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When it’s Crunch Time

Building student housing on a compressed schedule

As the nation’s store of student housing stock continues to age, more and more universities need new and renovated housing that better aligns with their academic mission and student needs. Design and construction schedules for these living and learning facilities are often compressed by immediate demand and the need to build and move students in as soon as possible.  

Many Universities are accustomed to a step-by-step, linear decision-making process that involves extensive stakeholder input, often resulting in a design-bid-build approach to project execution. But immediate demand for live-learn facilities often leaves little room in the schedule for a traditional approach to project execution. Universities recognize this, but believe that shortchanging this linear process may affect their control of the process or level of input resulting in a project that does not meet all of their objectives. At the same time, however, the expectation is for the design and construction team to successfully deliver the project in an extremely compressed timeframe without any compromises to achieving project goals and the desired level of quality.  

So how does a design team go about meeting these expectations, which at times seem mutually exclusive? A practical, thoughtfully developed project and communication plan allows time for addressing all the project challenges, while optimizing the momentum to meet the demands of a compressed schedule. Here is how two universities are using clear, precise planning methods and coordination techniques to avoid delays and effectively navigate compressed schedules on their student housing projects.  

Shepherd University

Shepherd University is a small, rural institution with a large commuter population. Facing a projected decline in student enrollment, University officials set out to bolster the on-campus student housing portfolio to attract more students, create stronger first impressions and help address some of the enrollment challenges.  

Shepherd invited some of the national leaders in the student housing sector to submit a public-private partnership proposal for a 300-bed facility with associated live-learn components and a small dining and food service component. The project was awarded to EdR, as the developer and  Design Collective, as the architect, providing architecture, interior design, and landscape architecture services. At the interview, the design team presented a compelling conceptual design based on advanced research performed during the RFP phase: a simple “L” shaped building that would reinforce the campus master plan, character of the school, and its surrounding context.  

The design complements the master plan with a quad-like outdoor terrace space for student social activity. The concept provides an oval-shaped, south-facing lawn that knits the building into the campus fabric. The new building ties into pedestrian pathways of existing residence halls and the main buildings that form the campus core. The ground floor public spaces are at a crossroads of this main pedestrian pathway, attracting students that are passing by and enticing them to use the lawn and adjacent facilities. The ground floor public spaces open up to the courtyard, creating additional synergies between the indoor and outdoor spaces.  

The project was awarded and kicked-off in January, 2016 and the University wanted to move students into the building by August 2017, leaving just 19 months for design and construction. These are some of the steps the design team put in place to meet this aggressive schedule, in collaboration with rest of the team:  

Streamlined Decision-Making: Schedule management starts with good design. Case in point, at Shepherd, the design team started with sound design principles and metrics, developed over years of experience working on similar projects, and presented initial concepts at the interview. Upon award, the University empowered 2-3 members of its team to coordinate internally and make decisions, rather than having every decision vetted by a full committee of 15-20 people. Using this streamlined approach to solicit and incorporate feedback from the University, the final design direction was approved expeditiously, which gave the project a head start and allowed the team to complete the design and documentation phase in under six months.  

Code Review: The design team also had to consult with authorities from the local jurisdiction to address local code amendments and ensure that the preliminary design met all requirements. For example, in a hilly terrain such as West Virginia, the local amendments to the building code consider any building taller than 40 feet from fire truck access to be a high-rise, compared to a standard 75 feet in other jurisdictions. Without researching these critical requirements during the early phases of design, the team would have risked adding weeks of redesign time to the schedule.

Communications: Good communication and coordination with the construction team from the very outset is crucial. Shepherd’s housing was delivered under a Construction Manager-at-Risk (CM) format. The design team worked closely with the CM, Harkins Builders, during the design phase to ensure an efficient process through construction, as contractors are more aware of the construction labor pool and practices in local jurisdictions. The design team also collaborated with the CM to identify building systems that aligned with local market conditions and skill sets. Otherwise, having to go out of town to procure sub-contractors with a specific expertise, or having to ship materials from far away destinations, would have just added cost and time to the project.    

