Graduate Degree Dorms

The college dormitory is graduating to the master's program. No longer seen as an ancillary necessity by school administrators, student housing has become an important element in efforts to engage entering freshmen into school life and build ties with upperclassmen that will last after graduation. This increased attention is resulting in a wave of amenity-filled new and renovated facilities, an...

By Chuck Ross, Contributing Writer March 1, 2003

The college dormitory is graduating to the master’s program. No longer seen as an ancillary necessity by school administrators, student housing has become an important element in efforts to engage entering freshmen into school life and build ties with upperclassmen that will last after graduation. This increased attention is resulting in a wave of amenity-filled new and renovated facilities, and represents one of the few bright spots in the college construction market.

Market strong, despite economy

Colleges and universities have not been immune to the economic downturn of the last few years. State-funded schools are seeing funding cut by legislators intent on balancing shrinking budgets. And the endowments of private institutions are suffering through the same stock-market collapse that’s hit the investments of their biggest donors. At the same time, schools are becoming increasingly competitive in their efforts to attract a larger share of the growing number of college-bound students—and to keep them thinking fondly of the old alma mater after they graduate.

A general tightening of the housing market, especially in urban areas, is also contributing to the dormitory boom. Urban campuses that once depended on area landlords to house their students are now seeing rents climbing out of the range of student affordability.

“We’re seeing a lot of interest, especially in urban campuses where, traditionally, schools have let some of their students live off campus,” says Chris Schaffner, P.E., an associate at the Boston office of Arup who has worked recently on projects for Princeton, MIT and the University of Vermont. “A major deterrent for students can be how difficult it is to find a suitable living environment.”

One of the most prominent examples of this concern can be found in Chicago. Three schools located around the city’s Loop district—Roosevelt and DePaul Universities and Columbia College—are banding together to create a 1,720-bed facility to house students, who are now competing with affluent empty-nesters for the city’s popular downtown real estate (see p. 44). Rents for the five different apartment and suite floor plans are expected to range from $625 to $985 per month, according to Roosevelt University officials. This, of course, is significantly less than comparable apartments in the area, where one-bedroom rentals begin at about $1,100 per month.

What’s in a look?

Besides added amenities, the look of today’s student housing significantly differs from yesteryear’s more sterile models. For example, another urban Chicago institution, the School of the Art Institute, has renovated a historic, but forsaken, State Street office tower—The Chicago Building—into a residential facility. And down the block, the school has also erected a new building that architecturally mirrors another city gem—the Reliance Building, which stands across an open space from the new dorm.

Washington University in St. Louis has also gone for a historic appearance. The institution’s new Small Group Housing Project is composed of four connected buildings (pictured below) intended to house up to 450 students. What’s unusual is that the space is flexible enough for conversion into classrooms, if necessary.

On the other end of the spectrum, MIT’s Simmons Hall in Cambridge, Mass., (p. 46) has gone for a post-modern look. The structure in some ways resembles a giant Lego block. The unorthodox look is purposeful, according to school officials, as they’ve tried to hire thought-provoking, innovative architects to reflect the the university’s attitude that it pushes the envelope on the academic front.

Dorms for a new generation

So what, besides appearance, is different? Features of these new and renovated facilities—now more frequently called “residence halls” or “living/learning centers”—include greater privacy, more bathrooms, individualized temperature control, increased network connectivity and a big emphasis on safety. Many are also designed around specific interests, such as communications or engineering. Such facilities might also include small theaters or computer labs fitted with CAD equipment.

For example, current floor plans at Washington University dorms feature four-bedroom, two-bath suites grouped to share a smaller number of common living areas. Above the first floor, heating and cooling are supplied by a four-pipe fan-coil system, with heat-recovery wheels incorporated into ventilation. First-floor common areas are served by a variable- air-volume system for greater control. Category 5 data cable and Category 3 voice cable supply at least one voice and data port each for every bed.

Sustainability is also becoming a driver. This trend follows a broader move toward environmental sensitivity in all university construction, Arup’s Schaffner says. Major school construction projects are often viewed as statement-makers by various groups within the university community. Students, faculty and donors all have ideas about what those statements should be—but all seem to unite behind the idea of sustainable design.

School administrators also see cost advantages in thinking green. Donors are often more interested in funding new construction than ongoing maintenance, which can make today’s showcase tomorrow’s budgetary nightmare. Sustainability’s emphasis on lowering life-cycle costs can help minimize future operating costs, Schaffner says.

A greater emphasis on building monitoring and control is also helping the bottom line, engineers say. As increased computer use has driven up electricity consumption, schools are looking at new ways to contain energy costs. Therefore, “perks” like networked monitoring can be justified, as their installation can translate into better control over lighting and HVAC use in common areas of these new residence halls.

Privacy, please

Increased privacy is the biggest difference between today’s residence halls and yesterday’s dorms. Instead of shared rooms with a large bathroom down the hall, students now more often have their own rooms and share an adjoining bathroom with their next-door neighbor. For M/E/P engineers, this can mean more complicated system design, especially when paired with two other trends—connectivity and comfort control.

