1999 Construction Report

In 1998, colleges and universities in the United States put finishing touches on $6.33 billion worth of work, including almost $4.4 billion of new buildings and just under $2 billion worth of additions and retrofit to existing structures. That $6.33 billion is an increase of 9.6 percent over the $5.78 billion completed in 1997. Colleges project completing another $6.54 billion in 1999. These are among the highlights of College Planning & Management’s fourth annual survey of college and university construction, carried out in conjunction with School Construction Alert, a reporting service of the Market Data Retrieval division of Dun and Bradstreet.

Representatives of School Construction Alert place telephone calls to each of the 3,600 colleges in the United States, seeking information on their construction programs. This information is compiled into state and regional reports from which projections of total construction activity are made.

Table 1 shows college construction from 1995 through 1999. It is interesting to note that, with the exception of last year, college construction put in place has risen at a relatively regular pace -- going from $6.1 billion to $6.2 billion and then, after the one-year fallback, to $6.3 and, this year, a projected $6.5 billion. The change is not huge, but the trend is significant.

Perhaps as important is a seeming change in the focus of college construction. While the bulk of the dollars spent are still going into new buildings, an increasing percentage is being devoted to the retrofit of existing buildings.

Construction Completed in 1998

College Planning & Management’s annual construction survey reports on estimates of construction completed in the last year, on construction that colleges project that they will complete in the current year and on construction that colleges tell us they expect to start in the current year. In 1998 (see Table 2), colleges and universities together put $6.3 billion worth of construction in place. Of that total, $4.4 billion (69.2 percent) was spent on constructing entirely new buildings. At an average cost for new college construction completed in 1998 of approximately $160 per square foot, it appears that colleges completed about 27 million square feet of new buildings in 1998. If one assumes that added space (additions to existing buildings) also cost an average of $160 per square foot, the $857 million spent last year would add another five million square feet to the college building stock.

Table 2 shows national construction figures for 1998. It also shows construction activity completed last year in 12 regions of the United States. Regions encompass anywhere from three to seven states and are defined in the box on page 22. Four regions of the United States carried out the most construction, with each putting more than $700 million worth of construction in place. Region 5, which includes Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Mississippi, did the most construction – totaling almost $800 million. Region 2 (New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania) accounted for $781 million worth of construction, while Region 6 (Indiana, Ohio and Michigan) chimed in with $726 million. The fourth region to top the $700-million mark was Region 4 (Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee) with $710 million.

But these overall figures tell only part of the story. Look at Region 4, which spent $602 million (almost 85 percent of its total construction dollars) on entirely new buildings. Contrast that with Regions 2 and 6, both of which spent more money overall on college construction but less on new buildings.

Is it better to build new buildings or to add to and improve older ones? There is no proper answer to this question, certainly none that can be promulgated nationally, but it is apparent as one looks at the regional figures that there are areas of the nation that are far more prone to build new and others that are more likely to invest in their existing stock.

Work Scheduled for 1999

Table 3 shows a summary of work that college administrators have projected to be completed in 1999. Total construction is projected at $6.5 billion, up about $200 million from what was completed in 1998. The construction breaks down on a national pattern much the same way it did in 1998, with $4.4 billion going into new buildings, $800 million scheduled for additions and almost $1.3 billion for retrofit projects.

Tables 2 and 3 look at what has been done or has almost been completed. Table 4 examines construction that has been projected to start in 1999. Colleges report that they expect to start work worth slightly more than $7 billion this year. About 65 percent of that will go into construction of new buildings and 35 percent into additions to, and retrofit of, existing structures. Colleges in Region 4 and Region 6 each expect to start work that is worth more than $800 million, while those in Regions 2 and 9 project more than $700 million in starts.

New Buildings

With more than 65 percent of the college construction dollars going into new buildings, an effort was made to tabulate information on nine types of buildings, concentrating on projects expected to be completed in 1999.

One difficulty with doing this is that one college’s student union may contain very different facilities from another college’s version of the same building. Science buildings tend to contain classrooms, teaching and research labs and office and storage space. But some had lecture halls and one indicated the presence of a fitness center. Office buildings and libraries tended to be "pure," but it was not surprising to find classrooms located in them.

When comparing buildings, do it with care. If yours is more expensive than the median, take a look at the variety of facilities you provide that might not ordinarily be in a building of that type. If yours is less expensive, what did you not include that others may have?

Table 5 examines size and costs for 280 buildings that colleges said would be completed during 1999. Together these buildings will encompass a little more than 13 million square feet, meaning that they represent about half of all new college buildings that will be completed in the current year.

Fifty-five of the buildings about which information was available have been classified as science buildings. These are the most expensive building type recorded, with the median structure costing $185.82 per square foot. One quarter of the science buildings reported will cost $229.51 or more per square foot.

While the science buildings are the most expensive, the libraries and physical education buildings are largest. The median library completed this year will be 77,000 square feet and the physical education building 72,000 square feet.

There are not enough buildings of specific types to examine each by region but, when all new college buildings being completed in 1999 are lumped together, the 15 buildings in Region 11 (40 percent of them science buildings) were the most expensive at $185.11 per square foot. The 12 buildings in Region 1 are next on a square-foot basis, at $172.41. The 33 new buildings in Region 9 are the least expensive as a group with a median cost of just $111.11. Other low spenders are Region 10 ($120 per square foot), Region 5 ($122.89) and Region 8 ($123.66).

What comes through in this regional look at college building costs is that, while type of building is important, regional construction costs play an important role in determining how much a college will pay for its new buildings. If you are constructing a library in Region 6, it is likely to cost more than one constructed by a college in Region 5.

Residential Buildings

For the most part a residence hall is a residence hall. Its basic function is to provide students with a place to sleep. While one dormitory may have amenities that another does not include, it is much easier to compare residence halls than any other building type.

College Planning & Management had basic information on 31 dormitory projects scheduled to be completed in 1999. A supplementary survey was sent to the owners and architects of each of these 31 buildings. Twenty-one responses were received. The sample of 21 will provide a total of 4,468 beds, an average of 213 beds in each building. The median among them was 150 beds, with one residence hall reporting as many as 600 and another saying it contained only 35.

When one divides the total size of the residence halls (gross square feet) by the number of beds, the average is 300 square feet per bed. The median is 268 square feet per bed. It must be remembered that, in all cases, the entire size of the building is being divided by the number of beds. If, for example, a block of classrooms is included in a residential building, the space provided for classes would be included in these numbers.

By the same token, in looking at cost per bed, the cost of the entire building is being divided by the number of beds. The average cost on this basis is $32,705. The median is $30,957, quite close. It would appear that a college building a residence hall at a cost of between $30,000 and $35,000 per bed would be very much within the national mainstream.

Of the 21 residence halls on which detailed information was received, 18 were coeducational, and three were for female students only. Table 6 looks at amenities, facilities and services that will be available at each of the residence halls opening in 1999.

Paul Abramson is editorial director of COLLEGE PLANNING & MANAGEMENT magazine. He can be reached for questions and comments at intelled@aol.com.

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