Completing an extensive renovation or expansion project takes time and resources. And it is not very often that a university will dedicate the budget to build a new facility. Therefore, when you do get the opportunity to undergo a facility re-vamp, it is essential to do it right.
In an era of budget cuts and student fee freezes, it is important to have a clear mission when undertaking any sort of facility development project. For example, at the University of California Riverside, it became apparent the current building would no longer suffice.
“As our student population swelled to 20,000 students, our existing facility was intensely overcrowded, and that was really causing negative impacts on our students,” said Lindy Fenex, the director of recreation at UC Riverside. “Our Recreation Facilities Governing Board was very motivated to add enough space to meet the demand and the needs of our growing population.”
If your department is in a similar situation and a renovation or expansion is in your near future, here are a few tips to help the process run smoothly.
Before starting any expansion or renovation project, make sure you have the approval from other on-campus groups. When campus constituents understand and support the mission of your project, the chance of passing a referendum will be easier. In order to garner campus support, the UC Riverside Department of Campus Recreation developed a plan to reach out to every student organization on campus to give a presentation about the project.
“We let them know that it didn’t matter where and when they met, we would come meet them,” added Fenex. “We conducted hundreds of presentations over the course of six to seven months leading up to the referendum vote. We went to dorms, to meeting rooms all over campus, to houses where students lived, all just to give them our presentation. I really believe those student groups appreciated that our student leaders came to them. It showed the passion and commitment they had for the project, which I think became contagious.”
As Fenex explained, it is essential to gather student feedback on what they want and need when it comes to your facility and programming, especially if you are going to ask them to fund the project. “In campus recreation we typically enjoy tremendous popularity with our students, but it would be short-sighted to take that for granted,” he said. “Be sure that any facility you wish to build is what students have affirmed they want and will support. It is critical to deliver real value that students can believe in.”
Before starting the expansion project at UC Riverside, Fenex and his team conducted two surveys to assess student needs and desires for an updated facility. “We wanted to know how well students felt we were providing for them with our current facilities and most of all, where we fell short,” he explained. “We used those survey results to drive the program plan for our facility expansion project, making sure that we had listened carefully to our students and were planning facilities that resonated with what they told us they wanted.”
You will be working with these individuals all through the design and construction process, so it is important to choose a company that understands your vision and shares the same values. For the expansion project at UC Riverside, the university interviewed several architectural firms. According to Fenex, they wanted a firm that had a strong track record of excellent design in campus recreation centers with experience and success building them.
While budget is a key factor, it might not be the wisest choice to go with the cheapest offer. “Sometimes it is hard to choose a company, especially when you are going out to bid for a lot of these,” said Chase Ellis, the director of recreation at Utah State University. “It is easy to look at the price tag and go with the best bid, but I also think when you are building centers of this capacity, you won’t regret it if you put in that team component when you are searching for the contractors and architects to work with.”
Once you choose the perfect architecture firm, it is crucial to foster and develop a strong relationship with everyone who will be working on the project. According to Fenex, it was this warm relationship between the architect, general contractor and campus community that helped the project run so smoothly at UC Riverside. “It may sound cliché, but proactive and constant communication was the norm with our team,” he added. “We were able to see issues in advance and attend to them before they cost us either in money or time.”
To develop this consistent line of communication, Fenex and the entire project team would meet twice a week throughout the process. “One was a typical business meeting where we discussed current issues, went over the construction schedule, the one-to-four-week look ahead, etc.,” explained Fenex. “Then every Friday we would have a team barbecue out at the construction trailers where we could pick up on any lingering items or unexpected occurrences. I can’t describe how valuable it was to have those barbecues where we could get together more informally, talk about everything and get to know each other better. It built a lot of cohesion in our overall team, and gave us more opportunities to communicate face-to-face.”
Constructing an exceptional facility takes time. While it is important to stick to a schedule, you should not compromise the integrity of the project for the sake of the timeline.
“We had made a promise to the students that we would have the facility open in fall 2015,” said Ellis. “We knew we were pushing for all the finishing touches so we could take occupancy of the building. We were hiring new staff, trying to get everyone on board and then we had this grand opening. There were many times when we were in the building until 3 a.m. helping to clean up from construction. I think the biggest challenge is always being able to create those timelines where you can have the best opening possible, but also make sure that you are not missing things on the construction side.”