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Business Officer Magazine

Instant Housing

Build permanent accommodations for 150 students within three months? It wasn’t exactly a snap for leaders at Muhlenberg College, but they did it.

By Kent Dyer and James Steffy

In the fall of 2006, Muhlenberg College, a residential liberal arts college of 2,100 students in Allentown, Pennsylvania, faced the seemingly impossible task of building housing for at least 150 students during the three-month window of summer 2007. The college needed to accomplish two goals. First, we had to move approximately 100 upperclassmen from neighborhood apartments back to campus in new housing, which would add to our inventory of single rooms and provide apartment-like living. The second goal was to raze and replace seven decaying, small residential units originally built as temporary housing for 56 students.

The only viable site for the new structures was the same plot on which the temporary housing was located. The site would not be vacated until May 15, 2007; and construction needed to be completed by August 15, 2007.

Exploring Options

At Muhlenberg College, facilities oversight is assigned to the business office. So, for this project, our staff worked with the residential life staff to explore a variety of nontraditional construction approaches that might allow us to meet the necessary deadline. Given the schedule, options were few and the college’s risk was high should it not accomplish the two goals. After all, the cost to subsidize privately owned, neighborhood apartments for upperclassmen was approximately $350,000 per year.

We began by estimating costs. With information from our architect, potential modular building firms, several design-builders, and our construction manager, we set a target range of $60,000–$65,000 per bed space. The total project budget was $12.5 million.

Then, we tackled the schedule problem. To extend the time for construction, we considered the idea of temporarily moving students to motels. However, doing this either at the end or the beginning of the academic year carried with it a high likelihood of student dissatisfaction and prohibitive expense. We then investigated several types of fast-track construction, including panelized approaches, design-build options, and modular construction.

Although both the panelized and design-build approaches resulted in some schedule-time reductions, neither was sufficient to meet our timeline. Modular construction, because it allowed us to build off-site and under controlled weather conditions, presented possibilities.

Moving Toward Modular

Contracting With a Modular Builder

When it’s time to hire a company to construct modular buildings, where do you turn? What criteria are most important in selecting a builder? Who will manage the project?

At Muhlenberg College, we’ve probably had more experience than many institutions in working with modular builders. But, that was about 10 years ago, and it’s a much different process now. For our new project in 2007, we were blazing new trails—planning to construct housing for 150 students within a three-month time frame. After reviewing our options, we decided on modular buildings. However, selecting a modular builder would not be our first step.

As the consultant for the capital projects, I recommended that we hire a construction management company and a site engineering firm in addition to the modular builder. I felt that the project would be so intense that we needed a construction management company on site, checking on all the players on a daily basis.

We hired the construction management company early in the process to consult with the architect (who generally is hired first) on cost estimates; help create the requests for proposal for the modular builders; help select the builder; and oversee construction.

For colleges and universities looking to hire modular builders, I recommend the following selection criteria:

  • Make sure the builder can work with the architect. Some modular builders have their own architects and standard designs, but Muhlenberg wanted the bells and whistles that our own architect could give us. If you want some degree of customization, be sure to find out how much the builder is willing to flex with the architect.
  • Look for builders that have built quality modular buildings on a college campus. We wanted to build permanent modular structures with the same life span as traditional construction. The firm we hired had successfully constructed quality modular buildings at Yale University. This was a major factor in our selection of the company.
  • Consider the importance of safety. We were concerned about safety. In fact, Muhlenberg College has a policy of constructing only steel buildings on campus to reduce the risk of fire. Some, but not all, modular builders offer steel construction. Confirm that this is an option with the builder that you are considering before moving forward.
  • Verify on-time and on-budget performance. Make sure the builder can provide references who can verify that projects were completed on time and within budget. It’s also wise to include in the builder contract penalties for missed deadlines.
  • Find out what can be built at the factory. Anything that can be done at the factory instead of on site will save money and, often, time. In our case, the ability of one company to complete the full-brick exterior at the factory was critical, because the schedule did not allow this to be done on site.
  • Make sure you can inspect units under construction. I am a strong advocate of checking on the units while they are being built in the factory. That way you can make sure the design is correct and the right materials are being used.

