Building Successfully in Colder Climates

by Katie Sloan

Sunbelt developments may never have to consider how to winterize their construction schedules, but building up north requires a few extra steps.

Pools with swim-up bars and bartenders. Outdoor amphitheaters. Dog parks. Beach volleyball courts. These are just some of the unique amenities available at newer student housing facilities. Student housing is one of the fastest-paced, most dynamic and most competitive industries out there, and student housing developers aren’t afraid to take risks and be inventive when it comes to design, amenities and sustainability. However, many developers who pioneer unique and innovative living spaces are still afraid of one thing – building in the harsh winters that we experience here in the northern part of the country.

Building in freezing temperatures, with ice and snow falling and unpredictable winter storms, is a risk that many developers are hesitant to take. The Midwest experiences nearly every form of inclement weather imaginable, from snow, ice and hail in the winter to rain, tornadoes, violent thunderstorms, high temperatures and humidity in the summer, and drastic weather changes all year round. As I write this, our summer air has cooled from a humid 95 degrees to a comparatively chilly 65 degrees, literally overnight.

At Wolverine Building Group, we have constructed student housing facilities, as well as many other complex projects, here in the Midwest and around the country, for local and national developers. It’s true that building in cold weather climates requires extensive forethought and planning, but it can be done successfully.

Pre-Construction – Planning for the Cold
Student housing projects carry a firm deadline of August or the start of the school year and a typical construction duration of 10 to 12 months, which means most projects will need to be built through the winter. If you’re planning a new construction or major renovations for a student housing facility in the north, you’ll want to do some additional analysis during the pre-construction phase. When facing this tight timeframe along with the potential for weather-related delays, scheduling for student housing projects is even more critical than it is for typical construction jobs. You’ll want to start building early enough in the year to complete excavation and foundations before the ground freezes, and you’ll most likely have to deal with winter storms while getting your building enclosed.

Because construction in snowy climates compresses the construction schedule, it can lead to an increased project budget. Take a look at your options, and find the right balance of schedule compression and pricing to make your project happen on time and to your high standard of quality. This is where an experienced team comes in. If you are unfamiliar with possible weather conditions at your building site, make sure to have someone on your team who has experience building through the winter. We recommend hiring either an architect or consultant who understands winter weather conditions, building codes and special requirements of design and construction up north. Don’t forget about your construction team – in particular, contractors who know which trades can and can’t work during extremely cold, wet or snowy weather.

While weather events are out of our control, the planning process is not. It’s tempting to pare down the budget in pre-construction, but allotting funds for temporary heat, ice and snow removal and other contingency costs may prevent unpleasant overages in the long run. Pre-planning and knowledge can help you push through and get your project off on the right foot, despite winter surprises.

During Construction
As all developers, architects, and contractors know, there are countless factors that can potentially delay a job’s progress. In the world of student housing, there is no margin for error. Your groundbreaking or early milestone dates may get pushed back, but classes are going to start and students will be ready to move in. The project needs to be ready and furnished by the scheduled completion date.

Rain, sleet, snow, excessive cold (or a combination of the above) impact many trades, primarily exterior work. Sitework, concrete, masonry and asphalt paving can all suffer when the cold weather hits, and even finish work can be difficult to complete when temperatures drop. Regular expansion and contraction cycles resulting from weather changes can also affect the health of a building and progress on a jobsite.

The good news is that use of ground heaters and unit heaters can help some of the trade work, like drywall and paint, move forward in cold weather. The bad news is that if you aren’t planning for them, use of these items can increase your budget and add time to your schedule.

A final factor that should be considered when budgeting projects that will be constructed through the winter are the specialized safety practices and procedures for inclement weather. Roads on and around the site must be plowed, with space designated for the snow piles. Work surfaces and roofs need to be cleared, shoveled and sanded or salted to prevent injury. Workers onsite need cold weather PPE (personal protective equipment) and additional layers, as well as warming breaks on extremely cold days to prevent hypothermia. All of these measures will help the construction team stay warm, dry and safe when the mercury falls.

After Construction
If you’re building in a snowy climate, your maintenance staff should be familiar with the locale and the attendant weather concerns. Plowing, snow removal and winterizing of plumbing are needed each fall to prepare for winter. Sidewalks must be salted when ice and snow begin to fall, which takes a toll on concrete. Some specialized amenities require additional attention, such as outdoor pools, which must be drained and winterized to avoid damage. Many of these precautions aren’t needed in warmer-weather climates, but they’re second nature to anyone who owns a home or commercial building in a colder climate. They’ll keep your residents safe and promote the long-term health of your facility.

Our team at Wolverine Building Group has worked through 75 snowy winters, constructing multi-story facilities on a wide variety of sites with a variety of structural systems. Building successfully in the cold can be done with thorough planning and, if possible, some cushion time allotted for unexpected weather delays and contingency costs for winter conditions.

Bring the right team to your project. Knowing how to push on during harsh conditions is critical, but knowing when to hold out until a storm breaks can be just as valuable. If you’re not familiar with building in cold weather conditions, hire a design, construction and maintenance team you can trust that knows how to handle the inclement weather. Experience is key and can make the difference between a project that falls behind schedule and goes over budget and a building that’s successful on move-in day and for its entire life cycle.

Don’t be intimidated by our harsh Midwest winters. The weather is unpredictable, but building here is rewarding. There are more than 100 colleges and universities in Michigan alone. We have one of the most productive and efficient work forces in the country, and we’ll put on our parkas and snowmobile suits and work through the winter to bring your unique design to life, on budget and on schedule.

Wolverine Building Group is a full-service general contractor, construction manager and design-builder that has been in business since 1939. Wolverine is currently constructing student housing developments in several states across the country. More information about Wolverine’s history and experience can be found at


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