The B-School’s New Home

With their striking exteriors and state-of-the-art technology, today’s new business school buildings may impress stakeholders. But students and faculty love them because they feel like home.
The B-School’s New Home

If you think of your educational programming as a product, then the building it’s housed in becomes your packaging. Just like an item at the supermarket, your offering must vie with hundreds of others to catch the attention of shoppers. A package that’s beautiful, functional, memorable, and true to the product inside can do much to sell your merchandise.

That’s the metaphor the University of Oregon’s Christopher Murray uses when he describes the impact of a well-designed building. He should know. Murray is the associate dean of external affairs for the Charles H. Lundquist College of Business, which in 2003 completed a $41 million project, the Lillis Business Complex in Eugene, Oregon. Its environmentally friendly design solved a number of problems relating to space, traffic, and technology—and has given the school a brand-new identity to go along with a wholly redesigned curriculum.

Similarly, before the Georgia Institute of Technology built the new building for its College of Management, the business school was housed in a small, shared building equipped with outdated technology. Not only did the school need the room to expand and upgrade, administrators felt that a new building would help it maintain its status among its main competitors. The new building offered intangible benefits as well. It is located in Technology Square, an Atlanta complex that houses a high-end hotel and several research and design centers. It also sits closer to downtown Atlanta than the rest of the university, helping the school meet its goal to develop stronger ties with the city.

Designing business schools that solve problems, make statements, exemplify the schools’ missions, and resonate with their communities seems like a tall order. Yet today’s new b-school buildings prove that administrators are up to the challenge.

Trends in Design

Two trends have dominated the construction boom among business schools: creating an exciting building and making that building suit the school’s needs. “The need for functionality has become more acute because of the recent flurry of signature buildings where the architecture superseded the functional side,” says Joseph G. Tattoni, a principal with Ikon.5 Architects in Princeton, New Jersey. Today’s buildings must combine space for excellent education with space that is attractive to local businesses and corporate recruiters—everything from convenient parking to high-tech business centers to well-appointed interview rooms.

The school’s overall look should match its core essence, believes Jeff Ziebarth, a principal with the architectural firm Perkins + Will. Working out of the firm’s Minneapolis location, he specializes in higher education. “We talk about the ethical responsiveness of the architecture to support the program of the school,” he says. “If strong corporate ties are part of a school’s mission, the building should represent that. If the school doesn’t want to focus on corporate ties, the building shouldn’t look corporate and slick.”

In some cases, a business school dean might want a building with its own distinctive style and identity; in other cases, the parent university might press for a new building that matches the overall look of the campus architecture. “During the past decade, Harvard Business School has chosen to readopt the red brick Georgian architecture of its 1920s campus and of Mother Harvard across the river,” says Graham Wyatt, a partner at Robert A.M. Stern Architects, New York City. “On the other hand, Frank Gehry’s Peter B. Lewis Building at Case Western stands in contrast to the surrounding campus.”

To determine which specific design features are important for a particular building, school administrators should hold a “charrette” with all constituents, from service workers to students to business partners, advises Scott Christner, assistant to the dean at Illinois State University’s College of Business in Normal. Christner also serves as the school’s facilities and technology planner. “In our case, the president of the university wanted a building that would fit in with the rest of the quad. The faculty all wanted windows. Students wanted more meeting space outside of class. We all wanted a building with a corporate high-tech feel.”

He continues, “We ended up with a building built around a central courtyard, so faculty either had a window on the courtyard or on the exterior. We used beautiful Georgian architecture on the exterior, but inside we have a $1.6 million AV system, 28 classrooms, ten meeting rooms, and the furnishings of a professional corporate facility.”

“The Living Room of the School”

Another goal shared by many of today’s b-school administrators is to create a space where students will want to stay all day, whether they’re taking a class, studying, or just relaxing. That means constructing facilities that offer a range of necessities and creature comforts, from food to online connections.

At the University of Chicago, the Graduate School of Business opened a $125 million new facility in 2004. The building offers a student lounge, pool tables, a television, group study rooms, and a student study with carrels, open tables, and a fireplace. All students are assigned lockers so they can drop off coats and backpacks before heading to class. “We wanted this to feel like their destination for the day,” says Leann Paul, project consultant for the Chicago GSB. “We thought of a number of amenities that made living in the building all day comfortable for everyone, particularly students.”

The place students are most likely to feel at home is the central atrium, a nearly universal element of most new business schools. It has become not just a design element, says Tattoni, but “the living room of the school”—the place where students congregate, entertain, and relax. At the Chicago GSB, for instance, the atrium is a winter garden filled with space and light; it has become a magnet for students throughout the university.

“It becomes more important that we find these spaces to gather as our society becomes more wired and more hooked up,” says Kent Duffy, a principal at Portland-based SRG Partnership Inc. and architect for the Lundquist School.

