By the Book: Campuswide Design and Construction Standards

If you buy a roll of cookie dough with its pre-measured and pre-mixed ingredients, slice it and bake it at the indicated temperature, you’ll get the cookies you expect to get, every time. Established, campuswide standards for materials, equipment and construction are like slice-and-bake cookies. They contribute to efficiency, time and cost savings; provide standardized components; streamline communication between college officials and outside vendors such as planners, designers, architects, suppliers and construction personnel; and contribute to everything from budget savings to campus aesthetics. All schools have documented standards in place, right?

Actually, no. Some colleges and universities still bake from scratch.

A Web search for college or university construction standards reveals a wide range of guidelines and specifications. This is confirmed by Robert Priolo, associate vice president for Facilities and Construction at Palm Beach Atlantic University (PBA) in West Palm Beach, FL.“They run the gamut,” he says. Priolo used to work for Indiana University, where they had very specific, detailed guidelines available. At PBA,“we have an outline, a few things, but not any great detail,” he says. “You’ll find that range, from ‘you can’t do anything on our campus without them’ to none at all. But the goal,” he adds, “is to have them.”

Larry Bacher, higher education principal for Gilbane, Inc., one of the largest privately held family-owned companies in the construction and real estate industry, feels that established standards “are a real good idea.” Some schools do it well, Bacher observes; some have a few policies, and some have none.

Thomas Kearns, AIA, principal at Shepley Bulfinch Richardson and Abbott in Boston, works with a broad range of schools, some small, some large, and sees a broad range of standards to match. Larger institutions tend to have more thorough, detailed guidelines for coherence, accountability and tractability, he says. Smaller schools have fewer guidelines, but developing them is becoming a real focus for many of his firm’s clients.

Where to Start?

“How does someone like me sit down and write this stuff?” Priolo muses. “How do you start building standards?”

A good place to start, says Priolo, is to pick a specific piece of equipment, like a chiller. Ask the Facilities staff members who work with that piece of equipment what’s working well. Document that information. Once it’s in writing, it can be developed into a standard and made available for the design team. You can also ask vendors or other members of your departments to write the standards, based on what works for them.

When you have a new project on your campus and you receive plans and specifications from the architects, capture that information and develop it into standards for other projects, Priolo suggests.

It’s important to keep in mind, though, that “there is no such thing as a higher-ed-wise standard for construction,” Bacher says. There are too many different kinds of buildings on campus — laboratories, libraries, office spaces, residence halls, classrooms, athletic facilities, food service and so on — that they simply cannot be successfully lumped together under one standard.

Kirk Stetson, manager of Facilities Planning for Palm Beach Community College (PBCC) in Lake Worth, FL, inherited some “loose” guidelines when he arrived at PBCC in 1999. One of the goals in his first year was to formalize those guidelines into a written format.

“First, hard-copy, loose-leaf binders were issued to consultants and contractors, then we posted an electronic copy on our Facilities Website,” he says.

“Our standard practice is to encourage ‘competitive pricing’ by opening up the bidding process for materials. However, we control quality by limiting selections to ‘known’ commodities. In some cases, we have established proprietary items. Our energy management control system is ‘exclusive.’ In other cases, we have limited competition to several ‘or equal’ vendors, such as for HVAC air handling units,” Stetson says.

PBCC’s standards are set up primarily in CSI format but are pretty loose in definition, according to Stetson. There are comments and recommendations to architects and engineers, as well as contractors. These may apply to design and detailing as much as material specifications, he says.

“It’s a living document, constantly in need of tweaking and updating, Stetson says. His goal is to update PBCC’s standards every year. According to Pete van der Have, assistant vice president for Plant Operations at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, his university recognized the need for standardization of certain products 20 year ago or more, mostly from a maintainability perspective. Revising these standards is a continuous process, van der Have says. Ownership of that process and document is not always clearly defined, he admits, but the challenge — and goal — is to keep them up to date.

“Keep it simple, reference existing codes without restating them, and make sure the standards meet the needs not just of the maintenance folks, but also other significant stakeholders,” van der Have adds on the developing a working policy for an institution.

Outside Input

College or university staff members are not necessarily the sole contributors to an institution’s standards. Stetson says he encourages each of PBCC’s construction managers to participate, review current standards and propose alternates or changes to maintain the college’s goals of quality with economical constructability.

Van der Have agrees. “We do use contractors’ input and wisdom as a resource,” he says. “On specific projects, we do allow designers and contractors to recommend deviations from the guidelines, but they have to be well-founded in order for us to allow or accept them. If they really work out well, we have been known to modify our existing guidelines.”