“More rooms equals more controls, more stuff, going into these buildings,” Schaffner says, adding that a lot of the extra “stuff” is wiring. “Because of the Internet, these buildings are really wired up in ways that dormitories weren’t, even just 10 years ago.”

Standard designs now include at least one voice and one data port for each bed. In some cases, rooms are being fitted out with two of each, against the possibility of doubling up occupancy in the future. In many cases, the new buildings are being connected to the campus network via fiber-optic cable, with Category 5 cable running to each of the individual jacks.

Buildings also are seeing a lot more plumbing than they did 10 or 20 years ago, which is adding some complications to what used to be a fairly standard plan of centralized toilet and shower services. With toilets and showers spread throughout a facility, engineers need to incorporate more plumbing risers, which adds to building expense. Designs also need to address more aesthetic concerns.

“One issue is noise,” says Jeff Crawford, manager of mechanical engineering for St. Louis-based Ross & Baruzzini, the M/E/P firm responsible for Washington U’s new facilities. “With a centralized bath unit, it would all be located at one end of a hall or building.”

That helps isolate the noise of flushing toilets and draining showers to the area immediately surrounding the bathrooms. To help meet noise concerns in new designs, with individual bathrooms dispersed among the living units, Ross & Baruzzini has standardized on cast-iron pipe instead of plastic, Crawford says.

A problem, however, with these more aesthetic designs, says Crawford, is that large, ground-floor common rooms can complicate waste-line design. These open spaces, which might include seminar space, libraries or communal gathering areas, require engineers to incorporate longer horizontal runs. Architectural solutions, such as soffits or other design elements, can help hide lines.

While it’s clear that the trend in dorm design is to provide greater individualized comfort and control, designers differ in how they deliver these amenities, especially heating and cooling. For example, a 220-bed facility now under construction at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J., features an over-the-window valance system. The Arup design adds a couple of serpentines to a standard fin-tube approach, feeding the system with hot and chilled water from a central energy plant. Air movement is driven by convection, not fans, and the valance enclosure captures condensation.

This arrangement is saving the university both in first cost and ongoing energy costs, Schaffner says. In addition, the absence of fans should translate to decreased maintenance requirements down the road.

Elsewhere, a Ross & Baruzzini renovation project at the University of Missouri’s main campus in Columbia, Mo., replaced a two-pipe induction system with a four-pipe fan-coil system to provide heating or cooling as needed, along with better ventilation to handle the area’s high humidity.

Heat recovery is being incorporated into ventilation designs, with energy savings providing a three- to four-year payback, Crawford says. A campus energy plant supplies hot and cold water for the system.

Designers from Chicago-based Armstadter Architects and Kiferbaum Design + Build, Deerfield, Ill., chose a combined approach for a three-building, 240-bed project constructed for the Finch University of Health Sciences’ Chicago Medical School, in North Chicago, Ill. A radiant system provides a basic heat level, with individual runs of copper tubing installed around the perimeter of every dorm unit in the precast structures. Each building has a boiler supplying hot water to the tubing. Boiler operation is based on internal and external temperatures, but each apartment has a control valve to regulate the flow of hot water through each unit’s tubing.

The buildings’ boilers also supply thermostatically controlled fan-coil systems in each unit, to provide additional heat. While the university provides the radiant-based heat, students pay for the electricity to drive the fan. The fan-coil systems are also connected to individual rooftop condensers, providing cooling to each apartment—also on the student’s tab. The designers say their strategy meets university requirements for a low-maintenance plan, and student demand for individualized control.

“We looked at four-pipe systems and true central systems,” says Marc Armstadter, principal of the namesake firm. “The one that offered the best flexibility was this one. Each unit has perimeter control, air-handler control and cooling control.”

Scheduling concerns

As leaves perennially change color each fall, students return to campus, meaning that these facilities must be up and running on time. Besides creating the need to find last-minute housing, delays can have an even larger impact if residence projects are part of larger master plans, creating a domino effect that could stretch out for years.

Engineers experienced in these projects emphasize the importance of understanding the full range of building-authority and client approvals needed for occupancy. Schools may reference standard building codes in their requirements, but local authorities may have some surprise trump cards. For example, local building departments may get more involved, as these facilities begin to look more like apartments.

Accessibility issues are another touchy matter. Many communities now require new construction projects to include a certain percentage of fully accessible—not just adaptable—units. These demands may be over and above what university officials have outlined. At Princeton, this kind of misunderstanding meant Arup engineers and architects had to redesign a number of units to incorporate bigger bathrooms.

Fire and life-safety plans are another potential sticking point for local authorities. Most universities are fully aware of the importance of sprinklers in their major new construction and renovation projects (see “An Alarming Concern,” p. 42). But local building authorities may also face liability fears and may be especially cautious about signing off, engineers say.

Planning for the future

If the last 20 years have proven anything, it’s that change is one of the few constants in dormitory design. These structures have evolved from high-rise, low-tech student warehouses to highly wired, community-oriented living/learning centers. This new wave of construction may be state-of-the-art today, but what are engineers doing to ensure adaptability to the next school of student-residence design? “The biggest thing is that we realize that IT infrastructure changes faster than anything else,” Schaffner says, pointing out that mechanical systems may last 30 years, but IT requirements may change in five years. “So all the systems have to be very accessible,” he adds.

