Q&A with Buro Happold’s David Herd: How Universities are Adapting to Change

In late June, Metals in Construction sat down with David Herd, managing partner of Buro Happold’s California region, to discuss how the pandemic has impacted his work in high-performance building design and resilient master planning. 

David Herd, managing partner of Buro Happold’s California region, is an expert in high-performance building design and resilient master planning.

How are things changing in terms of planning from a campus perspective in the past few months?
Whether you’re a university or a school school or an office building or an airport or a theater, any building type other than a hospital—but they’ve had to adapt as well—you are having to rethink the future. And that poses two problems: 1) What do I do tomorrow?; and 2) What do I do in the future? We’ve been working with a firm called Brightspot, who are higher education strategists, to hold a series of initially one-on-one conversations with universities and more recently a series of more group-based conversations.

We’re going to need a lot of bandaids over the current infrastructure to facilitate full return or hybrid return to campus, which is going to have to be done in the next few months. It will be like putting an exhibition together; there will be lots of people running around with tape and glue tack and bits of paper stuck on the floor. But then the real answer to your question is how quickly are institutions going to pivot to, “What’s the real long-term impact here?” There have been good things that have come out of the last three months. For example, I’m talking to people from a way wider global group than previously. There are no barriers. Normally I have to book a plane and a hotel. Now, the barriers have broken down with respect to access; people have become more accessible. This morning I had a conversation with somebody in the UK and somebody in Hong Kong while I looked at the garden and smoothed the cat. There’s a lot of interactive benefit that’s come out of the last few months.

How are planned projects on campus being impacted? 

Above: Buro Happold’s Campus Analytics tool is helping the firm improve space utilisation at both campus and building level. Image courtesy Buro Happold

If you were already building a project—a new faculty building, a new student services building—you’ve invested a lot of time and money and, if you’ve broken ground, yes, you could stop. But there’s a certain momentum that makes that quite hard, so a lot of those projects are moving.

If you’re still in the design phase or particularly if you’re in the more conceptual master-planning stage, your level of investment is very low and your opportunity to adapt is still very high. So, what we’re seeing is a lot of university projects going on hold, where they’re in design but they’ve gone on hold and still don’t know what to do. At the moment we’re in triage.

It’s very difficult for institutions to say let’s now think about what’s going to happen in two years time, when they need to have themselves ready in two months’ time*. From a project point of view, they’re saying we’re going to stop, we’re going to triage, and then we’re going to have to reappraise what we’ll need in the future. Once we’ve got the revenue stream and the students back in, then we can pivot to what’s going to be the future.
So the consequence in my view is likely to be a gap in projects coming to construction. We’re seeing it now. Most architecture engineering design firms work at a sort of three-month bow wave, the second part of the bow wave is at 3-6 months and you want 60-70 percent of your work secure at that point, and after six months, it’s less certain.

For the first three months of Covid, a lot of projects kept going because they were either in construction or they were in some form of design and were funded in a certain way that the money was already committed. In the first few months, when people started to work out that this is serious and is going to have some long-term impact, you started to have companies like Facebook and Twitter come out and say people don’t need to come back to the office. For universities to say that is not realistic. They effectively have a September deadline. All that triage is about how you deal with the situation now, and therefore all resources are being focused on that.

What we are now starting to see is a gap in our workload because all that stuff that would generally be moving is not. From a construction point of view, come 2021 even if stuff is started it will still be in design. There will be this gap: designers will see it, then contractors will see it, then the supply chain will see it in 2021 as projects don’t’ roll out. I think you’re going to see this ripple effect through the industry.

It’s triage at the moment and treatment once everyone is back in place. That treatment will be what worked and what doesn’t work and how will that impact on new buildings and their design and how does that impact on existing assets and the infrastructure we already have. So there’s two components to this: 1) How will it affect teaching, taking the best of pre- and post-Covid methods?; and 2) How will campuses become more resilient in the future?

The other comment we’ve started to hear is that this has woken universities up, because they also need to plan not just for pandemics, but also for the fire issues that we’re getting in Northern California and for the next earthquake or Hurricane Sandy. The issue of resiliency on campuses has really started to rise. Before Covid you had a push toward carbon neutrality and sustainability. Covid has really pushed the issue of resiliency beyond just climate-change resiliency to social resiliency with respect to any manner of catastrophe that could hit us. All of that has to be processed so you don’t commit money to something that becomes redundant in the future.

