners a couple of years in advance to help them adapt their programs and events for the new space. Some users might be surprised to find that with built-in media, open food courts, and outdoor spaces for meeting, their event costs actually decrease.

When the operations crew knows how the building is supposed to work, where all the things they need are located, and what is available, their engagement in the process and pride in the facility is increased. For instance, a custodial staff member at the University of Vermont suggested a great retrofit of the union’s water fountains. The change made it possible to fill water bottles at the fountain simply by adding four parts that could be installed by the campus plumber.

Growing pains
Even once a facility opens, there will be a period of adjustment. Managers can outline policies and procedures prior to a facility’s grand opening, but details are not easily defined until spaces are operational. “Let the use of the building set policy after the opening of the facility. You may not need a bunch of old policies,” Smith said. Things that “we’ve always done” will not work anymore, so prepare staff for changes to come.

A union facility will inevitably be different in concept than it is in practice. For example, “smart” lighting systems are those controlled by computer; however, as Aikman and others found, often when installed the lights in one area (such as the atrium) might be connected to a completely unrelated one (like the storeroom in the bookstore). This may be remedied by just switching circuits or may require extensive rewiring. Union directors recall that this discovery process takes time and is not typically a priority during the building’s grand opening. The lighting consultant and control device company can initially guide staff, but ultimately, the end users will need to learn and “own” the system.
In terms of the users besides staff, signage is an expensive and key element of a new building. As Sarah-Ann Harnick, assistant director of campus life at New Jersey City University, neared the end of the Gilligan Student Union renovation project, she noted: “I’m about to go over the signage and way-finding information for the 15th time.” It never ends. Staff recall that even after their facilities opened, they noticed spaces that needed direction, names, or correction; what seemed clear on the blueprint did not translate well on a sign.

Even facts are not always what they seem. After learning this the hard way, Pomona College got a chance for a real-time do-over with a second phase of Campus Center renovation and construction just completed recently. With the building’s original construction, institutional research showed that more than 90 percent of students had access to computers in their rooms, so the union building would not need to devote space to computer terminals/labs. What planners did not foresee was that students would want to be on computers with friends in a friendly space. The second-phase renovation included e-mail check stations and small group computer areas, Gerard said.

Remember, it's about the people
All of the union directors had one basic thing to say: enjoy the process and the people. The college union is more than bricks, mortar, and high-tech gadgets; it is about people. Keep this in mind when selecting and training student staff, reorienting professional staff, and planning campus events. Also, the many people behind the scenes are just as valuable in making a building project happen. The families and friends of someone building a union can help one keep perspective during the process. Involvement in a campus construction project builds camaraderie among all those involved. As Harnick said, “Do not take anything personally. It’s much more fun seeing the whole thing as a sitcom. ‘Ya just can’t make this stuff up’ became the phrase in our office!”