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Averting Housing Havoc

In student housing projects, missed completion dates cause costly administrative nightmares. Successfully managing construction interruptions and other issues that arise is the best defense.
University Business, Apr 2006


You might call it the 100-bed dash. Yet Warren Wilson College's spring 2003 student housing construction project went off with a flame, not a bang.

"A young lady who didn't make the grades in her first semester came back the last night of winter break," recalls Larry Modlin, chief financial officer of the Asheville, N.C., liberal arts school. Upon her boyfriend's suggestion, she brought her papers and books from that fall outside to burn them.

Before long, some students yelled at her to put the blaze out. The couple threw the smoldering embers into a trash shed. Unbeknownst to them, it was filled with combustibles.

Thanks to the windy night and a cozy breezeway connecting the four-building, 118-bed complex, the fire spread quickly, destroying the site. Could the college replace it in time for the next semester?

One never knows what challenges may arise during construction, so experts advise a comfortable schedule-particularly for housing projects. "They're put on line so students can occupy them in a certain semester. If you don't meet your target dates, there are huge repercussions," says Carolyn Rickard-Brideau, a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of Little Diversified Architectural Consulting.

A scramble for alternate housing is only the beginning-just try selling a campus-bound student with no car on living three miles away from classes, friends, and dining-hall conveniences.

But as Warren Wilson officials well know, a tight timeline can be necessary. While the community pitched in to help replace students' lost belongings, administrators arranged for off-campus housing and got to planning. Displaced students "were passionate about seeing the housing rebuilt in the same spot," says Tom Gavic, president of Performa Higher Education. Officials hired his firm, which had done strategic planning consulting for them; within a month, the project drawings were ready for contractor bids.

Most would consider the five-month construction schedule impossible. Despite a time-consuming removal of the fire-ravaged buildings, which contained asbestos, the creative problem-solving contractors helped meet that goal. One of the three new buildings opened on time and the others were occupied a few weeks into the fall semester. And they are buildings of pride. "We didn't just make a box just because we had to hurry," Modlin says. The structures complement surrounding dorms and maintain a village atmosphere.

Out-of-box thinking is just what Modlin and administrators at other institutions have used to manage challenges that crop up during housing projects. Here's how 12 potential issues have been handled.

The Pennsylvania State University's largest housing project ever was based on a four-year timeframe. Officials wanted Eastview Terrace to open for fall 2004 instead-a year early. "They cut six months off the design and six months off the construction," says Sandra J. Harpster, director of Student Housing.

Architects from CBT/Childs Bertman Tseckares designed a group of rooms around a common area. Repeating that throughout, the design was pretty simple for a multi-building complex, says CBT Principal Christopher Hill. It also expedited construction, during which Hayes Large Architects took the lead, and Eastview opened on time.

At University of Kentucky, which hadn't built new student housing in 30 years, officials nixed much of the early planning that goes into a project. With legislators providing $46 million for 684 beds within an unusually speedy timeframe, starting construction immediately seemed best. "A sense of urgency is probably understating it immensely," says Senior Project Manager Rich Reidl. The president wanted at least one current student class to see the end result.

They opted for "design-build," a process where construction can begin before design is done, says J. Eric Moss, principal of Ayers Saint Gross. His team modified the process so that UK standards were detailed in project documents-and the fall 2005 move-in was met.

When the University of South Carolina opted to go green with their West Quad housing project, officials were firm about not spending additional greenbacks to do so. The goal: LEED Silver certification. As officials announced this budgetary plan, says Gene Luna, associate vice president for Student Development and University Housing, "eyes were rolling in the room." But school officials' determination was contagious. From architects and engineers to landscapers and mechanical staff, all got into the green-with-less approach. It meant some sacrifices, such as nixing garbage disposals in the apartment complex to have money for natural sun-blocking design pieces. But at the end of the day, the team delivered-within budget and on time for fall 2004, Luna reports.

With an honors college dorm at USC, student focus groups called for more private bathrooms than initial design plans showed. "Students often have ideas diverging from those of administrators and designers," says Luna, adding that architects from Sasaki and a local firm were able to accommodate.

And at Penn State, Eastview designers also had to scramble a bit to please the client-but this request was from the top. President Graham Spanier reviewed CBT's plans for the 700-bed project and liked what he saw. Could they add 100 beds? "We looked and said we could add another floor to the upper-tier buildings [on the site]," Hill recalls, adding that the extra work came with extra time and money.

"The rains always start at some point in a project," quips Warren Wilson's Modlin. And related delays do happen. University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne, Ind., faced a potentially serious situation with Padua Hall, designed by Design Collaborative, which had to be ready a year early due to over-enrollment. During construction, a rainstorm boasting 60 mile-per-hour winds ripped off some protective plastic, says Ken Williams, vice president for administration. A site tour turned up a few mold spots, so the offending drywall in the modular structure was replaced. The only fallout: Officials had to live with slightly imperfect replacement walls (since they weren't factory-assembled like the rest of the materials).

Indiana University Purdue University-Fort Wayne has also battled mold-the nearly non-existent kind. While building its first-ever student housing, an apartment-style facility, the school made local papers when site workers claimed they had seen mold. This mold rush likely stemmed from resentment over IPFW using nonunion contractors for much of its work. The union employees on-site "may have been doing something for their union brothers," says Walt Branson, vice chancellor of Financial Affairs. David Danielson, director of Physical Plant and Public Safety, notes that from quality to safety issues, "they were looking at anything to say nonunion contractors shouldn't have been doing the work."

A firm tested "every wall of every room," Branson says, and "their quote was something like, 'This place has less mold than my house does.' " The analysts concluded that a few quarter-sized spots "look like it could be mold." Officials opted to remove the wood, just in case. First they invited a media camera crew to the site. The crew "literally couldn't find [the mold] to videotape it," Branson says.

