Case Studies

Monica Davis – Kirkwood Community College

Using architecture to transform community education

Students are often attracted to community colleges for the practical programs they offer. But Monica Davis knows that it’s also where the programs are taught—facilities that are comfortable, well-equipped and modern—that keeps students enrolling.

That’s the gamble being made by the community college where she’s senior director of construction and facilities planning. As with other institutions during the COVID-19 pandemic, Kirkwood Community College has seen declining enrollment. But Davis and the school’s leadership are midway through several massive projects, all angled to attract students to the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, institution.

Monica Davis | Kirkwood Community College

Monica Davis | Senior Director, Construction and Facilities Planning | Kirkwood Community College

As she puts it, the aim is solving “modern problems with modern solutions” so students have access to the latest technology and amenities.

“I love how passionate the faculty and administration at Kirkwood are about fostering learning through architecture,” says Davis, who was hired by the college in 2020 after acting as a consultant on many of the projects she now oversees. “It’s the same passion I use when designing new spaces for the college.”

Welcome to Kirkwood

Established in 1966, Kirkwood Community College has 130 majors, degrees and certifications; and around 14,000 students. It also has the top-ranked nursing school in Iowa, and coordinates with high schools so students in their junior and senior years can earn college credits for less than they’d pay at a university.

Under Davis’ direction, Kirkwood Community College has undertaken huge projects recently, including the creation of a 100,000-square-foot student center, the renovation of its agriculture and diesel technology building, and a new automotive technology facility complete with high-end technology and equipment.

Completed in 2019, the $6 million Automotive Technology Center gives students access to the latest automotive tools and education. Those include an in-ground chassis dynamometer, a tool to measure the torque and rotational speed of an engine; 26 car lifts; three truck lifts; and four alignment lifts. There are four technical classrooms that overlook the shop area and have overhead doors, so that cars can be driven into the classroom for hands-on training.

Monica Davis | Kirkwood Community College

According to Davis, who designed the facility while working for OPN Architects, the space is comparable to a car dealership—if not better. The 38,000-square-foot renovation of an existing steel forge building is even attracting nearby community colleges interested in similar facilities and fascinated by Kirkwood’s new addition—so much that it’s become a top regional facility in the Midwest.

In addition to the latest tools for working and teaching, the Automotive Technology Center has an energy efficient design, which includes everything from proper ventilation to LED lighting and sustainable materials. In fact, she notes it was awarded the Excellence in Energy Efficient Design Award as part of the Commercial New Construction Program, for being 43 percent below the baseline energy use for new construction.

“Kirkwood has strong design partners that have worked diligently to overcome challenges when renovating existing buildings,” Davis points out. “We’ve been successful in reducing our energy footprint on many recent projects and hope to see this trend continue.”

All the amenities

Another major project, the Iowa Hall Student Center, involves new construction and renovation. The original structure was built in 1973 and is being gutted down to the concrete. When the project is finished in 2022, Davis says it will include a new dining hall and student lounge—perfect for poetry readings, open mic nights and more.

The space will also offer a campus bookstore, counseling center, administrative spaces, food pantry and fun lounge spaces with unique furniture.

Monica Davis | Kirkwood Community College

Planned additions include a three-story steel and glass structure to the north end of the building, providing expansive views onto campus green spaces; and an additional one-and-a-half stories to the south end, which will house large meeting rooms and collaboration spaces.

“The project includes both a large-scale gut renovation and new additions,” Davis adds. “Our goals are to increase student involvement and engagement, be inclusive and welcoming to diverse student populations, improve accessibility and provide collaborative spaces to support student retention and success.”

Architect of her career

While she spends much of her time visiting construction sites, it’s far from the only thing on her docket. Holding facilities team meetings, working with consultants and architects, managing smaller-scale campus projects, checking on life safety in buildings, analyzing current and future space utilization on campus, spearheading master planning efforts, catching up on overall project schedules and budget tracking—Davis handles it all.

One of her favorite tasks, and one of the most challenging, was the restoration work that occurred just two months after she arrived. That was in August, when a powerful storm called a derecho produced winds with the intensity of a Category 3 hurricane. The windstorm stripped the community of more than half of its trees—around 80,000—and cost Kirkwood Community College $2.4 million in damage to facilities.

Monica Davis | Kirkwood Community College

Davis sprang into action, focusing on major roof repairs to two buildings, cleaning up interior damage in others and removing debris.

“The storm really devasted the forestry, as well as the overall infrastructure in the area,” she says, “and forced us to take quick action as a community to repair the damages for students and staff to be able to get back in these buildings. Luckily, those repairs are being made swiftly and in the great hands of the facilities team.”

Will that, along with the other improvements be enough to boost enrollment? With COVID-19, everything is hard to tell, Davis laments, but she’s optimistic.

“This year has been a challenge on so many fronts, but Kirkwood’s main focus has always been the students and continuing to provide a strong education,” Davis notes. “The flexibility and perseverance that leadership, staff, faculty and students have shown through the last year has been inspiring.”

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