A college campus is supposed to be a place where students can lose themselves in thought, ensconced in an academic bubble as they stroll to and from class. But at New Jersey's Montclair State University, those reveries were threatened with disruption starting last summer by a $92-million project to upgrade an aging power and thermal plant that involved digging a large and deep trench through the heart of the campus.

The trench, which will carry steam and water pipes, measures 15 ft across and up to 20 ft deep in places. It snakes past the school's Spanish Mission architecture in a 1.7-mile loop.

Aesthetics aside, the combined heat, cooling and power (CHCP) project, which is set for completion this November, requires the design-build team to coordinate work around activities of the student body, which at peak times reaches 18,000 and includes the 4,500 who live on the 250-acre campus. The Mays Landing, N.J.-based developer Energenic—a 50-50 joint partnership between Marina Energy, the administrator, and DCO Energy, which will operate the plant—is taking on that task.

Financial Hurdles

But first the university faced a less tangible yet significant hurdle: How was it to finance a multimillion-dollar upgrade in an era of sharply decreased funding for public institutions? The student body at Montclair expanded rapidly in the last decade, and the school, which was founded in 1908, has added hundreds of thousands of square feet—in sometimes criticized construction projects—to accommodate that growth.

While tuition for New Jersey residents is $11,056 a year, a bit high by national standards, the school has struggled to pay for its sweeping projects. That is until New Jersey passed the 2009 Economic Stimulus Act. The law allows Montclair and other schools to hire private vendors for critical services and to lease their tax-payer-owned land to those vendors to make ends meet.

The leases for these types of public-private partnerships (PPPs) are subject to expiration dates. In Energenic and Montclair's case, the expiration date is 30 years from completion, in 2043. Until then, Montclair will pay for its electricity and heat, and Energenic will own and operate the CHCP plant. After 30 years, the operating contract can be rebid.

The PPP is the second for Montclair and only the third statewide under the program. In 2010, the school entered a PPP with Provident Resources Group to build Montclair's Heights complex. Provident spent $211 million on the job and in return owns and maintains the revenue-generating buildings.

"Montclair has been very aggressive about taking advantage of these new opportunities," says Phil Beacham, president of the Alliance for Action's Leading Infrastructure Projects, a not-for-profit advocacy group. "But they were getting to the point where they couldn't do things any other way."

The PPP approach allowed the school to get what it needs, a new powerplant at no cost. The next step involved careful planning around construction scheduling and students, says Greg Bressler, Montclair State vice president of facilities. That meant that work on University Promenade, a typically bustling pathway, had to happen first, during the summer of 2012 when fewer students were around.

With students surging back in the fall, though, working around them got trickier. Sturdy 8-ft-tall metal fences with navigational signs to help students find their way to classes were placed along the trench. But the team found that it needed to take further action to manage work around foot traffic. Thus, when possible, it arranged for construction materials to be delivered at 7 a.m., before the first bell at 8. Even at that early hour, some of the crew of 100 onsite workers—out of a total of 400 assigned to the project—still had to halt throngs of students to allow trucks to enter with their loads of pipe that were stored in a screened-off staging area.

The construction work itself, meanwhile, did not always go smoothly. The property, which had been a quarry long ago, had large basalt deposits that made excavation difficult and limited the trench depth to 5 ft in some places.

Workers also unearthed a spaghetti-tangle of old sewer, gas and electric lines, many unmapped, says Kyle Beebe, DCO Energy project manager. Getting around them occasionally required cutting the domestic water lines serving the sinks and toilets in the buildings. To minimize service interruptions, the lines were usually cut apart at 6 p.m., then reactivated that night so the taps were reflowing by morning.

No injuries have been reported. Also important, Bressler says, students were never relegated to special trailers for sociology class. Precautions taken in the physical world also had a complement online. Weekly meetings between construction teams and school administrators allowed the school to alert students through its website about where work would occur.

Beebe says that a special liaison was designated to keep the school informed about every project detail. "There had to be significant coordination with the university for it to come together like it did," Beebe says.

A barrier to the project came from energy company Amaresco, which was one of the half-dozen bidders for the CHCP project. It sued the school for being passed over for the job, which delayed the project's start date by six months, Montclair officials say. Amaresco did not return a call for comment.

Meanwhile, although the cross-campus trenches might have been the most visible part of the project, its most noteworthy piece is in many ways tucked out of sight: the new powerplant. Located inside a new structure, the plant has as its centerpiece a 5.4-megawatt natural gas turbine from Solar, a division of Caterpillar, that will generate electricity for existing switchgear. In a two-for-one move, the plant will capture excess heat from electricity production and use it to create steam, which will then be pumped through the trench in one of four underground pipes.

Twenty-eight buildings, out of about three dozen, will use the steam for hot water and heat before it returns through a second pipe as condensate. A third pipe will funnel chilled water to the buildings to keep them cool; a fourth will send the by-product of the cooling process, warmed water, back to the plant.

The process is far less wasteful than with the previous system, which used a co-generation plant, installed in 1993, that had separate turbines for electricity and steam heat, say school and Energenic officials. By using a central cooling system instead of window-mounted air conditioners, there are extra environmental benefits, they add. These include a central cooling system that requires less maintenance than a per-building system.

"You get orders of magnitude more in terms of efficiency," says Patricia Ehrhart, Energenic's senior vice president of development. She adds that the project's major accomplishment is how the rhythms of college life, at least so far, have not been thrown out of whack. "There was a real conscious effort made to give the students all the access they needed, to reroute them when needed, and to not be disruptive," Ehrhart says. "It was a really big effort."