What Worked in Another COVID Construction Year

It’s been a couple of tough years to get a project completed. One preconstruction intelligence company, ConstructConnect, has estimated that nearly 9,000 construction projects were disrupted in the United States between March 2020 and December 2021, and student center projects across the country were among them. Yet, when student union professionals over the years have reflected upon the lessons learned during their own renovation and construction experiences, key takeaways carried over to the pandemic era projects: build-in flexibility, establish quality communications, and expect the unexpected.

When COVID-19 struck in 2020 there was an immediate uptick in complications for construction projects. Schedules were upended, supply chains became unreliable, and cost overruns and price escalations became apparent. The ACUI members who successfully completed projects over the past year at their campuses echoed one another that by being flexible, communicating in collaborative fashion, and being prepared for things like cost increases enabled them to overcome the challenges exacerbated by the pandemic.

“It is so important to be flexible during the design and construction phases,” said Robb Thibault, director of student life and leadership at SUNY–Oneonta’s Hunt College Union. Being flexible, for Thibault, was realized through two different themes during the union’s $6 million renovation project. “Not only did it mean being flexible and being able to adapt during the challenges of the pandemic, but it also meant designing flexible spaces that can be reorganized and rearranged to meet the changing demands of programmatic space inside a student union.”

Designing for spatial flexibility when you are starting from scratch, like a new construction project or a new addition, can be easier than when you’re addressing that goal with a renovation project, recalled Molly Brauer, the assistant director for administration at University of Colorado–Boulder’s University Memorial Center.

“Renovation projects are inherently more complex than new construction, and unlike new construction, it entails working within the confines of established conditions, sometimes requiring the replacement of systems without disruption to an occupied facility,” she said. When the Memorial Center added The Connection, a versatile activities space that includes dining, bowling, and live entertainment, walls were being removed while other areas of the building were operating at capacity.

Susan Pile at the University of Michigan has a similar story to tell about complexity, disruption, and expecting the unexpected, but it follows a different path than one where renovations were carried out while services were still being offered under the same roof. After a myriad of studies, surveys, design meetings, and cost analyses that ranged over an entire year, it was determined that the prudent path to take for Michigan Union was a complete building closure. Doing so, they decided, would save money and speed completion of the project.

“Students initially wanted the union to stay open during construction, but through a study we learned that it would cost between $1 and $2 million more to phase the project,” she said. “And it would be a disruptive experience with noise, temperature, and impacts on food service.”

Planning for an improved Michigan Union had been going on for over a decade, with eight trips visiting other campuses, meetings with University of Michigan alumni, town halls and listening sessions, meetings with university regents, focus groups, workshops, and detailed analyses that included a fee tolerance study. In the end, it was the students that “brought the project home,” Pile said.

“Our students were able to communicate that the learning and the development they experience in these facilities were just as important as their education experience in academic buildings,” she said. So in 2013 the board of regents approved a $65 per semester fee for the renovation of the student union and recreational sports facilities, and as hope for a 2018 groundbreaking fomented, the project planners had full knowledge of what the student body wanted: “Students wanted their funds to be put directly toward the project and not spending on stages. Upon reviewing the study with student leaders, we determined that the best option was to completely close and complete the project as quickly as possible,” Pile said.

Student-driven initiatives to generate facilities upgrades, not just study buy-in, are often how successful project are initially planted. At the Georgia Institute of Technology, it was a student-generated white paper 20 years ago that lit the spark for what is a $100 million campus center that is nearing completion. At the University of Nevada–Las Vegas teams of students, known as expansion ambassadors, were hired, trained, and then sent out to serve as influencers, engaging students around campus on the need for a new union project. At Kansas State University and Marietta College, students studying marketing, communications, and branding led successful campaigns that initiated new union and student services projects.

Incorporating student voices at the outset of any planning was integral to project success, according to Cheryl Grew-Gillen, director of the University of North Dakota’s new Memorial Union, an $80 million project completed last year. “The process was enlightening when you start to understand the benefits of incorporating students and other campus partners into the planning process early,” she said, noting that students were at the table during scheduling, budget discussions, and design processes.

For those interactions to be successful, and before those interactions even begin, no matter how early, one longtime director of facilities, Gary Chrzatowski of Indiana University’s Memorial Union, offered one golden nugget of advice: there needs to be an equity around communications.


  • Consider a project historian to document the evolution of the project.
  • Building expansions require expansions in staff.
  • Ensure hiring, onboarding, and training is completed prior to an opening.
  • Collect expectations from all stakeholders at the beginning of the process.
  • Design influences accessibility.
  • Identify what students want from a space, not what the university thinks they want.
  • Ensure participation in screening and selection of subcontractors.
  • Your “Group 2” budget line item (furniture, technology, etc.) should be at least 10% of project cost.

