Here’s How to Make the Grade on Higher Education Construction

A new report finds that higher education expenditures on existing buildings have grown 26% since last year [1]. In an environment of aging infrastructures, more campuses are raising the bar with new construction and renovations. These buildings are symbolic of a school’s heritage. They are essential to recruiting top faculty and students and shaping dynamic educational experiences.  However, education construction is more complex due to higher costs, lead times, and labor shortages. From tech schools to universities, Riley Construction has been a leader in building and renovating for higher education since its founding in 1965. These projects require a deft combination of advance planning, budgeting, and communications. Here are four best practices to ensure your building project gets an A+.

Make early planning a priority

While higher education construction brings many complexities, one of the most critical is the limited window of opportunity to execute the work while not disrupting classes or faculty Early planning with collaboration among key players such as the owner, architect, engineers, general contractor, and key subcontractors will lead to better design and decision-making.

Another reason to start planning months, if not years ahead, is the long lead times for equipment or building supplies. Materials like operable partitions, acoustic panels, electrical components, and HVAC equipment can sometimes take up to a year for delivery. If these are not ordered ahead of time, this can significantly impact building schedules. Riley uses its proprietary InSTEP® planning to collaborate with owners on every aspect of the project from design to scheduling and completion.

Planning early also ensures that construction projects comply with institutional financial policies, government regulations, and funding requirements.  Often, a construction budget and/or drawings are needed to apply for a grant. Riley is well acquainted with this process and can help guide administrators through budgeting hurdles.

 Balance Resources with Reality

Campus building decisions are driven by budgets as much as they are by ‘must-haves.’  While administrators are under pressure to deliver a large wish list to stakeholders, architects, and construction project managers can help determine the most realistic plan within the budget.
They can also advise schools on making difficult decisions about what might need to be postponed.

The construction team can help create a more manageable phased approach to complex building projects with specialized needs. For example, a science and technology lab requires additional planning for unique components such as gas piping and electrical and data equipment requirements. More campuses are also investing in long-term sustainability through the creation of energy-efficient environments. That means extra planning for components such as LED lighting, HVAC equipment, low e-glass, and retrofitting baseboard heat systems and windows.

 Eliminate Safety Risks and Disruption

When construction takes place in an occupied school, safety preparation is paramount to protect the well-being of students, faculty, and crew. That starts with a risk assessment including dust and fume mitigation, temperature control, equipment and material staging, and abatement procedures. Construction zones including fences and other barriers designate essential boundaries and wayfinding equipment marks alternative routes making it easy to navigate.

Flexible work schedules, outside of school hours, will prevent noise disruptions, especially in the case of dormitory renovations. Beacon tracking software to monitor on-site work safety and regular weekly inspections ensure a safe environment for crew, staff, and students. The school environment is treated in many ways like a healthcare environment, with air monitoring, signage, and noise-reducing technology.

Foster Collaboration and Communication

There are many key stakeholders involved in campus building projects. From the administration and board members to faculty and students, the construction team needs to provide clear and regular communication that addresses the needs and concerns of all audiences throughout the project.

Riley holds weekly pull-planning meetings on campus with school administrators and the facilities management team to help coordinate the process and accommodate schedules or special events. Construction partners must be aware and in tune with campus events like graduation or exams. Weekly emails and schedules are sent out with ample time to address upcoming issues such as a planned elevator shutdown or a planned power outage.

Education building projects are multifaceted and demand careful orchestration of planning, budgeting, safety, and communication. Prioritizing these best practices can help lay the groundwork for an enriching academic environment that empowers innovation and inspires generations to come.

Learn more about Riley’s educational experience here or reach out to Chris Meier, LEED AP Project Executive at or Dan Sullivan, LEED AP Project Executive at