Tips for Successful Higher Education Construction Planning
Higher Education Construction Planning

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes, 6 seconds

Collegiate campuses of all sizes struggle with space demands, aging infrastructures, and the challenge of providing spaces that meet the ever-evolving needs of students, faculty, and staff. When the opportunity to renovate or build structures arises, there’s a host of considerations that must be weighed for a successful project outcome. 

Owners, department leads, and facilities management have their “wish list” items, as do students and other end users like researchers and faculty. How do you ensure the best outcome for campus end users and stakeholders, all while getting the most ROI within a strict campus construction budget?  

Weigh the Pros and Cons of Renovations Versus New Construction 

Campuses with underutilized, outdated, or aging structures often face the great debate: do we renovate or build something new? The decision is typically driven by budget, though the type of building and its use can be additional  deciding factors.  

“The sky’s the limit with new construction because you’re starting from scratch and can design the building around specific needs,” says Avin Kallenbach, Project Executive. “Renovation projects are trickier because you are often restricted by factors like the building size and layout, and the location and age of the mechanical systems. That being said, renovations can help campuses breathe new life into aging structures and provide the critical upgrades needed for end users.” 

The University of Minnesota’s Lind Hall Renovation converted a 100-year-old building into an innovative computer science and faculty support space. By investing in renovations, the University could preserve the historic aesthetic people enjoy while catering to evolving student and faculty needs.  

Renovations can help breathe new life into aging structures and provide the critical upgrades needed for end users. 

What if your higher education construction plan involves both renovations and new construction? When Augustana University needed to expand student housing and upgrade the existing infrastructure, Mortenson’s Minneapolis team developed a multi-phase student housing plan to execute the project. Tackling these large projects in phases helps colleges and universities achieve improvement goals while staying within budget.


Augustana Residence Hall
Augustana Residence Hall
Augustana University’s new 208-bed South Residence Hall was completed during Phase I of their student housing master plan. Study areas feature comfortable seating and large windows to let in natural light. 

Design Within Your Higher Education Construction Budget 

Perception is everything. Incoming freshmen expect housing with amenities that sometimes rival luxury apartments. Athletics programs want stadiums and training facilities designed to attract top recruits and enhance the fan experience. Research programs seek spaces with the latest equipment and technology to accommodate graduate- and PhD-level students.  

Naturally, campus stakeholders want everything on their wish list and often feel pressure from different programs and end users to deliver. However, trying to meet these high expectations often results in overdesigning and significant cost increases. 

“Campus construction projects need to be driven by budget, not ‘must haves,’” explains Blair McNeil, Market Director. “Getting a project within budget means asking stakeholders to make tough decisions on what parts of the scope they are willing to give up.” 

Involving construction partners early in the design phase will help set realistic expectations for what you can and cannot afford. “You get the best results when architects and construction partners work together from the beginning,” says Avin. “Estimators have their finger on the pulse of what’s happening in the market. They use their market knowledge to help set realistic budgets that factor in price fluctuations. And they can help identify comparable alternatives to save money.”   

Campus construction projects are driven by budget, not 'must haves.' Getting a project within budget means asking stakeholders to make tough decisions on what parts of the scope they want to give up.

Prepare Disruption Avoidance and Communication Plans 

Construction naturally comes with inconveniences like noise, dust, and restricted access to operational spaces. It’s critical to consider the effects of construction on your students, faculty, staff, and visitors:  

  • What campus activities will the construction impact? Are temporary spaces required to allow these activities to continue during construction?
  • Do you need to close existing entrances, an entire floor, sidewalks, or even streets? If so, for how long?
  • What safety measures are needed to identify and prevent access to active construction areas?

These are just some of the questions to ask yourself and your team. For these reasons, you should include a campus disruption avoidance plan whenever planning a campus improvement project. “We create disruption avoidance plans for all higher education construction projects,” explains Avin. “The team reviews the plan with campus facilities management at least two weeks before each project phase begins. That way, they have enough time to prepare and communicate the plan to everyone on campus.” 

Ongoing communication between construction partners and facilities staff helps you identify conflicts and rearrange schedules as necessary. “The communication needs to go both ways,” continues Avin. “Facilities management interacts with campus end users regularly and can provide critical insight into conflicts and concerns.”  

The needs of higher education campuses are constantly evolving. Dealing with competition, budget restraints, and a seemingly endless list of campus improvements can be overwhelming. With the right strategy and an experienced design and construction team, you can meet campus program needs and maximize capital investments.


Avin Kallenbach

Avin Kallenbach is a project executive focused on higher education construction. With over 13 years of construction industry experience, Avin has worked on several high-profile projects at Mortenson. She leads project managers through successful preconstruction and construction planning to ensure the best project outcome for our customers.

Blair McNeil

Blair McNeil is a market director focusing on higher education construction. He is responsible for business development, customer relationships, and construction management for the Minneapolis office and has worked on several notable projects for the University of Minnesota campus.

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