Nonetheless, architects know an atrium should be more than a meeting space for students; it should also be highly functional. “You don’t want a big 3,000-square-foot circulation hall that becomes kind of useless,” Tattoni says. “The outside should be the stakeholder identity for the school or campus, and the inside should be the ‘welcome-visitor’ punch.”

State-of-the-Art Technology

Another key reason to construct a new building is to be able to outfit it with the latest technology. At Georgia Tech, for instance, all the classrooms have built-in surround sound audiovisual technology with two projectors—and the capability of adding a third projector so the classroom can be used for distance learning. The rooms are all connected to the campus cable network as well.

It’s become common for schools to standardize new technology so professors can move from room to room and still understand the controls. “That’s important, because professors never know which classroom they’ll be in,” says Kurt Paquette, chief administrative officer of Georgia Tech. “And when you’re dealing with touch screens and input devices, they’re five times harder to deal with than figuring out how to get the 12:00 to stop flashing on your VCR.”

The Chicago GSB is even trying to standardize technology on campuses outside the U.S. “Faculty members circulate from Chicago to London to Barcelona to Singapore, and we want them to be comfortable in all their classes,” says Paul. “The audiovisual controls are the same, and all rooms feel and work the same way.”

Today’s classroom technology might include a document camera, a couple of projectors, a CD player, a DVD player, and the devices to control them all. Sometimes all the equipment is clustered in the podium at the front of the class—but some schools are starting to do away with the “big bunker in front,” says Tattoni. “The new lecterns are very streamlined. They have nothing on them but a microphone, a place for a laptop, a place for the remote for the AV equipment, and a cupholder for the instructor’s latte.”

Costs and Funding

All these new technologies and design features come with hefty price tags. However, because costs vary by region and change with the economy, architects say that it’s difficult to estimate how much a school should expect to pay per square foot. They do agree that costs are going up.

“In the past 18 months, there has been an enormous inflationary spike in construction materials,” says Tattoni. “Budgets that were estimated two years ago when people were putting together fund raising and feasibility studies are not coming up to 2005–06 dollars.” The inflation is driven partly by the cost of steel, he says, and partly by the cost of oil.

Deans and school building committees also must consider more than just the brick and mortar expenses. Soft costs— everything from architectural fees to technology to furniture finishes to equipment—can add 25 percent to 30 percent to the price of actual construction, says Ziebarth.

Once school leaders have a good idea of the estimated cost of the building, they face the challenging task of raising enough money to get it built. The dean and building committee usually will work with the architect to commission a concept study that details what the building could look like and what might be in it. With that and perhaps a professional rendering or model, the dean and development staff can begin to raise funds, says Tattoni. 

At Illinois State, a lead gift from State Farm Insurance helped get the whole project going. After the design was in place, school officials approached other major benefactors to ask for help with specific parts of the project. For instance, Caterpillar Inc. was asked to donate money to upgrade the technology, says Christner. “With donors like Caterpillar, we said, ‘Here’s where the money could be applied. Here’s where you could make a difference.’” He adds that those who donated significant amounts had auditoriums, suites, and other spaces named after them, which further strengthened the relationship between school and stakeholders.

The Bottom Line

All the effort and expense of constructing a new building have been worth it for these schools. For instance, everyone at Illinois State is delighted by the new environment, says Christner. “The faculty are thrilled with the technology. The students love the fact that they’re treated like adults in a professional environment. We have fantastic spaces for students to sit and study—and they’re full. The fact that students can stay in the building to study and work has created one of the biggest changes in culture.”

Nonetheless, the process isn’t easy, and those who have been through it offer key pieces of advice to other administrators considering a new facility:

Involve everyone in the discussion. “Work with the staff, ask about their expectations for the new building, and understand their five-year plans, because it will take that long to get the building up,” says Paul of the Chicago GSB. “The more people you can bring into the planning process and the more they have a vested interest, the more successful the project will be.”

Nonetheless, be prepared to make some hard decisions. “I listen to all the opinions and ideas, but at some point I have to take a strong position and say what I think is right,” says Wyatt of Robert A.M. Stern Architects.

Realize that not every square foot is “usable space.” Says Ziebarth, “Architects talk about nonassignable space, which would include technical rooms, corridors, and walls. Business schools are about 60 percent to 65 percent usable space. The rest goes to support the building.”

Design for the future. “Even if you don’t have a strategy for growth right now, look at the long term,” urges Christner. “Our graduate assistant lounge could, for minimal expense, become a department office. We played with the numbers of faculty offices we were allowed and built some for graduate assistants, knowing we could turn them into faculty offices in the future.”

As always, the overarching lesson is: Think ahead. Know how much you can afford, what you want your building to say about your school, and what you want it to offer to stakeholders. A building completed in 2005 could still be in use in 2105—an enduring legacy to the partnership among education, architecture, and business.