Lessons Learned 2019: A Year of Renovation and Construction Projects

Each year ACUI’s The Bulletin features the latest renovation and construction projects experienced by our members over the previous year. A record 14 projects valued at over $600 million were submitted for inclusion in the January-February 2020 issue of The Bulletin, and in this issue we asked some of those union leaders just what they learned from these sometimes harrowing, and always rewarding, building experiences. 

Expect to be shocked! 

The prices may stun you, noted University of Alaska–Anchorage student union Assistant Director Cody Buechner, but so will the reactions and the positive feedback you get from your community. Expect plenty of knowledge acquisition along the way, as well, he said of establishing an esports lounge in the union. “We expanded our vocabulary to include terms like ‘solid state drive,’ ‘network pulls,’ ‘power whip,’ and ‘GLHF!’ ” 

Other Lessons Learned: 

Connect with your peers: “Rather than re-invent the wheel, we consulted with peers from across the country. One of the most influential tips we received was to expand our initial concept of 12 PCs to 18 as most folks we talked to had outgrown their spaces within a year,” Buechner said. 

Expect that the project may impact the campus community more than you expect it will. 

Renovations and additions to the University of Mississippi’s Ole Miss Student Union took nearly four years to complete, and during that time vehicle traffic was restricted, pedestrian traffic was limited, and everything from traffic flow at class changes to game day and commencement events were impacted. Student organizations and departments were moved, auxiliary services was impacted, memberships and involvement were challenged, and communications between various entities became strained. “While many of the issues that came to light were considered in advance, others gradually evolved as the project neared completion,” said union director Bradley Baker. 

Other Lessons Learned: 

Be well aware of the footprint a project is going to require as you prepare to measure the impact it may have on the community. 

When your campus changes, you must change with it. 

Since the turn of the century enrollment grew over 25% at East Carolina University and new buildings included a dental school and heart institute at a medical campus not associated with the main campus where a new student center was being built. “We asked students, faculty, and staff, and we were surprised by what we learned,” said student center director Dean Smith. “The two campuses are only a few miles apart but we discovered our medical campus students and main campus student had very different needs.” 

Other Lessons Learned: 

Multiple student forums and surveys take extra time up front and may slow down the start of a project, but they offer a big payoff in the eventual utilization of the facility. “To achieve great utilization, listen carefully.” – Sharon Pelc, student union and student engagement director, Nebraskan Student Union, University of Nebraska–Kearney. 

Change management with faculty and staff is just as important as it is with students. 

With half of your space gone during construction and offices of over 50 staff and faculty having been moved, “managing the logistics, morale, and insuring affected stakeholders have input in the design just like students did was a key in making a smooth transition for the entire community,” said Ben Perlman, director of student center operations and events at Emory University’s new student center. Those logistics included closing down a major outdoor programming areas for six months, building a temporary 600-seat dining hall, and changing existing event services policies to accommodate student needs. 

Andrew Dutil, student center director at Columbia College–Chicago agreed with Perlman on the importance of change management. “You’ve got to manage change. Moving departments and offices can cause a lot of stress and unease, and I think we learned that we could have done more to ease the transition for departments that were moving into the new building.” 

Other Lessons Learned: 

Expect to take in some interesting information and learn some things when you infuse students into the planning and design process. 

Receive input from as many types of end users as possible, from initial design through the opening weeks. “That’s key to creating a building that meets the needs of the entire campus community,” Dutil said. 

Positive, meaningful relationships are vital to the project’s success. 

“The relationship between the owner, your facility liaison, the general contractor, and the architect is vital to success. During this project we built positive and meaningful relationships with the project team that served as the foundation for our success,” recalled Rob Webber, director of Sam Houston State University’s Lowman Student Center. Get a seat at the table early, and don’t leave it, he added. “Early on in the project during a design meeting it became clear that a group met without including the facility owners, and during that meeting critical design elements were discussed that ran counter to the desires of the end user. Insist on being included in all meetings related to the project.” 

Other Lessons Learned: 

Save time and money by reviewing all documents and making sure that drawings and specifications match. “Staying actively involved and reviewing construction drawings cannot be overstated,” Webber said. 

People say they are okay with construction noise going on, but really, they’re NOT! 

The $20 million renovation of Northern Illinois University’s Holmes Student Center took over five years, and doors never closed. Assistant Director Joe Lifshitz said that meant good note-taking, clear communications, and making sure you’re able to have at least a few people onboard through the entire process to “make sure the original goals carry through to fruition.” 

Other Lessons Learned: 

“It’s important to pay very close attention to demolition and the early stages of construction in a renovation project in order to minimize the inadvertent demolition of items that should not be touched.” 


  • Steve Chaplin

    Steve Chaplin is managing editor of ACUI’s The Bulletin and manager of the ACUI College Union and Student Activities (CUSA) Evaluation Program. A former newspaper writer, editor, and manager, he has volunteered as a student mentor as a member of the National Association of Science Writers, and received awards for his writing and reporting from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, the Kentucky Education Association, and the Kentucky Press Association.

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