                                                                                                                                 — James Steffy

Modular student housing was not a new concept to us. In 1981, the college built seven small, modular units labeled as “temporary” (these were the units demolished in May 2007). And, in 1996, our entering freshman class was over-enrolled, so we erected a four-story, modular residence during June through September to house 114 students. Similarly, in the fall of 2006, due to a larger-than-expected new class, we constructed  during the fall semester a three-story, modular residence of four-person suites that housed 48 students. The latter two facilities were built as permanent housing with masonry exteriors.
Despite these prior experiences, the challenge for the summer of 2007 included a timetable that was even more constricted, in part due to the selection of a site already occupied by student housing. In addition, it was a more comprehensive project that included buildings that we wanted to be of high quality and to last for many years.

After much discussion, we met with Muhlenberg President Randy Helm to recommend a modular approach, with units to be constructed during the 2006–2007 academic year and to be set in place during the summer of 2007. Shortly after this meeting, the buildings and grounds committee of the college’s board of directors approved this concept subject to selection of contractors and establishment of a guaranteed maximum price and project budget to be approved at a later date.

Recognizing Risks

In describing this modular project to the president, we characterized our proposed fast-track schedule as having the potential for creating “a perfect storm scenario.” Clearly, it was a tall order. We had one month to raze existing buildings, relocate utilities, and prepare the site for five new building foundations. This would be followed by another two months to erect 90 truckloads of modules, mate the units, complete site work, and finish miscellaneous other construction items. The fact that potential adverse weather conditions could interfere with work at the site and the setting of the modules added another layer of concern.

To ease the schedule a bit, we recommended a two-phase project. Three of the five units would be completed by August 15, with the final two units plus a new laundry building opening by September 15. The parking lots and landscape plantings would follow.

An On-Time Team

From the start, it was clear that this kind of detailed and effective planning was central to meeting the proposed timetable. Assembling a compatible contracting team willing to commit to a fast-track design and construction approach was critical. Team members would include:

  • An architect experienced in student housing, who could work with our staff and students and who was willing to work with his or her counterpart at the selected modular firm.
  • A construction management firm willing to help evaluate modular builders and oversee everything from construction quality to site work. This firm needed to demonstrate a proven track record for quality and on-time completion and a background in fast-track construction and modular building.
  • A modular builder known for its high quality of construction, prior experience in apartment-like structures, ability to meet deadlines, and willingness to offer competitive costs. We also wanted the builder to be located within 150 miles of campus, because we felt that would reduce shipping costs, lower the risk of delays, and allow us to more easily check on construction at the factory.
  • An experienced site engineering firm to assess the hillside where the units were to be built and prepare a storm-water runoff plan. Such a plan needed approval by local government agencies to gain the necessary permits within our expedited time frame.
  • Our plan called for this team of contractors to be augmented by the college’s chief business officers, consultant for capital projects, director of plant operations, director of information technologies, and director of residential services.

With these requirements in mind, we interviewed contract firms, learned how they proposed to carry out their piece of the project, and ultimately put together our team.

We focused first on hiring the construction management firm, in this case Whiting Turner Contracting Company. This was in large part because we needed help in comparing quality and cost. We knew that modular builders did not all have the same capabilities and that evaluating those elements would be one of our biggest challenges. Whiting Turner assisted us in making and evaluating these comparisons—and taught us the importance of furnishing detailed architectural specifications to ensure that our cost and other comparisons from one builder to another were valid. For example, because of fire safety standards, we opted for steel rather than wood construction. We decided to build a permanent structure that had the same longevity as a top-quality building constructed traditionally. And, we specified brick exteriors. All these details factored into builder expertise and related costs.

Because of the complexity of coordinating and overseeing these efforts, we opted to have our construction manager hold the modular contract on the college’s behalf. This allowed daily coordination and supervision of the modular builder by the college’s construction manager, who presided over the master schedule and was also present at the frequent sessions with the architect and the college staff.

Our selection of the modular builder, Kullman Building Systems, Inc., was based on the company’s robust quality of construction, completion of student housing at Yale University, and ability to meet our design specifications. In addition, the builder’s timetable guaranteed delivery of the units over a 10-day period beginning June 15, the date by which the site would be ready. A key factor affecting our schedule was the firm’s ability to apply, at the factory, full-size brick on the modular units. Once finished, the units could then be transported to our campus, a distance of about 45 miles.

Modular construction cost per square foot was comparable with conventional building of projects we observed on other campuses and with earlier Muhlenberg projects. The completed construction cost for this project was $236 per square foot. Our previous campus housing project of a similar type, in 2001, cost $170 per square foot. Assuming a conservative inflation factor of 5 percent, the numbers were in line with our expectations.

