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March 30, 2018 Women in Business Awards 2018

UConn master planner Cruickshank builds school's long-term vision

Photo | Steve Laschever

Laura Cruickshank is a woman with some very big plans. As the University of Connecticut's master planner and chief architect, she's responsible for the capital programs at UConn's Storrs and regional campuses plus the law school. And that's no small task.

UConn's Next Generation Campus Improvement Plan is a $2 billion project designed to make the university a flagship of science, technology, engineering and math research and academics. And Cruickshank oversees long-range planning, design and construction of the whole shebang. It's an enormous undertaking, but Cruickshank is undaunted.

“One of my gifts has always been that I am able to keep the big picture in mind while I focus on details, and that ability is pretty critical to having as many different functions as I have in this one role,” she says. “I don't get put off by the amount of time that it takes to accomplish the vision. This is long-range thinking and long-range planning. We were projecting a 20-year vision that goes to 2035. We're moving right along here.”

Indeed, when Cruickshank stepped into the pivotal role of master planner and associate vice president for university planning, design and construction in 2013, she hit the ground running. She started by reorganizing her department, introducing new project management software, completing a master plan and conducting a science space needs assessment.

Her first building project was the design and construction of a new UConn campus in Hartford, which included restoring the historic Hartford Times building. She also oversaw the development of new residence halls at the UConn campuses in Storrs and Stamford. Cruickshank credits her team of more than 30 for helping her see these projects through.

“I do have a really, really good team and I have a number of directors who report to me and I trust them completely, and they have responsibility from the very beginning to the very end,” says Cruickshank. “Then, of course, I'm accountable for all of it.”

Mike Kolakowski, president of KBE Building Corp. in Farmington, which has done work on UConn projects, said he's been impressed by Cruickshank's professionalism, drive and commitment to the school's long-term success.

“Working with Laura on the Werth Residence Hall and other major projects at the UConn campus has been a great experience,” he says. “She is an exceptional leader and visionary, and certainly should be an inspiration to other women pursuing careers in the design and construction industry.”

Form and function

It could be lonely at the top but Cruickshank's job is really one that demands collaboration. Everyone, from Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to the university's board of trustees to a research scientist with ideas about a state-of-the-art laboratory, has a vested interest in the master plan.

Luckily, Cruickshank says, “I like listening to people's ideas. I like exploring options. The joke in planning is you leave no stone unturned, even if you just turn it over and put it back again. Looking at different ideas, that's what higher education is all about. I find it really interesting. I really enjoy that.”

As an architect, however, Cruickshank is almost in a class by herself. She was recently named a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, an honor achieved by just 3 percent of the institute's members and attained only after rigorous peer review.

“My architectural sensibilities are very much about context. I look at what kind of statement [a building] needs to make and where the building is going to go, letting the exterior of the building express what is going on inside,” she says. “With the new innovation partnership building we've just opened [on the Storrs campus], that's in a very pastoral landscape but it's a very contemporary design. It's a first building in a technology park and you want it to make a statement about technology.”

For Cruickshank, form follows function but because she has her eyes on the big picture, the broader context she works within also includes restoring and refurbishing historic buildings and preserving iconic spaces. This is familiar ground for Cruickshank, who as planner at Yale University oversaw a massive expansion that included 20 major new buildings and the restoration and renovation of 14 historic buildings.

As master planner for UConn, Cruickshank's experience is invaluable. But while the scope of the job is enormous, for Cruickshank it's always a labor of love.

“Being at an institute of higher education is really fulfilling for me,” she adds. “Coming to UConn I had over 20 years of private practice. I had run a firm [in Branford]. I had lots of experience at Yale for planning and design, and international experience. I thought I could bring all this knowledge and expertise to bear at the public institution of this state, where my son went to school, where I can really do something good for people.


What legacy do you want to leave after your career is over?

In the words of the poet Mary Oliver, 'I don't want to end up simply having visited this world,' I want to leave the world a better place, even if only in some little way.

Growing up in the sixties, I was part of a generation that was going to 'save the world' and higher education is a means by which I may achieve a tiny piece of that vision.

People want knowledge — after the basic needs of air, water, food and shelter are met — to improve their lives, their world, and the primary mission of higher education revolves around the acquisition, preservation, development and dissemination of knowledge, in service to the people.

I am lucky to have the opportunity to be part of that mission and to plan, design and construct facilities that may serve people and institutions for decades to come.

That is what I will leave behind.

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