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Colleges Need Buildings for Competitive Advantage

Wilhelm headshotORANGE, CA—Strong real estate assets can help universities jockey for high ratings in an industry that competes for the best students, professors and programs that higher education can offer, R.D. Olson Construction’s president Bill Wilhelm tells As we recently reported, the firm is building the Hilbert Museum of California Art, a new museum at Chapman University here, including the construction of the university’s new Musco Center for the Arts. We spoke exclusively with Wilhelm about the project and trends in academic development. What changes are you noticing in academic development?

Wilhelm: Universities have definitely been ramping up for an increased enrollment degree that they’ve been challenged with the last few years. Enrollment is up across the board, from private colleges to public universities, even though people have been through tough times—they realize that higher education is important. Everyone is looking for ways to adopt and extend education. We look at job candidates all day long, and we are focusing individuals who are bringing a higher level to the table as an offering of their overall portfolio. People are looking at the future of companies, sustainability and legacies.

In the educational world, a lot of schools are putting together a 10-year program, a master plan, with their needs and the items they’re trying to capture. Some California universities have a 42,000-student enrollment but can only house 3,500 students. So, they’re looking to expand their amenities: science buildings and lecture halls, labs, etc. They’re looking for student housing as well as on-campus hospitality for visiting parents and professors.

Regardless of the university, every campus within Southern California has the same problem on the housing side, and on the academic side, schools have to provide the competitive advantage as well. They’re all jockeying for rating in an industry as the best pharmacy or law school. They’re racing to bring on top-notch professors, and they’re realizing they haven’t done much from a development perspective as they needed to do. There’s a competition to pull in the best and brightest students and professors—even Nobel Peace Prize-winning professors to provide that department recognition and to truly create that brand. How are academic buildings becoming more cutting edge and less institutional?

Wilhelm: In the last 15 years, they haven’t chased this as much as they should have, but they’ve shifted focus; now they’re fully engaged in catching that. Regardless of the industry, we study multigenerational aspects quite a bit, and Gen Z has hit the media. It all comes back to what their needs are, but there’s this lifestyle, this expectation of what we have to adapt to the needs of the future.

Universities are getting away from the institutional look; they’re creating a very free-flowing-lifestyle environment. They’re trying to design as best they can into the local geographic element. For example, Chapman is a phenomenal campus, and it has the old city of Orange charm. Every university is doing a great job in partnering with local communities and creating this lifestyle, open-format, technologically advanced environment that has a feel of where we’re all going. Universities are creating this true open concept, this “bring the family on in” feel. For this generation of students, this is what they’re looking for. You see it in the multifamily and hospitality industries, and it’s the same in academics. Who is our end user? What are their needs and expectations? We’re no longer doing things because of the industry, but because of this expectation from the users.

More of this story here.