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November 18, 2010
Universities are in a race to attract cream-of-the-crop students. This means not just understanding what today’s students are looking for, but how campus facilities will serve tomorrow’s students as well.
Students are savvier than ever, it seems, and are now seeking schools that have a unique design aesthetic as well as creature comforts and modern campus services. We hear this not only from our university clients, but also from our children when they look at schools. No matter what their size, institutions of higher learning have heard the hue and cry, and are updating their student union buildings to meet demand.
The student union building is now the central focus of every college campus. These hub facilities have evolved extensively over the last 20 years, and today’s iteration has developed into the central service vortex for all students.
What’s new is that they are built entirely around students’ technology needs. Additionally, many universities see this campus focal point as a key part of their recruitment and retention strategy. It is nearly always one of the main stops on the campus tour.
Bias for renovation
Just as in making sure a campus has the most cutting-edge laboratory facilities, bringing student union buildings up to today’s standards has generated new construction thinking and scheduling. In keeping with their classic collegiate architecture, many universities are seeking renovations rather than new construction.
Because today’s facility requirements are vastly different from those of their predecessors, renovations can mean a complete overhaul of the building. These larger renovations demand a longer time line as well. So, this approach not only affects the student services that need to be relocated during construction, but also requires greater planning to help reduce impacts for students.
The University of Washington’s Husky Union Building (HUB) is now undergoing its first total renovation. The project, built by Skanska USA and designed by Perkins+Will, will have a fresh design and incorporate the things that UW students expect to see when they come to their central meeting space.
The HUB was originally built in 1949 to provide services and amenities for 26,000 students. (The campus now serves 50,000.) The original 70,000-square-foot building was expanded and updated four times throughout the years. This included a 1975 addition of the dining hall and east ballroom by Baugh Construction (now Skanska), giving the structure the 260,000-square-foot size is has today.
The result of these four expansions was a five-building conglomeration that was cumbersome, disjointed and decentralized with dark stairwells, separate elevators for different floors and poor points of entry.
Expansions are an unfortunate trend on many U.S. campuses because they often create museumlike buildings that are uninviting and have limited flexibility. As student demands and demographics change quickly, universities are renovating in ways that will accommodate easy, ongoing changes.
Students weigh in
As part of UW’s HUB renovation plans, the university assembled a committee of 16 students, two faculty and two staff members to organize the direction of the new student center. The committee conducted focus groups, town halls and one-on-one meetings with campus groups to help identify what the new building would need.
“It was absolutely essential that students were involved in the decision making process,” said Paul Zuchowski, associate director of the HUB.
“Students know exactly what they want and what they expect out of their student union building and we are determined to make the HUB meet their needs.”
Some of the university’s findings influenced the updates, which include flexible meeting spaces that can accommodate groups of up to 200. That means more space for student activities and less space for retail.
Changes to the building’s layout include seamless integration with the outdoors, which helps incorporate more natural light and vegetation. On the west side of the building, a complete overhaul of the main entrance will provide a more welcoming environment and easy access.
The building overhaul, designed to earn LEED silver certification, will also make the HUB more environmentally friendly. Currently, the school is in line with the state Legislature’s requirement that state agencies reduce their emissions by at least 15 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, and 36 percent below 2005 levels by 2035. UW has a goal to reach climate neutrality by 2050, and renovating the HUB to LEED standards will significantly help the university reach that goal.
In addition to addressing climate issues, UW understands that students have an expectation that schools be ahead of the curve with regard to environmental responsibilities. The higher education industry’s quick adaptation to sustainable practices has accelerated this expectation and understanding of key benchmarks. It’s up to general contractors to keep pace and provide the right solutions for these clients.
Some of the green features of the HUB include a green roof, reuse of existing materials, and planters for students to grow their own vegetables. Additionally, the new entrance includes an open floor plan with a three-floor atrium that lets in natural light. These will help UW achieve LEED certification, but also add to the design aesthetic and meet the UW HUB renovation committee’s goals.
Now in its fifth month of construction, the 260,000-square-foot HUB renovation is on track for completion in the fall of 2012.
Chris Toher, a senior vice president at Skanska USA, is a 23-year construction veteran who oversees a variety of the region’s higher education projects, including the University of Washington’s HUB renovation.