Case Studies

John Morris – College of Charleston

A Labor of love; balancing historic preservation with modernization

Walking around the campus, hand in hand with his wife, John Morris is mesmerized. Time stands still on the quad where tawny late afternoon light bathes the classic historic homes that make up the College of Charleston. Soft Spanish moss gently sways in a subtle breeze from trees that have grown here for hundreds of years.

A native of Colorado, the vice president of facilities management at the College reflects on how this campus from 1770 has weathered the passage of time: from Charleston’s formation by royal land grants under a king, to the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, Reconstruction, hurricanes and the devastating earthquake of 1886. Throughout time, somehow, this place stills stands.

John Morris – College of Charleston Blueprint Magazine

That’s the charm prospective students want to see, and what they are willing to pay for to study in Charleston, rather than opt for a college experience in an urban industrial setting. They want to experience the sleepy awe and timelessness, of the place.

That certainly motivated Morris to take the job.

Fascinated by balancing historical preservation with modern functionality, Morris jumped at the chance to bring four decades of facilities management experience to this latest academic setting. He jokes he started this line of work at age 19 and forgot to leave college. While he was poised for retirement, having finished up stints at Northern Arizona University, the University of Colorado Boulder and Colorado State University, he saw a fresh career opportunity, so he took one more bite of the apple.

“The charm is what brings the students here,” he says. “You won’t get this in New York City. It’s what brings me here too.”

Physical plant

It was a town Sherman refused to burn down.

That’s why the College of Charleston still stands as the oldest educational institution south of Virginia, and the 13th oldest in the United States. With 156 buildings valued at $1.5 billion and a portfolio of more than 3 million square feet of space, 90 of these structures were built before 1940, making the average age 165 years.

When Morris came on board in February of 2018, his first order of business was getting everyone in administration on the same page.

Morris took pen in hand to draft a master “to do” list for the board of trustees, to spell out the extensive cost of ownership for keeping the $1.5 billion campus, well, functional and quaint.John Morris – College of Charleston Blueprint Magazine

The 5-year capital renewal plan categorizes and prioritizes all projects: from new(er) construction and renovations at several residence halls and renovations at the Rita Hollings Science Center and the Albert Simons Center for the Arts to preventive maintenance campus-wide and energy conservation initiatives. As Morris spelled out in the plan, 15 percent of all cost is related to building the properties, while the rest is related to operating and renovation expenses over the next 50 years. Certain things are predictable; every 10-20 years you can expect some things to fail. You might get 20 years out of a roof, for example. And he knows each space throughout the campus will have needs every decade or so. Having analyzed each building, he planned accordingly. Each project will cycle through and will be addressed in order.

“The key point here is that by investing in the facilities you are investing in the students,” Morris says. “We should never lose sight of that.”

Or, for that matter, the in-room educational experience. To stay abreast of what is significant from that perspective, Morris gathers feedback on the learning spaces from deans and professors who share ideas on how the delivery of course content is changing over time.

Take, for example, the new international language lab.

In years gone by, students might have listened to tapes of foreign languages in standard classrooms or labs. Now, instructional spaces are changing for individual and group instructional experiences. A Spanish-speaking student can talk one-on-one in real time to another student in Madrid. Small groups can also speak with other groups of students a world away. That never happened before. The types of learning spaces, and the IT requirements to support those capabilities, are mind-boggling and forever changing.

Another top project of the school was the renovation of the Rita Hollings Science Center from the 1970s. The first through third floors of the newly-renovated building consist of eight classrooms, 51 research labs and 27 teaching labs which will be utilized for biology, physics, astronomy and psychology. The fourth floor/roof houses the astronomy lab, control room, telescope dome, astronomy deck, and vivarium. The building also contains more than 60 faculty and staff offices. It is estimated that 12,000 students will use the newly-renovated building annually, and it will have the capacity for 1,138 students. The time and effort put into that project garnered the college an award from the city.

“Each building has its nuances,” Morris says. “Something like a history class feels right in one of our more classical classrooms on campus, but for something like science you need an up-to-date modern environment.”

Classrooms aside, there is also the direct student experience throughout the campus. The student government is not shy about asking for elevators, dehumidifying equipment, student gardens, lighting requirements and anything they feel they need to be safe or connected. Morris says students expect to be able to connect with their education 24/7, accessing everything system-wide from their key cards to computers, phones and tablets.

“Things have completely changed. The information age is here,” he says.

And all that technology has to be invisible and wrapped in a bow, in true Charleston style.

Challenges

Perhaps nothing is greater than meeting the expectations of Charleston society when it comes to having a historic campus in its midst. Each building must fit into the look, fabric and feel of local culture.

John Morris – College of Charleston Blueprint Magazine

To achieve those goals, Morris taps into a pool of specialists: historic preservation committees and craftsmen as well as specialists in the building arts trades so that every old building can look historic but be modern and internally up-to-date. Everyone on the 160-member facilities team is tasked with keeping the property clean and in tip-top shape.

How do they pay for it?

Morris says there are many financial veins to tap into: obviously drawing from tuition and housing fees, but also accessing educational and historical preservation grants, as well as legislative funding for special projects. Morris explains that some technological upgrades for buildings will make them more cost-effective and efficient, so they will be less expensive to maintain. And if they think green, they will also see green. In working toward LEED Silver and Green Globe Environmental certifications, the college expects to save money in energy usage and other areas.

In the end, the more things change, the more they can stay the same—and sometimes that’s a very appealing notion.

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