by Shelley Vanderweil
Higher education facilities pose unique challenges and opportunities for the institution, architect, engineer and construction team. Understanding the environment in which these facilities are built and successful management of the projects within this environment is critical to their success.
Academic institutions are comprised of various constituencies, each with different goals for the project. Though the goals may overlap in some areas, in others they seem diametrically opposed. For example, a college or university’s sustainability group may be vying for net zero energy usage or even E+ (energy positive), while the comptroller worries about what this will do to the project budget and the architect may be concerned about how much space it is going to take in the building to accommodate geothermal and PV infrastructure. What’s good for one constituency may not be good for the other, and vice versa. It is important for the entire project team to recognize this tension and engage in an integrative design process that allows a thorough vetting of the implications of options – by all relevant parties – before making decisions.
Another result of the constituencies and dynamics at play in an educational environment is the potential for change during the life of the project. Institutions are fluid with respect to teaching practices, student and faculty needs, and overall strategic plans. From master planning to concepts, through schematics and so on, there can be a complete upheaval in a college or university’s needs for a particular project. It best serves the institution to work with a design and construction team able to react quickly and seamlessly to the new needs of the project, whether this means upsizing or reductions in systems, the addition of completely different program elements or a wholesale redesign of major portions, if not all, of the project. While the project needs may change, typically the schedule cannot. Therefore, the design and construction teams must be agile and flexible to accommodate the needs of the institution.
As with other project types, project budget is a major driver in educational facilities development. An effective way to continuously monitor the project budget is through estimating at each milestone phase of the project. When possible, early CM engagement for pre-construction services is a huge benefit to the project through forecasting system and materials costs, market conditions and escalation, as well as subcontractor availability – all of which play into overall construction costs. An independent cost estimator and the architect and engineer can add to the success of construction cost estimating, by adding their experience to the conversation early in the process.
Along with early pricing comes early value management. The design and construction teams must work together to effectively strategize on cost saving measures for the project at each milestone phase. Substituted materials or different system approaches are often considered. An integrative design approach is necessary during value management in order to identify consequences and tradeoffs associated with value management ideas. For example, the substitution of a glass type may result in an increase in solar heat gain in the building, requiring an increase in air handling system size and energy usage. Life cycle costing can be an effective way to weigh the pros and cons of value management ideas to ensure that the owner is making the best decisions for the project in the long-term.
Another way to potentially control project costs and/or schedule is to consider alternate delivery methods such as design-build, design-assist or integrated project delivery. The earlier these project execution strategies are identified, thought-out, and ultimately “bought into” by the project team, the better the chances are for effectively integrating them into the project with minimal or no upheaval to the team’s execution of the project.
Shelley Vanderweil, PE, LEED AP BD+C is a principal at R.G. Vanderweil Engineers, LLP in Boston.