The Cornell Tech campus on Roosevelt Island. Photo courtesy Buro Happold

Once people like your clients are getting past the triage phase, what are the steps toward evaluating real resiliency? 
As the colleges go back to campus, they’re going to be trialing different teaching methods. The ripple effect of that back onto the infrastructure is, for example, are you going to need as many 300-seat lecture theaters? Because that’s a very expensive asset for a campus and they’re typically not heavily utilized—and from a pandemic point of view potentially a petri dish. I think what we’ll start to see is this huge push into flexible adaptable space; highly configurable, very healthy spaces. When you look at buildings in higher-ed at the moment they still have this hybrid of very open collaborative space and a couple of floors of private office space. I think we’ll start to see a combination that’s more adaptable and flexible than tiny offices and a 300-person lecture theater that gets used twice a day. We will see spaces that have a higher utilization and facilitate a more long-term level of social distancing than we achieve at the moment.

From an engineering point of view I think the impact on that, which actually reinforces sustainability, will be to see systems design that’s not just focused around energy efficiency and minimal capital costs and minimal maintenance cost, but more systems that are designed around flexibility and adaptability and improved indoor air quality. The benefits of indoor air quality particularly in education are huge and they’re healthier spaces but typically you need more height. I see buildings becoming volumetrically higher which also allows more daylight in, which again is better for spaces.

If you look at a lot of the 19th-century buildings in London or Paris or the early days of New York, Philly, and Boston—before air conditioning and before electric lighting was so prevalent before elevators were so prevalent—you had lower-rise buildings, bigger windows, higher ceilings, very wide stairs. I think a lot of those characteristics of 19t-century business and education facilities had a lot of these in-built architectural solutions.

University of Cincinnati’s Carl H. Lindner College of Business. Photo by Alex Fradkin, courtesy Henning Larsen.

The emphasis on social spheres which has definitely been permeating design over the last five years along with elevators being out of sight but still accessible and the move toward people literally meeting on the stairs and having buildings of four or five floors which you can move up and down without an elevator. Making the buildings’ floor-to-floor higher, which by nature makes them more flexible. And provided you deal with solar gain and orientation, having bigger windows so you’ve got more daylight coming in reduces the reliance on artificial light but also creates healthier environments. It’s this combination of resiliency and healthiness which will come to the fore, alongside sustainability. I think we’ll have some very specific architectural interpretations because the least flexible buildings are the ones that were designed through the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, which were all about minimizing height, cost, and windows, and maximizing air conditioning. And those are the hardest to renovate and I think they’ll become even more redundant. If I had any money I’d go and buy some distressed assets that are circa 100 years old.

You see it in NY—the buildings that are 100 years old have been highly adapted, they’ve moved from textile manufacturing and today they’re design studios, or some of them are apartments—that’s a very resilient building.

Universities are in not such dense environments. Even Columbia for example. Campusse tend to have, by their very nature, space because they’re trying to create that collegiate environment. And so I think they have more opportunity to adapt within the same density and therefore I think we’ll see a different typology starting to come through on campus. In a hybrid system you can increase the utilization of your space because there’s less fixed desks there’s less fixed lecture theaters so you can effectively feed more people through a building in one day. I think the renovation of assets will increase, rather than necessarily new builds, where possible.

Do you think there’s anything reinforcing that in terms of the way projects are going to be financed?
The first month of this pandemic I thought, you’re going to see a huge growth in PPP projects. They are more common on the west coast than on the east coast. Most of the student residences are built through P3 projects. You’ve got to think to yourself that unless the federal government steps in with some very targeted stimulus into higher education, the pivot is going to be more toward those institutes that are heavy into research and can plow even more into research particularly in healthcare or those that have strong credit ratings and can borrow or turn to the P3 market. But it’s not for everyone, and the profits don’t go into the institutions’ pockets, they go into the developers’ pockets.

What are you noticing from clients who are moving ahead with new commissions?
Once you’ve caught your breath, if you have the infrastructure to be able to both juggle the triage and commission new projects at the same time, now is a good time to start commissioning something. You have to commission someone to do the visioning and the programming, you then commission the design team to do the concept, and while all that’s happening you can be starting to reimagine the future. If you’ve got the bandwidth to be able to get a design team or a programming team on board, now is a good time to do that. You’ll probably get it cheaper and by the time the whole thing gets rolling you will have had some feedback as to how hybrid models are working and what the impact will be.

The institutions that have some sort of long-term build program that have staff that are not having to be distracted or moved on to triage are still moving forward, but the speed is slow and the period of procurement is such that it may still be a while before the design team gets runnin. You can easily see the design schedule getting extended as schematic design goes through more iterations tests, and new thinking. Therefore the ripple effect onto the construction market will push projects out to later 2021 or maybe 2022. The ones that have the resources are pushing ahead, but once they’ve appointed the team I bet you the design slows down as they ask, what happened in the fall? What did we learn? How does that impact the design?


From campus-scale planning to adapting academic buildings for remote/hybrid learning, Buro Happold works with dozens of U.S. institutions of higher education. To learn more, read the firm’s latest paper, which examines risk mitigation and multi-use strategies for tomorrow’s “borderless universities.”

*At the time of interview