Lessons Learned from Union Construction Projects v.2018

You may only get one chance at being involved in the costly and time-consuming renovation or construction of a student union, so it should come as no surprise that a message repeated by those involved in similar projects last year was to “be sure to get it done right the first time.” 

Expect the unexpected—unplanned budget challenges, severe weather events, near catastrophes like a broken sewer main or unearthed archaeological remains—yet the charge remains: Get it right the first time. 

Phase one in getting it right: The team. Administration and professional staff from different divisions, student leaders, designers, architects, contractors, and others will be developing ongoing working relationships. It’s a long process and a large time investment, so surrounding yourself with experienced professionals who are communicative problem-solvers is essential. “Be sure you are spending this time with people who are ‘winners’,” noted Brittany Wildman, associate director for guest services, quality improvement, and professional development at University of Kentucky’s new Gatton Student Center. 

Passion, endurance, patience, and flexibility were key attributes recognized by professionals who were immersed in construction projects last year. Some had suffered setbacks that had delayed projects for years, until finally coming to fruition in 2018, and others were confronted by nearly insurmountable events like reoccurring floods. Together, they shared these fundamental thoughts that get at the crux of pulling off a successful building project. 

  • Design and building changes are going to be made on the fly, so always be sure to accurately communicate this information to all stakeholders. If there is a reduction in square footage, be sure end-users have the opportunity to reprioritize space. 
  • Schedules are estimates, so be flexible. A solution-driven team will be able to overcome timeline challenges. 
  • Just because it’s new doesn’t mean that it won’t still present challenges. There will never be enough space, keeping walls of windows clean will always be time-consuming, and equipment will always break down, so recognize the project isn’t complete just because there’s been a grand opening. 
  • Branding your facility is important, so it’s imperative that you keep the campus and community engaged during the construction or renovation project. Ways to maintain engagement include having a dedicated website with an interactive timeline, positioning a real-time video camera at the construction site, hosting regular tours and special milestone events, and displaying a 3D model of the building in a highly visible location. 

Teach everyone to share because there is no ‘my’ space.
— On planning the new $200 million Gatton Student Center 
Brittany Wildman, University of Kentucky

Speak up and be heavily involved at every stage.
 — On creating a new state-of-the-art theater 
Jeff Taylor, University of Southern Mississippi

A big takeaway for me was the importance of staffing. I regret not starting the hiring and training process earlier in the summer.
— On opening a newly renovated food court in the Arkansas Union 
Mathew Belzano, University of Arkansas

Opening is not a day; it’s a state of mind.
— On a new student center that was part of a $400 million building project, the largest in the school’s history 
Karen Kennedy, University of Notre Dame

It’s important your architect has the  appropriate experience, 10 years or more, designing student unions. These spaces are very complex and are much different than any others on campus.

 — On the university’s new 150,000-sq- ft student center 

Carl Baker,  North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University


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