Buildings Designed for Technology

Emerging technologies are creating new challenges for campus planners, facility managers, information technology (IT) managers and architects, says John Mullin, associate vice provost, associate vice president for IT and chief information officer at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.

According to Mullin, one of today’s key challenges is finding affordable, practical ways to equip buildings with infrastructures that will enable students, faculty and staff to take full advantage of the benefits offered by current technologies, as well as technologies that will soon become available.

“We need a new generation of thinking at the planning, architectural and engineering levels of facility design,” Mullin says.“Currently, planning is based on the relatively simple square boxes we used to build. We set budgets by multiplying a building’s square footage by an average cost per square foot established by past projects.”

But evolving technology makes conventional building design formulas obsolete. Technology can enhance educational experiences and business practices — but only if the technology infrastructure on campus and inside campus buildings will permit the full-featured use of those technologies, continues Mullin.“Today, at the design stage, we have to argue with architects and engineers over infrastructure design features like cable trays that will give a building technological agility.”

Available technology can provide an immersive distance learning experience that goes far beyond the old talking heads. But, notes Mullin, most of today’s building designs cannot accommodate these technologies.

Today, a distance-learning classroom requires, among other technological features, computers; appropriately placed cameras and monitors; sound-reinforcing technology; lighting designs that control glare; and heating, ventilating and air-conditioning systems that maintain comfort despite heat-producing technological boxes. The infrastructure supporting such classrooms must handle video, data and voice communications, including data-enhanced simulations. “This requires high-bandwidth cabling or wireless transmission systems leading into and running throughout buildings,” Mullin says.

Today’s Classrooms Don’t Meet Emerging Needs

Many classroom buildings do not offer these features today. But even those that do will face new hurdles as technology continues to evolve. Many of today’s buildings, for example, are equipped with wireless or WiFi infrastructures. Within a few years, however, emerging cellular technology will make it possible for hybrid cellular/WiFi devices such as PDAs to use both with WiFi and cellular technology to gain wireless access to networks. While Mullin says that cellular data connections will lag behind WiFi in speed for some time, cellular data communications speeds are advancing.

“About 99 percent of faculty, staff and students have cell phones,” Mullin says. “We’re just at the beginning of being able to use cellular networks to deliver data services. But to take advantage of that, we’ll need in-building antenna systems that can provide five-bar cellular coverage — coverage at maximum signal strength. Without antennas, a building will attenuate cellular signals. So the incorporation of in-building antenna systems to facilitate cell communications will be important down the road.

“To handle evolving needs such as cellular data transmission, you must have extra capacity available in a building’s infrastructure,” Mullin says. “And you must have access. This means putting extra conduit into buildings and installing manholes or underground vaults where you can bring cables in.” Equally important, buildings designed with technology alter conventional maintenance and support activities. “It’s more expensive,” Mullin says. “We use advanced building automation systems at Georgia Tech. These systems save money but they are more complex, and their support costs are higher. For example, we have electro-mechanical devices that alter airflows. These are not only expensive to purchase initially, they carry high replacement costs when they wear out.”

The same is true of technology-enhanced classrooms with multiple projectors, monitors, cameras and computers. These rooms might also have audio switchers and matrix switches. “Suddenly you have $100,000 worth of technology in a classroom,” says Mullin. “An audio switch might last 10 years, but computers might need to be replaced every three years. Projectors might wear out in four years. Bulbs for projectors cost $500 each. You have to factor replacement costs into these kinds of facilities.”

Think in New Ways

Summing up, Mullin urges college and university planners to begin thinking in new ways about facility planning. “It starts at the concept stage,” he says. “We need to set up new models for planning the dollars per square foot we spend on buildings. At the design stage, we need to provide flexible and inexpensive ways to expand building infrastructure to accommodate continually evolving technological infrastructures.

“We also need to tap new expertise to design classroom space that can take advantage of technology. This includes re-thinking everything from sight lines to camera angles and audio systems. “Designing facilities to take advantage of technology is all about making the infrastructure ready for today’s services and, more importantly, tomorrow’s services.”

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