With a 10-year building program totaling more than $1 billion, the rapidly growing University of Arizona has challenged its campus architect, Robert R. Smith, to reinvent the way he does business. But factors such as reduced state funding, greater competition for students, and the hunt for top-notch researchers put added pressure on Smith as he strives to produce striking new facilities while keeping a tight rein on the bottom line. “Most state universities are in a similar boat,” he says matter-of-factly.

Smith, an Arizona alum, returned to Tucson 12 years ago after spending more than two decades in San Diego, first in private practice and then at the University of California, San Diego, where he oversaw the development of a new hospital complex. At Arizona, in charge of a staff of 35, Smith has discovered that the best way to construct buildings is to test alternative delivery methods. “As cost and schedule pressures grew, new means of managing projects were needed,” he says. “The traditional low-bid construction approach for public projects did not allow for fast-tracking or contractor involvement and coordination during the design phase.”

Smith broke new ground in the state of Arizona in 1998, when he initiated a 400,000-square-foot student union as a design/build pilot project. The successful outcome gave momentum to state legislation that broadened Arizona's public procurement laws. But while design/build was beneficial in shifting accountability to a single source—namely, the contractor—Smith says one drawback was the loss of direct connection to the architect (in this case, MHTN Architects of Salt Lake City).

He has since gravitated toward a Construction Manager at Risk (CM at Risk) model, which allows for qualifications-based selection of the construction team but also authorizes the university to contract separately with the architect. As material and energy costs have become more volatile, Smith says, CM at Risk has improved his ability to weather an unpredictable marketplace.

The importance of campus facilities as recruiting tools for students (Arizona's currently number around 39,000) and for faculty also has raised the bar for good design. So in addition to erecting student facilities such as a new freshman center, a fitness center, and a dance theater, the university also has built leading-edge lab facilities to attract top scientists. Last year alone, four major labs opened on campus.

Although the traditional center of the 356-acre campus—located in central Tucson and organized around a grassy mall hemmed by red-brick buildings—is sacrosanct, in 2003 Arizona adopted a master plan by Ayers/Saint/Gross that calls for doubling its square footage without resorting to drastically taller buildings or greater density. A key feature of the plan is a new pedestrian mall that links to the medical campus—“and it creates some new high-profile building sites,” Smith notes.

He adds: “It's important that we build a high-quality environment here. After investing in our students, we want to keep them.”