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A Cost-Effective Approach to Building University Residence Halls: Four Case Studies

Here's how these institutions worked with structural engineers early on
University Business, May 2010

Universities build residence halls with a variety of existing factors: demanding schedules, difficult sites, restricted budgets, and predetermined needs. Frequently universities need early involvement of the structural engineer to meet these requirements. However, most universities don't realize that early involvement of a structural engineer doesn't only help with the scheduling. It also helps in terms of cost and in decisions of which materials may be best for the budget and location.

There are some misconceptions, though. Many owners believe that getting a structural engineer involved early on just adds cost. In reality, the engineer can offer thoughts from a structural standpoint during the early architectural discussions.

Traditionally, the architect and owner decide on a concept first (look and feel), and then the engineer figures out how to implement the design. Input from the engineer during this early design stage won't hinder the design, rather can support it and help save significant cost and time.

Knowing what you want is always important and the University of Akron had done their homework. The type of structural system was decided by the university before the structural engineer was even involved. The university prefers residence halls designed with block walls and concrete floors. When Shelley Metz Baumann and Hawk (SMBH) came on the job they immediately went through the various systems with the university to ensure that the university was content with its decision. Akron was a savvy client and had made their decision based on good past experience and was content to stay with it.

In this situation the structural engineer spent more time designing aspects of the structure, which is resulting in savings during construction. SMBH's biggest savings for the university is through a better design for the shear walls for lateral supports. The result is a reduction in construction costs. The entire project will be completed in the fall of 2010.

At the other end of the spectrum is Hocking College. It had been at least 30 years since they had built their last residence hall and they did not have any preconceived ideas of what the structure should be. Having the structural engineer involved early was essential to decide on the best design.

The original schedule was very aggressive and it was a very challenging site. It was necessary for SMBH to consider both of these aspects when making a recommendation for a structural system. The site was a hillside. The first floor couldn't extend the full length of the building because the hill intersected the building. Also, a seven-foot coal mine was found below the site, raising stability concerns. There were also concerns about the hillside sliding into the valley below. All in all, a challenging site. The structural system always has to respond to the architecture, but in a project like this, the two have to mesh exceptionally well. In this case the structural system helped to define the floor plan. It was determined that structural steel would be the best system for the site, schedule, and cost.

The engineer can offer thoughts from a structural standpoint during the early architectural discussions.

In a difficult site such as this, there are always concerns over construction costs. The university had a budget and knew what they wanted in a residence hall. Early on SMBH had to identify enough about the costs so the university could determine if they had enough money. In this case, early collaboration really moved the project along and helped everyone make better informed decisions. These decisions also affected the schedule and helped determine if the schedule could be met. In a university, residence halls aren't a month late, they're a year late?they are useless if they open after school starts. Hocking College residence halls were completed in 2008.

Sometimes a project is so challenging that it can't even begin without the structural engineer's advice. The residence halls at Ohio State University (OSU) are in their early stage of design. Two eleven story additions must be added to the residence halls that are currently there, connecting the existing four halls in two "H" designs. Many outstanding conditions exist, including meeting a low floor-to-floor height and adding a very deep basement under one of the additions for chillers that will cool most of the South campus residence halls. The structural engineer was needed from the beginning of this project due to this range of structural requirements.

The existing structures are about 50 years old and the new additions must meet the existing low floor-to-floor height. The basement had to be deeper than normal so the architect made the basement deep but narrow so it doesn't undermine the adjacent foundations. Just this condition alone put SMBH in the driver's seat. This is a case where the architect said, "tell me how wide we can make the basement and we'll follow your lead." It was essential not to disrupt the surrounding foundations in order to save cost. Plus, the university could function with the narrower basements and it would save money.

The cost, schedule, and existing conditions were all driving factors in determining the structure of the OSU residence halls. In this case two systems are being used, cast-in-place concrete and a staggered steel truss system.

OSU is a prime example of how having the structural engineer involved early and choosing the type of system up front helped the architect design correctly. The residence halls are scheduled for completion in 2013.

The Bowling Green State University residence halls are not the standard university project. They are a developer-driven project. The university hires a developer to design a building and then the university leases it back and eventually buys it.

Bowling Green needs 500 beds for a low price. The developer works with the design/build process to do it. The structural engineer works for the architect, who works for the developer. In this case, Bowling Green needs a building quick. The developer mandated the structural system. They came in with a light gauge bearing wall and light gauge joist. Here SMBH was in there right away to get the project moving quickly. Even though the structural engineer was not needed to determine the structural system used, he is essential for managing the process and the time from the beginning stages. The Bowling Green State University residence halls are scheduled for completion in 2012.

Building residence halls in a cost-effective and timely manner is essential so universities can keep to their budgets and schedules and still get the quality and longevity they need from the structures. Involving the structural engineers early on in the process is not an added expense, but rather a way to ensure that costs will be controlled and quality guaranteed.

Stephen Metz is the P.E. principal at Shelley Metz Baumann Hawk, a full-service structural engineering firm in Columbus, Ohio.

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