What Were We Smokin’?

by Katie Sloan

The failing dorm model still haunts us today.

The 1960s left many with hangovers of varying durations; some shook theirs off the next morning, others are bothered by flashback to this day. The recurring ‘flashback’ that haunts our industry is the aspiration of designers and builders back then:  Build it to last. This mantra usually translated to “make it concrete, the thicker the better,” leaving today’s universities with the indestructible bomb shelters we called “dorms.”

The old housing model provides that students spend their first few college years in a very durable concrete box, only to flee to the perceived independence of a rickety, wooden off-campus shack with a dozen friends. However, It is not surprising this failing model still exists today. To remove buildings not even halfway through their intended life cycle can seem wasteful. What is surprising is the fact that some universities hold on to the sarcophagus-style construction paradigm, passing opportunities to explore newer ideas in materials and methods, ideas that could draw in more students, encourage them to spend more years on campus living in apartments rather than barracks.

The reputation of wood-framed multifamily residential construction is maligned and misunderstood in the student housing market. The notion that because a building is wood it is therefore “rickety” and because it is not built to last a century or more makes it “temporary,” is archaic yet undying. The shadow market rental product that students move into after they serve their time in on-campus housing is likely a source of such misconceptions. A closer examination of the attributes of wood, modern building codes, and technological advancements can help to resolve them.

Safety. It will go up like a matchstick. All new multifamily residential buildings are protected from fire by automatic suppression sprinklers. The fire suppression sprinkler is the single most important improvement in building safety for all construction types in the history of the building industry. The ICC sets the value for fire rated wall assemblies that separate units from each other. With wood construction, the internal structure is completely separated from its occupants by layers of gypsum board that achieve the UL mandated fire resistance rating. The author of this article recently used this argument to successfully to obtain a variance for a wood framed building in a city’s “Fire District” where wood had been forbidden for many years.

Durability. Kids will destroy anything that is not built like a bomb shelter. We can all imagine the fist-sized holes that appear in the Sheetrock walls of wood framed buildings following a loss to the rival football team. Modern construction techniques and strategic placement of cement board will assure that this student, now nursing a broken fist, no longer has an appetite for punching walls.

Sound. The thin walls will keep my honor student, of which I’m a proud parent, from studying. The last boom in condominium development brought radically advanced sound and vibration mitigation techniques. This author in fact provided designs for a successful building within fifty feet of active railroad tracks; noisier than the Tappa Kegga Bru house on any campus.

Affordability. (i.e., cheap.)  Yeah, and…?  What is so wrong with a housing model that makes sense both on campus and off?  The market dictates that the wood-framed residential building is the financial model that fills apartments – profitably. As Universities are beginning to understand the market like builders already have, they are gathering the ability to build more and better facilities and form partnerships with developers who can help. Students will benefit from a uniform living experience for their whole career, allowing their education to come back to the focus of their lives on campus.

Not convinced? I will throw the trump card in favor of wood in my next column — sustainability!

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