Competing with Giants

design thinking

two hour drive from a major international airport and within 180 miles of the four largest state universities, how can a university in a rural setting be competitive in the higher education market?  For these small institutions, dreams of achieving a top recreational program and an award-winning designed facility are within reach. In fact, some forward-thinking universities are crafting their own authentic approaches to capital improvements by rethinking traditional financing structures, architecture, project delivery and operations management.

The underlying strategy that organizations are using to revamp their process is design thinking. By thinking like a designer, universities can gain that competitive edge and achieve unprecedented results in the higher education market. What is design thinking methodology? It is effective strategy development and organizational change that is focused on solutions. The university should seek partners that embody design thinking, in that they can sensibly translate a university’s needs to what is feasible to ultimately convert into customer value and market opportunity:

1. Qualified universities have the opportunity to seek USDA financing for their projects.

USDA rural development loans provide affordable funding to develop essential facilities in rural areas. Guidelines are stringent and funding is limited, but there are options available for capital improvements.

2. For universities pursuing a new facility, it is a rare opportunity for the architecture to incorporate programs and activities that may be lacking on a campus.

This leads to hybrid type facilities, which contain multiple programs and departments under one roof. Project expertise of multiple building functions can create a value-generating design for the university.

3. For project delivery, the Construction Manager at Risk delivery method can be a great solution to managing all aspects of construction and achieve high-quality results.

This is more common at large institutions, and rural universities can take advantage of this method as well. When a new facility is to be the first of its kind on a campus, a Construction Manager at Risk provides services to add value and efficiency to high complexity projects.

4. Outsourcing operations management can be a viable solution.

Institutions with less than 9,000 students may not have the resources to hire and train a full campus recreation staff to operate a new facility. An operator can move into an existing campus to gear up new staff, train existing employees and prepare programs within eight to 10 months before a new campus recreation facility is completed. 

When any process is unprecedented in the state or town, proactive partners with a design thinking attitude are required throughout the process to generate solutions quickly. Universities in rural settings have a great story to tell of how they triumphed over restraints and provided the best amenity to help each student achieve their dreams.


Jenn Rittler, AIA, LEED AP BD +C, is a project architect in the Student Focused Facilities Studio at Moody Nolan. She can be reached at


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