Student housing series: What’s the impact of P3 on the design and decision-making process?

September 13, 2018

Student housing via a public-private partnership brings a balance of efficiency and a thorough review process


By Bryan Morrison 

As universities face ever-growing financial challenges, public-private partnerships (P3) serve as a creative and unique solution to on-campus student housing needs. P3 delivery allows private developers to invest and build housing on campus land, which can significantly reduce risk for both the university and the developer. At the end of the negotiated lease term, ownership of the building goes back to the university. This delivery model satisfies the university’s immediate need for housing with minimal risk, while providing a return for the developer. When a private company builds on a public university, the design and decision process is often altered in a way that is advantageous to the design team, the user, and the project.


A rendering of the P3 student housing project at Texas Woman’s University, which is anticipated to open in the fall of 2019.


Traditionally, on-campus projects are contracted directly through the university. This process is thorough and can involve many decision-makers along with extended periods for review and comment. This is expected since the university is typically paying all costs and taking on all risks for the project. Off-campus projects are typically funded through private investors, often providing a single decision-maker with a streamlined design process that races toward construction to reduce financial risk and maximize return. A key goal in the delivery of a good P3 project is to blend public and private by providing the benefits of a thorough review process while maintaining the efficiency of a private development. While simple in theory, it can be tough to balance user input and the urgency for quick decision-making.


What the right P3 project looks like

As is the case with all projects, early decisions mean less expensive changes—but it is especially true with P3 projects. There is a lot of time and energy put in during the pursuit of a P3 project, often required by the university to make the most informed decision. The benefit to this process _q_tweetable:A key goal in the delivery of a good P3 project is to blend public and private by providing the benefits of a thorough review process while maintaining the efficiency of a private development._q_is the architect and developer often have a strong project plan in place upon project award, so they can hit the ground running toward delivery of the facility. This can include plans, exterior façade, interior design, units, structural and mechanical/electrical/plumbing systems, and other requirements. This information is presented to the university and frequently leads to a series of intense work sessions early in the process, establishing the foundation of the design to be carried throughout the process.

Once the project design template is established, the architect and engineering team moves forward quickly to develop the design and formal construction documents using the established proforma as the main driver of any change or adjustment required.


What the wrong P3 project looks like

Depending on the sophistication, experience, and knowledge of the university user group—and the fact that the university is not directly contracting for the construction, design, or often even maintaining the building—trust can be difficult to establish. Not trusting the professional team carefully vetted through a thorough selection process leads to inefficiency through micro-management and a drawn-out decision-making process. The more streamlined the decision-making process, the more efficient the delivery process.

As architects, we rely on our developer client to set the pace while working with the university to establish clear criteria for guiding the user decision-making process and keeping in line with the established proforma. A university user group certainly has interest in the size, function, and placement of a multi-purpose room but should not be bogged down in the brand of flush valve toilet to be installed. If the decision-making process on project aspects that have little to do with the use of the building is drawn out, the process can grind to a crawl and the benefits of the private delivery model and trusting the expertise and experience of designers is lost. Developers and contractors must be fully committed to the schedule and the user must stay disciplined in weighing in on impacts to the building use while trusting the expertise of the designers to select components that possess both quality and best value to the university, the developer, and most especially to the students who will ultimately reside in the facility.


A key goal in the delivery of a good P3 project is to blend public and private by providing the benefits of a thorough review process while maintaining the efficiency of a private development.


Why choose P3

P3 is a creative, inventive, and instrumental delivery option, allowing universities to provide housing that might not exist otherwise. Not only does this benefit the students that live on campus, but it also enriches the college experience and enhances a university’s academic and social profile. With a clear understanding of client, user, and designer roles, P3 can achieve all the advantages of a private delivery while satisfying the needs and providing the high-quality customized product expected of a university building.

This is the fifth blog in a multi-part series on technical aspects of student housing design. Earlier blogs focused on important questions to ask when designing a student unit, special-needs spaces, balancing affordability and comfort in acoustical design, and student housing vs. multi-family housing.


About the author

Bryan Morrison has nearly 10 years of experience helping universities build the relationship between campus vision and connectivity. He’s provided architectural design services for college and university systems across the county, including the University of Texas System, the University of Houston, Texas Woman’s University, and University of California, Davis.



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