Students Have a Say

The design and location for this project were influenced by students who were nominated by the student body to participate on our president’s strategic planning group. Several years earlier, the group had expressed a preference for a village-like setting on the selected site. Later, when the time came to launch the project, the student council named several students to assist residential life staff and our facilities staff. All worked with the architect in reacting to and commenting on the space configurations and architectural designs.

Located on rather steeply sloped land on the southeast corner of our campus, the building site overlooked attractive city parkland. This topography lent itself to a grouping of smaller buildings—as opposed to a single, larger structure—and allowed us to plan the complex that would be known as The Village.

With the assistance of Spillman Farmer Architects, we decided on three-story buildings with gabled roofs and no basements. The size of the roofs mandated that they be constructed on site rather than transported from the factory. These roof sections would then be lifted into place in one large piece by a 600-ton crane, the largest mobile crane on the East Coast. Although the steep slope presented a number of site challenges (such as where to locate the crane to set the modules), it presented an opportunity to position the buildings in a way that would provide attractive views to the park.

The overall design that emerged included five three-story, 8,300-square-foot buildings, each including six apartments. With 29 students per building, the village would house 145 students. The slope of the site allowed main building entries directly to mid-floor levels, with additional grade-level entrances on the lower floor of each building. This removed the time and expense of installing elevators.

In an effort to construct appealing residence halls that would vary slightly in appearance from each other, we used bricks as a design element. Brick features included rounded arches over doors in some buildings, pointed arches in others, and brickwork bands that were decorative and disguised places where floor levels were joined. A further variation included use of different shadings of brick on some units.

A Hands-On Approach

A fast-track project such as this one requires daily coordination and reassurance to all that work will not be delayed and that plans will be strictly followed. Decisions are made daily, and answers must often come immediately.

To accomplish this, the project team met weekly during the academic year, with session locations alternating between our campus and the modular builder’s factory. This gave us the opportunity to inspect the modules as they were being constructed. On the factory floor, modules were fit together by floor to assure that fittings were accurate before shipping the units.

Because the units were built one at a time and the configuration of all the units was similar, this allowed us to consider the first unit as a prototype.

Although all of us agreed to minimize change orders because of the tight time schedule and expense, an inspection of the first unit to be completed revealed that two side-by-side vanity sinks were too close for two students to be using the space simultaneously. Because there was an adjacent toilet room enclosure with ample space, we determined that it was possible to expand the vanity sink counter. This is an example of the few change orders we made. The change was carried out in each suite of the four remaining units.

When it came time for the on-site construction, we wanted to protect ourselves from weather unknowns and other potential surprises. Consequently, we made plans for construction to run from dawn through evening hours six days a week, with Sundays set aside as an additional day to be used if needed. The construction manager designed a master calendar, listing specific work to be done each day. The modular delivery and crane schedules were also calculated hourly for each day of the 10-day setting period. A detailed, digital program showed the sequential crane picks planned during this period.

Marketing: An Unexpected Challenge

The new units—which included mostly single rooms, full kitchens, living areas, and an attractive location—promised to be among the most preferred on campus.

So, we were surprised when our residential life staff reported that students were reluctant to sign up for these new units in our spring housing lottery. At the time of the lottery, an architect’s rendition, floor plans, and a brief description of each suite was available.

It turned out that students (and perhaps their parents) did not think it was possible that the units would be ready for occupancy when the school year started.

Consequently, our housing staff mounted a campaign to build confidence and counter the skepticism. We created a Web site on our campus network with continuously updated, online photographs of the project. A webcam mounted at the construction site documented daily progress. The Web site also provided detailed exterior and interior architectural drawings, locations of buildings on the site, and photos of units being constructed in the factory. Included on the Web-site menu was the animated simulation of the crane picks for the modules.

These strategies began to turn things around, and the units were fully reserved by the time they opened.

A Happy Ending

Thanks to good weather and competent team members—with the expertise and a strong will to meet what appeared to be an impossible schedule—we met our goals. Students occupied three buildings by August 15, and the remaining residents moved into the other two structures by September 15. The units are already among the most popular on campus.

The Village ended up costing approximately 6 percent more than budget, mostly due to higher site costs than anticipated and a water runoff system required by the state environmental department. However, the college saved an estimated $750,000 (equal to the 6 percent of additional costs) by not having to house students in motels for the academic year while a traditionally built project was erected. With an on-schedule opening and full occupancy, you might call our instant housing project an overnight success.

KENT DYER is chief business officer and treasurer, Muhlenberg College, Allentown, Pennsylvania, and JAMES STEFFY is retired vice president for planning and administration for the college.