“Very early in the planning process the designers, staff, and students realized how important that it was that we were in agreement with the concepts we were trying to achieve,” he recalled. “So, we conducted exercises very early on in building a common terminology palette that we could all speak with and understand as we traversed the planning process. Understanding this newly learned language by all of the players was important not only in the planning process but throughout the building phases.”

The project at the Indiana Memorial Union focused on dining services, so when words like “fresh,” “custom,” “authentic,” and “unique,” were batted about, each of the stakeholders were already sharing a like understanding of what those terms meant. “If changes arose during the process then there was a set of understandable terms and goals driving decisions,” he said.

You should still anticipate snags like the one Grew-Gillen and her team ran into at North Dakota when they realized that discussions about some technical systems had fallen through the cracks. Even though day-to-day discussions were being held about operations, space functionality, and project planning, all coordinated with campus partners, evolving campus information technology standards would create an unexpected challenge as construction got underway.

“Not enough conversations were held during design about the operations and functionality needed in some of the audio-visual systems, which resulted in updates being made in the field during installation,” she recalled. Looking back, having project and design team members designated as proactive connections to the campus information and technology services might have prevented some of those late-in-the-game challenges.

Then, again, the COVID-19 pandemic, continued creating unique problems and challenges for construction projects, even beyond the pale of the supply chain and materials issues, cost increases, and labor shortages. At California State University–Monterey Bay, the new, $55 million Otter Student Union was set to open in the spring of 2020 but when the pandemic hit construction was shut down, but only for a few months. By November 2020 the building was basically ready for use, but one thing was missing, according to Jeff Rensel, the union director …. people.

“Even though the union was substantially complete the university was still operating through online instruction and remote work, so campus facilities were not operating at capacity, causing the opening to be postponed until the fall of 2021,” he explained.

One thing you learn in these unique situations is about timelines, and one timeline Rensel ran into was one-year warranties on work performed and products put in place by various contractors. “After the opening was postponed and we then occupied the building in August 2021 we were in a position that, after operating for only three months, warranties were beginning to expire. This was unique and challenging,” he said.

Whether it is expiring warranties, issues with meeting code requirements for state fire marshals or government building codes, a campus facilities planning, design, and construction division is not only a resource for support. It often provides the initial foundation for a project to meet campus design standards which are often related to campus master plans. When North Dakota’s Memorial Union was being planned its design was purposefully aligned with the campus master plan and associated campus design standards, Grew-Gillen said. “These broader priorities provided additional guidance and framework for our project decision making related to all aspects of the build,” she said.

Coordinating discussions about future projects with campus facilities planning professionals has never been more important as deferred maintenance on U.S. campuses is at a record high of over $2 trillion, according to APPA, an association of higher education physical plant administrators. At the same time spending by public higher education institutions for operations and maintenance has decreased by 8% since 1987, while growing at less than 1% at private institutions, according to
analysts EAB.

Last year the Kansas Board of Regents estimated a $1.26 billion maintenance backlog for its six campuses, and in an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, Ohio State University’s vice president of facilities operations said that schools’ deferred maintenance backlog was at least $1 billion. Since the fall of 2019, 20% of Ohio University’s facilities management staff are gone, and the division’s budget has decreased by $15 million; the University of Delaware just asked the state legislature for $70 million in new funding to address deferred maintenance there.

Based on those numbers, and facing projected trends for decreasing enrollment, universities may find themselves at a crossroads as they address campus infrastructure at a time when extreme weather events, construction costs, and demands to meet the needs of a multiplicity of affinity groups influence decision making. Forty percent of all greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption in the U.S. come from buildings, according to the Alliance to Save Energy, and with over 6 billion square feet and several hundred thousand buildings, U.S. campuses can play a significant role in addressing climate change, the costs of extreme weather, and designing for the future.

2020 marked the first time the U.S. hit over $1 billion in weather event damage, leading at least 13 states to adopt laws that limit the global warming potential of building products like blown polystyrene insulation. A move to pre-cast construction panels has been making its way onto campuses, with student unions in California and residence halls in Kansas City employing this method of using concrete panels that are built in controlled conditions inside production facilities and then moved to the build site. Tidewater Community College’s student center, sitting atop open water, was built using pre-cast concrete slabs. And as the pandemic has forced a reevaluation of open-air public spaces, green roofs, green walls, and versatile plazas that are often connected to dining and programming spaces.

Notre Dame University’s Duncan Student Center was built with a green roof and the entire campus now has 122,000-square-feet of green roof space, including over 79,000 square feet at its Joyce athletics center, the largest at any U.S. college or university. Charles Library, built in 2019 at Temple University, has one of the largest green roofs in Pennsylvania. Denver, Chicago, Portland, San Francisco, and New York City all now have ordinances requiring green roofs on certain types of new construction, and Toronto has over 10 million square feet of green roofing since it mandated green roofs on new structures in 2010, according to Green Roofs for Healthy Cities. 


  • 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.