The new residence hall opened this summer ahead of schedule and within the targeted budget.  

Marquette University

Unlike Shepherd University, Marquette’s enrollment is projected to rise, but the University has not built any new student housing on campus in 50 years. The need to control the rising cost of maintaining existing facilities, and the desire for flexible spaces to offer live-learn programs and amenities that today’s students expect, created an immediate need for a new student housing facility with a large dining component.   

Marquette has a long-term master plan for the campus and this new student housing facility is the very first to come out of this plan. The project was kicked off in August 2016, and is scheduled to open in August 2018. The project design, documentation, and construction phases are all to be carried out in just 24 months! Designing and constructing a 12-story building to house approximately 890 beds and a 700-seat dining facility with related food service components and a large student commons within that timeframe is incredibly ambitious.  

Working with the Marquette team from day one, the design team, Design Collective with local partner Workshop Architects, hit the mark by tailoring the design not just to meet the University’s current needs, but to be “transformative” – an objective that was specifically stressed in the campus master plan. The project was designed as two separate communities over a shared two-story base that houses amenity, communal, dining and foodservice spaces. The U-shaped building footprint, designed in response to the site and urban context, adds a large courtyard and lawn area as part of the campus experience. The University is already thinking of ways to program and use this south facing lawn as a major gathering place on campus.

This project is also being delivered under a CM-at-risk format, which allowed for early and close collaboration between the design and the construction teams. The extremely aggressive nature of Marquette’s schedule did not leave any time for the typical, sequential process of design, estimate, value-engineer, and repeat cycle to advance through the design phases. Multiple strategies were implemented to support the non-sequential approach that was needed to meet the schedule:

The design team had to work on several aspects concurrently and advance the design in close collaboration with CM, J.H. Findorff & Son, and the estimates were vetted on an ongoing basis.  

The team assembled and issued multiple bid packages, such as an early footings and foundation package, structural package, and a core and shell package to make the schedule work. 

At the beginning of the project, the design team met for a pull planning session with the CM and the University, establishing milestone dates for each package, and identifying long lead items in advance to prevent them from becoming potential schedule snares. Additional sessions were  held after each milestone submission to ensure the project stays on track.

Product and systems selection were made with schedule in mind. For example, limestone, a major exterior cladding material, is being locally sourced, ensuring immediate availability.  

Techniques such as prefabrication of exterior wall panels to be set in place and prefabrication of entire MEP system runs are being used to allow for these portions of the work to advance while the concrete frame is still being erected.

This close collaboration between the University and the design and construction teams allowed the advancement of design documents, procurement of scope, and mobilization of construction crews to happen in parallel.  

The successful completion of this project will demonstrate that with clear, careful planning and continuous collaboration, even a major transformational project such as this can be designed and constructed within a compressed schedule and simultaneously meet the University’s pressing on-campus residential needs.  

Success in Crunch Time

When project schedules are tight, good design principles are more important than ever. An experienced team that can hit the ground running will make or break a project in crunch time. Leveraging this expertise and employing strategies learned from past projects enables the team to develop schedule and budget responsive design solutions that reduce time-consuming changes and rework. In terms of managing the process, laying the foundation with early planning and uniting the team behind a common goal is important. Getting all the stakeholders on board at the outset and keeping everyone updated throughout the rapid progression of such projects helps to avoid errors that can result from miscommunication. A seasoned contractor who knows the local market and sub-contracting climate can optimize resources, and a team with experience can execute tasks in parallel to beat tight schedules. Only with this field-tested expertise, clarity in planning, and excellent communication can a university and design team reliably lead a project through crunch time successfully.

Sam Rajamanickam is a principal with Design Collective. He can be reached at samr@designcollective.com

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