What We Learned: Don’t Want to Hear It? Yes, the Pandemic Still Threw Curves at Construction Projects

The eight projects highlighted in this annual Renovation & Construction edition of The Bulletin, while ranging in breadth and scope, shared commonalities that past project leaders and participants had found to be true: be flexible; set realistic expectations; you cannot overcommunicate to your stakeholders. Yet, in 2023, another reoccurring theme exposed itself from what ACUI members shared; few, if any, of these projects were completed without facing challenges and hurdles presented by the pandemic.

The ACUI members who helped shepherd their campus projects to completion in 2022 or 2023 noted obstacles like what the construction industry experienced all through the pandemic. Work force stressors, shortages and delays in receipt of building supplies and equipment, and cost fluctuations all created additional challenges in successfully completing their renovation and construction projects. And there was another pandemic-related roadblock that several ACUI members mentioned: remote engagement of students in the process. 

Student unions and student centers are all about students, even at the beginning of a building project. In some cases, like Georgia Tech’s new $110 million campus center project, students initiated discussions about needed improvements; it was passage of a student government association resolution and accompanying “white paper” in 2009 that got the ball rolling. In every case, students were involved at the earliest moments of a project beginning to rise—visits to other campuses, student-led planning committees, student participation on building committees, and like at Georgia Tech, marketing and promoting student fee increases needed to fund the project.

“Every semester since 2016 town halls were held to update the campus community on the project, and we took the same presentations to student organization leadership retreats and meetings,” said Lindsay Bryant, senior director of student and campus event centers. Students at Georgia Tech created a Student Center Expansion Committee, they passed a student fee referendum, helped select the design team, and even before the pandemic, named the rooms in the student center and exhibition hall.

But during the pandemic that dynamic changed. In 2020, when many of these projects were in planning or early development, the primary demographic, students, were gone. Victoria Deno, the marketing and public relations administrator for Purdue University Memorial Union, said that when students were sent home a real driver for the project went silent.

“The global pandemic forced isolation and presented us with a challenge to keep students involved,” she said. “To stay on schedule, the design team adapted their analogue tools for gathering student input into an online format. This allowed the team to keep student leadership informed while also gathering design input on student-focused spaces.”

At California State University–Fresno, the groundbreaking for the new $65 million Lynda and Stewart Resnick Student Union occurred one month before the March 2020 pandemic lockdowns started in the United States. Completed more than two years later, the project was centered on student involvement, from start to finish, but the pandemic did throw a hurdle in the process.

“As a student center or student union, transparency and dialogue with the student body, throughout the project, had been an objective,” noted student union communications coordinator Andrew Esguerra. “However, we did face challenges due to the pandemic in terms of keeping the project moving forward and engaging students in remote settings.”

Towson State University’s $120 million expansion and renovation of its University Union was underway for over a year before COVID struck, but the pandemic not only created delays, but it also led to project leaders taking another look at some components of the project.

“The early stages of construction were completed during the pandemic, which led to challenges with social distancing, contact tracing, and supply chain disruptions,” recalled Matthew Lenno, assistant vice president of student affairs and campus life. “It also led us to explore products and materials that were resistant to microbes and virus transmission, as well as focusing more efforts on ventilation system updates.”

Once the pandemic surge had passed and Towson students were back on campus, they were again asked to face a challenge: Participate in student life while a building that is central to that is being renovated, with some facilities closed or relocated. “We want to formally state how appreciative we are for the continued patience and cooperation of our student organizations and students with the logistical planning, packing, and shuffling around that had to do as a result of the construction processprocess,” Lenno said.

Dining locations were moved from the union, temporary signage directed students differently on any given day, construction renderings were placed in public spaces, and no effort was spared to “maintain a sense of transparency with the student body,” Lenno said.

Providing that supportive environment, be it while a project is being designed or after it is completed, is always the goal, said Eric Margiotta, director of student unions and engagement at the College of William & Mary. Margiotta had just stood watch over a $30.3 million expansion and renovation of the Sadler Center, completed in August 2022.

“It takes constant collaboration and discussion through every stage of the process to ensure that the student voice and the vision of the project remains at the center,” he said. “Everyone wanted students to be able to socialize and have formal and informal gatherings in a place that feels like home.”

“Students come first,” agreed Paul Terzino, student center director for Western Michigan University’s new $99 million student center. “Every decision should be made with student involvement, student outcomes, and student expectations in mind, unless you are designing and programming a conference center. But a campus center must be student first!”

Not only did Western Michigan students participate in focus groups, advisory councils, diversity and equity committees, and provide feedback to questions, they also visited 18 student centers in the United States and Canada during the visioning process for the project. In the end, they came out with a student center that has LEED Silver status, the campus undergraduate admissions center, a student art gallery with a permanent art installation, a pub, indoor hammocks, a bank, a printing and shipping center, and a space for parents.

The amenities found within the $40.3 million renovation of the ground floor of Purdue University’s Memorial Union are similarly impressive, with new outdoor terraces, fire pits, indoor and outdoor stages, and a doubling of dining space. Student groups, student union board members, student government leaders, were all engaged during the planning phase, communicating the crucial needs of students.

“It was vital to support those needs and not waver through the design process,” said Deno. “Student input created a hybrid space strategy that involved integrating student programming spaces to blend student programming with recreation and collaboration space, and then into retail dining areas. These efforts increased the vibrancy of the ground floor.”

At the end of the day, two reemerging themes provided by ACUI members were open lines of communication and flexibility.

“Over-communication is better than under-communication,” stated Adam Burden, director of student involvement at the University of North Carolina–Charlotte, where a new Center for Student Involvement was created. “Don’t assume people know.”

Bryant, at Georgia Tech, agreed. “Communication is key. You can’t over communicate about the project,” she said. “One thing we learned during the two years of construction and not having our student center, we had to reeducate the community as to what the purpose of a student center was.”

Flexible has often come to mean hybrid, just like what the students at Purdue determined was the course for flexible spaces that can flip back and forth from dining to performance to collaboration.

“Build in flexibility,” Terzino said. “Try to make as many spaces as flexible as possible. Can a dining space be a meeting room at night and on weekends? Can a lounge become a meeting room? Is technology flexible and adaptive? Can common space be programmable?”   


  • 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.