The incident didn't set the project back, and Branson says he knows of no one choosing to live elsewhere because of the rumors.

Mistakes happen. But playing the blame game doesn't help an IHE any when a contractor flubs, says Alan Chimacoff, principal of ikon.5 Architects. He recalls one campus construction incident with a $600,000 skylight. On installation day, the skylight simply didn't fit its space. Rather than threatening to sue the contractor, administrators determined who could best solve the problem. Chimacoff and the contractor spent a day at the skylight manufacturer, figuring out their options. "Instead of remaking $600,000 worth of skylight, the manufacturer had to only make about $10,000 worth of adjustments," he says. "Everybody came out happy, the building got done on time. It was all because the client said, 'Let's pay a little to save a lot.' "

While imagining a brand spanking new living space is often enticing enough for students, Butler University in Indianapolis didn't want to take any chances. So they took Ratio Architects up on an offer to build a life-sized model of their under-construction apartments. Levester Johnson, vice president for Student Affairs, says, "We wanted to maximize every opportunity to get a feel for what these apartments were going to be like." Thanks to the model, which cost $87,000 and was open for homecoming and parents' weekends, students could preview the furniture, appliances, carpet, and tile of the new space. With the model "staged"-picture bathmats and towels, a teapot on the stove, and a bag of pasta on the counter-students could envision themselves living there, says Karla Cunningham, director of Residence Life.

The result? On the initial selection day, soon after the model had opened on a grassy knoll in the center of campus, more than half the slots were taken, and officials expect no problems in filling the rest.

When the University of California, Los Angeles commissioned the construction of three high-rise dorms and renovation of three existing dorms in the immediate area, everyone involved anticipated the tricky logistics of maintaining campus life around the congested sites. It took two months for construction manager Heery International to devise a plan for student access throughout construction. "Pathways and landscaping had to be revised and modified [aesthetically] to keep a Disneyland mentality, where the students could walk through. It would have to look tranquil in the midst of the chaos of construction," says Project Manager Bart Hale. Student moving days were particularly challenging, he adds. A week before last fall's move-in, a landscaped six-foot-wide sidewalk sat, ready for foot traffic. Suddenly, administrators decided a delivery truck must bring student suitcases right to their front door. Rome wasn't built in a day, but at UCLA a road was built in a few days.

Informing students about what's planned for outside their windows is a problem-prevention must. Still, as Kentucky's Reidl points out, explaining the sound of blasting to someone who hasn't lived through it isn't easy. IHEs handle the mornings issue by writing a start time into the contract; Penn State students could be guaranteed sleep through 8 a.m., while UCLA students had better be earlier risers, since Heery's teams began at 7. Yet, as Penn State's Harpster notes, workers "would start revving up their machines at 7:30 a.m." Heery eyed that situation, too, says Bob York, vice president of the firm's JCM Group. "They want deliveries on the site as early as possible," and halting 6 a.m. truck traffic became necessary. Reidl advises remembering that "students are, rightfully so, not focused on administrative challenges" but on their own schedules. So additional quiet times, like exam periods, also get put in writing.

They want to know what's going on, and they want their voices heard. That's why George Mason University (Va.) hired a student mitigator for its latest project. Senior Megan White was offered the job after writing administrators a complaint letter early on. At one point, with a main walkway to the heart of campus blocked, students were using a route along a muddy, weathered "cliff." Of course, rain didn't muster appreciation for that path. So a concrete sidewalk was put in. While transition periods aren't easy on students, it helps that a peer is "telling them the real story," White says. "I'm speaking up for them."

Having that liaison also keeps curiosity from killing the construction. With a past project, which ran late, some students housed in hotels snuck onto the construction site, found their assigned rooms, and complained (typically through their parents) that they seemed ready, says Christi R. Chisler, director of University Services.

Often, housing has occupancy approval but needs some finishing touches. At USC's West Quad, students "lived" with contractors (who had escorts during room intrusions) for a semester, Luna says.

As for leaving landscaping for later, Robert Corning, a partner in the landscape architecture firm Geller DeVellis, points out that "the psychological significance of having a finished look to any campus is critical." Yet he acknowledges that summer, when most dorms are finished, is a less-than-ideal time to beautify grounds.

The final sprint to completion can mean some late nights. Eastview residents at Penn State, already arriving two days late, were expected on a Saturday morning. At midnight Friday, Harpster was still on duty. Housekeeping and maintenance staffs, along with Residence Life volunteers, pitched in and got the punch list finished in time.

Yikes-students are assigned to a residence that's just not done. For GMU's last housing project, the first warning of a possible delay was conveyed in March, Chisler says. One wing did open on time, two others were two weeks delayed, and the last was behind a month. Those with the two-week wait were put in hotels; others bunked in some modular buildings on campus. On move-in day, the school rented a truck so that parents wouldn't have to return to campus to assist.

Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond faced a similar problem with a 2003 project after a masonry subcontractor caused delays. Luckily, the state requires that contractors pay "actual damages" on missed deadlines, says Associate Vice President for Facilities Management Brian Ohlinger. With 170 students displaced for three months, the cost reached six figures. "You always have to have a Plan B for the unexpected, if it doesn't open," he adds. In this case, students put up in a well-appointed local hotel got comfortable there fast. Flexible meal plans and a campus-hotel shuttle added to the convenience. "We had a hard time moving them back," Ohlinger notes.

Rickard-Brideau of Little, which worked on the VCU project, says their overall emphasis on team building aided immensely when it hit that masonry bump in the road. "Construction, much like love, rarely runs smoothly," she says. "The more you do it, the more you can circumvent [unanticipated challenges]. But there's always something. People are messy. That's just how it goes."