The challenges that post-secondary educational institutions all over North America have come in many forms today. One of the most pressing is ensuring that the school maintains a robust student population. But attracting new students to your halls is not solely about having an established reputation for producing the best and brightest minds or the vintage charm of your campus. There are many factors that students take into consideration. High on that list is an expectation of a strong technical infrastructure and a modern aesthetic.
Western Connecticut State University (WCSU), a public university that was established in Danbury, Connecticut in 1903, realized twenty years ago that it would need to make some major changes to keep its student numbers healthy. At the time, it had approximately 6,500 graduate and undergraduate students, but the population was on the decline, so to address this and attract more students, it made revitalizing the campus facilities a priority.
WCSU has a Facilities Master Plan, which was developed in 2003 and later revised in 2016. Construction projects have been ongoing at the University over the past fifteen years to fulfill the goals of the Master Plan. In 2014, WCSU opened the Visual and Performing Arts Center which houses an art gallery, painting and sculpture studios, a theatre wing with a proscenium and black box theatres, and an acoustically perfect music hall on its Westside Campus location.
In 2016, the renovation of Litchfield Residence Hall and the construction of WCSU’s new police station began. This same year, the design process kicked off for the renovation and repurposing of Higgins Hall. These projects are all located on WCSU’s Midtown Campus.
Higgins Hall was built in 1949 and then enlarged in 1959 before an annex was built in 1971. It was originally built as a science building, but over the years, the classrooms became antiquated, cramped, and generally not functional, and the building itself had no entrance lobby or character inside or out.
In 2005, a new science building was built, and all of the laboratories and science classes moved into that building. Higgins Hall became a transitional space for other departments with no real overall purpose.
“We have been fortunate to bring a couple of spectacular buildings online in the past several years,” said Western Connecticut State University’s Director of Public Affairs and Community Relations Paul Steinmetz.
“In 2005, we cut the ribbon on a science building that features research laboratories, lecture auditoria, a greenhouse, an observatory, and the WCSU Weather Center. It was the first State of Connecticut-funded building project to seek LEED Silver certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.”
In recent years, Higgins Hall has been home to the math, English language, computer science, and media arts departments. At seventy years, however, the building was old, tired-looking, and generally worn out. The new Higgins Hall will be the home of a portion of the Maricostas School of Arts and Sciences.
Many technology-based spaces like the Math Emporium – a space for students who seek extra help in math to work together with instructors – the foreign language resource center, and the state-of-the-art television production studio were operating in a building with mechanical and electrical systems that were antiquated and past their useful life. It was clearly time for a makeover.
The Architect, Construction Manager, and the Construction Administrator were selected in 2015, and the design process began in 2016. “The intent of the project was to completely renovate the existing building from top to bottom,” said Tony DeNapoli, Associate Project Manager for the Division of Construction Services at the State of Connecticut Department of Administrative Services (DAS).
“We needed to replace all the mechanical systems and bring it up to date, and also we were able to add a three-thousand-square-foot canopy addition which became part of the new main entrance. In the initial stages, the university wasn’t sure if there would be enough money to do that, but we did manage to work that into the design and the budget,” he adds.
To improve the overall look of the building, there will be a new lobby where the former lecture hall used to be, the new canopy, new study area, and a better entrance that faces the campus quad.
The building will be home to the School of Arts and Science but the departments will all have new and improved spaces, including a new state-of-the-art television studio with sound booth and production space, collaborative learning spaces, a foreign language resource center, new data wiring throughout the building, an improved security system with card access, and an academic server room to house as many as 20 students to support computer science.
The essentially new building is designed to LEED Silver standards per the requirements of the State of Connecticut High Performance Building Requirements, although the project is not seeking the actual LEED Silver Certification. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is a globally recognized symbol of sustainability achievement and has three levels: gold, silver, and bronze. As Higgins Hall is not a brand new building, it would not be able to achieve the LEED Gold status.
Some of the new environmentally friendly features of the building include an energy-efficient heating system, high-efficiency heat exchangers, low-E insulated windows – which will help keep the heat in the winter and out in the summer, occupancy sensors, devices to control the interior lighting, automatic shades on some of the windows, and a lot of natural light.
Construction on the $25 million project began in May 2018 and has stayed on track. There have been only a few minor issues along the way, as to be expected with the renovation of a building of this age that has seen three huge construction phases with different builders in its lifetime.
Faculty members moved into their first- and second-floor spaces in the early part of July, and the project managers have been told that the response to the new areas – for both teaching and learning – are that they are bright, airy, and the big windows let in sunlight and outdoor views, making these very inviting spaces.
“We turned over a good portion of the spaces within the building on July second, but we’re still working on the main lobby,” said DeNapoli. “We’re still installing the metal panels on the outside of the building. Those took a while to get. We’re still doing some site work and landscaping, and the lower-level swing space is still being renovated, so all of those spaces and areas are scheduled to be completed and turned over around August tenth.”
The remainder of the building is on schedule to open for classes beginning in the fall semester.
The entire renovation project is funded by the state through the CSCU 2020 program it is using to fund many of the projects at the state colleges and universities in Connecticut.
Everyone involved in the renovation could not be happier with how it has evolved and are confident that all of the improvements to date will only result in attracting more students.
“Everything overall in the process is going very well,” said DeNapoli. “I’m speaking with Luigi Marcone, who is the Associate Vice President of Campus Planning and Chief Facilities Officer at the university, and he said to me that he feels the project has done an exceptional job of transforming an old building into something that is new, modern, and vibrant.”
“Anytime we transform a building, it makes that part of the university – that part of the campus – more desirable,” said DeNapoli. “I think that when people come to the university now, instead of seeing the old brick building facing the quad, they’re going to see a renovated building with this nice new canopy which leads into a very inviting main lobby area and a lot of state-of-the-art spaces that it didn’t have before.”
“It’s a great marketing opportunity for the university when students are trying to select between Western or Eastern or somewhere else,” said John McKay, spokesperson for the Department of Administrative Services. “It’s this modern, bright-looking campus, and that will help us compete with other universities.”
The official ribbon-cutting for the building is set to take place on October eighteenth.
Once Higgins Hall is completed, the next campus building to be tackled in the master plan is the conversion of Berkshire Hall into the new dining facility, which will begin in 2021. That project is currently in the planning stages, and it will involve another redesign of the quad to feature brick paver walkways. The landscape for Higgins Hall will flow into the site design of Berkshire so the new Berkshire Hall will become a focal point for the entire campus.