Kearns says that architects can often influence an institution’s design and construction standards for the better. He will review a school’s standards, then make the case to challenge them if he sees a need, especially if he perceives that the existing standards are not up to the quality of the institution itself. The requirements might specify certain hardware, for example, and Kearns might then provide information — and supporting documentation — on a better option.

Master Planning and Reviews

Many institutions establish their design specifications in the campus master plan, according to Bacher. Once established, this standard plan — “here’s our rule book” — is handed to every architect. Often, the goal is to maintain the character and aesthetic consistency of a campus. Aesthetics matter. Certain roofing materials and styles are used campuswide, or all lighting fixtures are standardized. Even the colors of brick, metal or other materials might be detailed in the standards. As an example, tradition is important at Duke University, so stone used in projects on the Duke campus is limestone — extracted and cut in specified shapes — from the university’s own quarry.

Often, proposed projects need to be reviewed for various concerns before they are given the go-ahead. These reviewers may be representatives of the college or university, or they may be third-party reviewers. Within a proposal, the mechanical systems designs might be reviewed and approved by one group, the life and fire safety systems by another. These independent reviews then go back to the school. This helps to assure that the institutions guidelines are met and also aids in quality control.

The expected life of a facility also needs to be considered in the planning and specification phase. In the past, the philosophy was to build a building that would last forever. But purposes change. A 50-year-old laboratory isn’t viable today, Bacher points out, but it’s still a good building. Now, he says, “some are saying ‘build it to last 20 years so we can tear it down and replace it.’”


Which brings up the concept of sustainability. Kearns observes that he’s just beginning to see sustainability appearing in standards and guidelines for his higher-ed clients. He’s being asked to look into sustainability especially as it relates to high-performance buildings, but he feels that a lot of the push for sustainability is coming from the architects. “It’s definitely the theme of every project,” he says.

Bacher agrees that sustainability is a major issue, whether or not LEED certification is a goal for a project. If a school brings standards to the table, he says, they need to indicate how sustainability comes in. In several states, public universities are required to work towards a silver LEED certification, he adds.

What About Maintenance?

In addition to aesthetics, Bacher says, maintenance is another area that benefits from established materials standards. No maintenance department wants to, or should need to, maintain a warehouse of countless parts for a wide variety of systems and installations across a campus. Installed systems, such as fire alarms, key cards, intelligent buildings, pumps, chillers, and even lamps and light bulbs, are easier to plan and maintain if they meet an established design and implementation standard that includes selected and acceptable manufacturers, and selected and acceptable parts.

Van der Have agrees that standards are important to the Facilities and Maintenance staff. “I think that we are, by far, the primary driver, he says. “Our people get very possessive of the guidelines and are very impatient if designers or contractors ignore or circumvent them. We are convinced they exist for our benefit.”

“We depend on Maintenance staff as a ‘first responder’ in standards development,” Stetson says. “If properly applied, it makes their lives easier every day.”

Stetson adds that the most important and primary missions of the Building Standards are quality and maintenance. By establishing standards, consistent application of products will result in the anticipated quality (if properly applied) and ensure extended lifespan and minimal maintenance.

Third-Party Developers

Another consideration in today’s environment of tight funding is when development of a facility is outsourced to a third party. In that case, the developer really is in charge. An example of this, provided by Bacher, is residence halls, which can become something quite different than the rest of the campus.

In the case of residence halls, standards can be based on student population, for example, rather than campus aesthetics. With an outside developer supplying financing, more are thinking this way, he observes.

A Good Starting Point

There is no argument that it is good policy to have an established set of materials, design and construction standards for a college or university. “It’s easier to engage in a dialog with an existing basis of understanding,” Kearns says.

Kirk Stetson, manager of Facilities Planning for Palm Beach Community College (PBCC) in Lake Worth, FL, invites anyone to take a look at his school’s standards on the Web, at this address:

A separate document for structured cabling guidelines resides here:

Stetson says PBCC’s standards are set up primarily in CSI format. CSI is the Construction Specifications Institute, located online at CSI’s stated goal is to continuously advance the process of non-residential building design and construction.

Examples of College and University Design Standards on the Web

• Contra Costa Community College District

• Dartmouth College

• Pennsylvania State University

• University of Alberta

• University of Minnesota

• University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

• University of South Alabama

• University of Utah

• University of Washington

• Wake Forest University

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