The Arup design for Princeton runs the utility backbone in cable trays installed in central-corridor ceilings. Server closets are located on each floor, and rooms are wired for two students, even though each only houses one student in the current design.

This level of system accessibility also helps financially stressed institutions keep their facilities running. Residence halls are often considered 50- to 100-year buildings, but stretched budgets can result in a first-cost focus on the part of school administrators. Being able to show an acceptable payback can help universities see the value in upgrades.

“We routinely do life-cycle cost analyses,” says Ross & Baruzzini’s Crawford. “And if we can show payback in five years, they usually see that as a good investment.”

One maintenance-easing strategy Ross & Baruzzini uses in its designs is locating HVAC units in closet corridors instead of student spaces to make both ongoing maintenance and future upgrades easier for those systems. In addition, for its University of Missouri-Columbia project, the firm is installing water softeners on hot water lines to help protect pipes against the area’s hard water.

Continuing interest

The factors promoting today’s dormitory boom don’t show any signs of letting up in the near future. The “echo boom” children of the baby boomer generation have just begun hitting college age, forcing up attendance rates and pushing schools into marketing overdrive.

High-end housing has become an important draw for these comfort-conscious kids and their protective parents. And keeping more upperclassmen happy in on-campus housing could help build stronger ties with these future alumni. Finally, the higher rents they can now charge for these amenity-filled facilities is giving these budget-stressed institutions something their students have long sought—desperately needed financial aid.

An Alarming Concern

On Jan. 19, 2000, a residence-hall fire killed three students at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J. That incident brought intense media scrutiny to the lack of sprinklers in many college residence halls. Proposed federal legislation to address the issue has stalled, but several states are currently considering their own bills.

According to Andrew Bowman, managing principal of fire and life-safety engineering firm Gage Babcock’s Chicago office, they’re seeing a growing awareness of the importance of adding sprinklers to existing dormitories and incorporating them in all new construction. For many institutions, this means revisiting master plans.

Be aware, he says, that administrators may be hesitant to add sprinklers now to a building scheduled for a near-term overhaul. This concern can be allayed, Bowman suggests, by addressing future floor plans in sprinkler-system proposals. For example, such planning could take the form of fitting out current two-student layouts with the piping required to serve planned single-student rooms.

Re-addressing master plans also gives facility managers the opportunity to look at broader life-safety and security issues, which Bowman says might allow for more effective campus-wide control systems. Furthermore, other systems may be affected by such changes, such as electrical service, which may need to be upgraded to supply new fire pumps.

Market forces, however, may prove the ultimate driver, despite the expense. According to Bowman, safety could become a deciding factor as families consider higher-education options.

“In the future, more and more [sprinkler decisions] are going to be a market-type thing,” says Bowman. “Parents are starting to ask the questions about where their children are staying, and whether they are sprinklered buildings.”

Voice Evacuation: The Next Life-Safety Step?

On many college and university campuses, adding or retroffting sprinklers is a major issue (see “An Alarming Concern,” p. 42). Another life-safety issue involves voice evacuation.

“We really see [the market] picking up,” says Jeff Hendrickson, director of marketing for Silent Knight, a manufacturer of fire alarm panels that include voice evacuation features.

Although most dorm facilities tend to be low-rise, where there has not been a major demand or code mandate for the technology, Hendrickson notes his company is starting to see a transition.

“The product is really best geared to building types that have a lot of turnover and questionable staff training as far as how to get people out of buildings,” he says.

Dorms, he says, certainly fit that description.

Not everyone, however, is as optimistic about widespread implementation. “It’s very situation dependent,” says Andrew Bowman, managing principal of Gage Babcock’s Chicago office. “It’s also a very difficult system to retrofit.”

For example, the concrete construction of many dormitories can make recessing speakers and wiring in walls or ceilings expensive, while leaving equipment exposed puts it at risk for vandalism, he explains.

Another issue is intelligibility. In fact, some local codes have high speech-intelligibility requirements for these systems. According to John Haynes, marketing director for manufacturer SimplexGrinnell, who produces a device to deal with this issue, the matter is a big concern in dorm construction because the inherent noise levels would likely mean that speakers would be required in each room, not just in hallways.

Still, some say the flexibility such systems offer to emergency personnel is becoming more attractive to campus-facility designers, especially since the events of Sept. 11, 2001. With voice evacuation, building residents could be given more specific instruction than the simple call to get out of a building offered by standard fire alarms.

“It’s being evaluated,” says Ed Sanjek, product manager for Siemens Fire Safety, speaking of the voice-evacuation technology in residence hall construction. “It isn’t just fire that could be an emergency now. It could be terrorism.”

“And people really respond to the human voice,” adds Silent Knight’s Hendrickson.

What may also bode well for the future, he says, is that the cost of the equipment itself is coming down. “Before, we may have seen it only in a high-rise building, but as we’re able to make it more modular, we can bring the cost down in buildings that we couldn’t or wouldn’t consider before.”