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Building blocks for knowledge: Why bricks are the future in college design

Do well-designed, sustainable campuses help colleges achieve their strategic goals? This question is highly consequential for both the construction and higher education sectors. It will influence not only design choices but material ones. At a time when institutional budgets remain squeezed, environmental concerns are at the forefront and competition for students remains fierce. Embracing brick as a foundational building material holds answers for all of these.

First, consider the logistical challenges facing higher education. Continuing supply chain issues have kept construction costs high, resulting in projects frequently being delayed or going over budget. At a conference of college business officers last year, 64% of attendees acknowledged they had canceled or delayed improvements and expansions because of cost pressures. Facilities investments plunged across the sector by 19% in 2022, according to the construction insights provider Gordian. Colleges and universities continue to report large sums of necessary capital expenditures, sometimes worth nearly a billion dollars, being deferred.

Second, the stakes are high for making the right facilities investments. Higher education is a choice people make for their own futures, with students effectively being consumers in an open market. While a school’s program offerings and academic reputation play a role, so does its built environment. Nearly half of students say the “look and feel” of a campus influences their choice about whether or not to study there. Additionally, 45% of students also considered environmental sustainability in a college, with a not-insignificant 12% identifying it as a decisive factor. At stake are not just dollars on the table for the higher education sector, but the chance for each institution to continue their legacies.

In the 2024 issue of Materiality, a Brickworks publication celebrating the beauty and creativity of design through the use of brick, Australian architect Jeremy Edmiston observes that while bricks may be a “diminutive building block,” they have incredible staying power and serve as engines of growth. The brick’s simplicity and longevity makes it a material shaping buildings of legacy, ones that shelter and inspire for centuries to come. Materiality’s latest issue, Brick in Contemporary University Architecture, will focus on why these factors make brick an ideal choice for construction in higher education.

“Bricks are incredibly easy to source, and an inexpensive material for both building and maintenance,” observes Denise Smith, marketing manager for Glen-Gery, one of North America’s largest brick manufacturers and a Brickworks North America company. “They form beautiful spaces that are conducive to inspiration and learning. Bricks are being used as the foundation for innovative projects that will welcome generations of thinkers and doers both now and in the future.”

Vanderbilt University’s Nicolas A. Zeppos College, completed in 2020 to a design by David M. Schwarz Architects and a featured case study in Materiality, is one such project. A 260,000-square-foot neo-Gothic structure laid with Indiana limestone and Glen-Gery brick, it is a warm and welcoming home to 340 undergraduate students, made to exacting construction requirements and unique design challenges. Zeppos College, at its core, is a communal space where students will live, study and collaborate.

In residential spaces, brick is especially popular for its ability to absorb sound and vibration—a significant benefit for dormitories. The durability and versatility of brick played a large role in the building’s LEED certification and energy savings performance, thanks to brick’s competitive advantages in raw material extraction, water and energy use, as well as its negligible cost of maintenance. In Zeppos College, Vanderbilt now has a beautiful, sustainable and timeless building to draw students to.

Indeed, Glen-Gery brick has cultivated a deserved reputation for meeting demanding design specifications. Australia-based Brickworks’ acquisition of Glen-Gery in 2018 brought the company’s significant technological advancements to the North American market.

The University of Rochester’s Institute for Data Science, a project of Kennedy & Violich Architecture completed in 2019, is a highly original example of this. The placements of brick were visualized with three-dimensional modeling software, and each individual brick on the building’s face is treated as a digital pixel of information tied to a geometric data cloud. When shadows from natural light are cast on the bricks, their façades are “activated” to communicate environmental data legible to the cloud. The result is a structure with a high degree of synergy and complementarity to the scientific research happening within it.

The stories behind these projects and several others can be seen in detail when Materiality is released this April. To receive a complimentary copy, visit www.glengery.com/materiality. Those interested in learning more about Glen-Gery’s 450 brick products can visit one of 26 company-owned Brickworks Supply Centers or three Brickworks Design Studios in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York.

“Delivering value is huge right now for colleges and universities, especially when it comes to high-dollar spending like those of facilities and maintenance,” said Smith. “This calls for buildings that are both straightforward and relatively inexpensive to maintain, while also supporting designs that reflect an institution’s strategic and growth goals.”

“For thousands of years, brick has built a track record for delivering simplicity while supporting complexity. There really is no better foundation than this.”

Brick can both empower the innovation of Rochester’s Institute for Data Science while also staying simple enough to resist pest infestation, not require coating, painting or varnishing, and is completely weatherproof. Choosing efficient materials can create a predictability for higher education budgets, as well. Research suggests that up to 90% of maintenance costs in buildings come from a smaller 30% to 40% of individual asset items. Following this logic, on a small campus with just under a dozen buildings, the vast majority of maintenance time, attention and expenditure will be expended on 3 or 4 of them.

At a time when return on investment is particularly crucial in the higher education sector, this material should be at the top of the list of considerations for new projects. Brick may not be a silver-bullet solution to the problems facing the higher education sector, but it is an irreplaceable building block all the same.

Registration is now open for the LBM Strategies 2024 Conference