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One of the defining elements of a university is its architecture. It doesn't matter whether a school has ivy-covered brick buildings or modern steel and glass structures, the character of its campus is shaped, in large part, by its buildings and the atmosphere they create. It is essential for any university to provide sufficient housing to meet its needs, but it's just as important for that housing to be attractive, comfortable and functional. Meeting that standard isn't always easy.

Often, the most significant barrier to developing new housing is cost. Many schools are struggling to make ends meet, and the idea of raising additional funds for new residence halls or student apartments is daunting. A second challenge is timing. No university administrator or planner wants the campus to be disrupted by construction during the school year. But it's unrealistic to try to confine housing projects to the summer months, when fewer students are on campus.

Long-term construction can undermine a school's goal of providing a comfortable and attractive campus experience. Construction sites can pose safety risks for students and staff who have to pass by heavy equipment and other construction elements on their way around campus. And safety is even more of a concern during weekends, when partying students may be less aware of potential hazards.

Considering modular

One potential solution to these challenges that university officials generally overlook is modular housing.

Modular — or manufactured — housing has been around for more than a century. With modular, individual modules are built off-campus in a factory to the specifications of campus planners or architects. When complete, the newly constructed residences are transported to campus and put in place.

The two primary advantages to this approach are cost and completion time. If properly designed and constructed, modular housing can be developed for a fraction of the cost of traditional housing and still meet the highest quality standards. Because the residence halls or apartments are constructed off-campus, the majority of the development process has no physical impact on the campus. Once the completed product is transported to the university, the setup can be completed in a matter of days.

Completion speed also can have a huge effect on funding. If a building can be completed in a few months rather than in a year, financing costs can be reduced, and funding can be obtained more readily.

So if manufactured housing is so attractive, why don't more universities choose this approach? The primary reason is that modular has acquired a bad reputation over the years — in many cases, rightfully so.

Manufactured housing originally was created as a way to build more durable buildings at a lower cost. But over the years, many developers have used it as a way to maximize their profits by cutting corners. The result has been neighborhoods full of ugly boxes that were constructed shoddily.

However, that doesn't have to be the case. Many reputable modular companies operate throughout the United States that are capable of building high-quality manufactured housing for colleges and universities.

Although modular isn't the right choice for every campus, it can be an attractive option in the right circumstances. In fact, the very nature of modular construction ties in well to the typical campus housing approach. Generally, a residence hall or campus apartment building houses uniform populations with similar needs: a desk, closets, dressers and room for a bed, for instance. The uniformity of modular design is perfectly suited to the needs of most campus housing facilities.

Additionally, manufactured housing can be created from all of the materials that are generally used for campus housing. Residence halls more than three or four stories can be constructed from steel frames, concrete, or a combination of the two. Similarly, student apartments and smaller residence halls can be constructed of virtually any building material, including wood. And size isn't an issue. A series of individual modules can be constructed to any shape or configuration and then attached to create buildings of the proper height and size.

In an environment where atmosphere is so important, modular housing offers the additional advantage of being able to accommodate any exterior. Recent advances in the development of precast concrete even permit the creation of more exotic exteriors of brick, granite and marble. As a result, modular residence halls and apartments can be assimilated easily into a college or university campus.

Identifying drawbacks

Manufactured housing has some potential drawbacks that must be considered. The most important consideration when deciding whether to pursue modular is quality. Many fabricators can do high-end work, but not all do. In fact, quality often has been a secondary consideration for fabricators, which is why it has been so much less expensive. Campus planners and designers must make sure that the fabricators they are considering have a record of building high-quality manufactured housing.

Fabricators also must be able to work well with campus designers to make sure they can achieve the unique vision of the local design team. It is important to demand excellence in design, never settling merely for what is acceptable.

Fabricators are not all equal. Campus planners must do their homework before deciding to pursue a modular approach.

Equally important is the interface between the module and the site upon which new housing is being developed. The nature of manufactured housing — a series of boxes that are attached to create a residence — limits its flexibility. It sometimes can be difficult to accommodate modular construction to irregular sites, particularly sites that don't enjoy flat foundations or geometric footprints.

Finally, campus planners should take into consideration outside factors. For instance, cities often rely on construction projects to create jobs and support local businesses. For situations where this is an important consideration, manufactured housing is probably not the right choice because most of the work is completed off-site.

Weighing options

On campuses where modular housing does make sense, the advantages can be enormous. It generally is much cheaper than traditional approaches, and modular housing can be completed in a fraction of the time that typically is necessary for the creation of new residence halls or apartments.

Every campus has its own unique atmosphere and needs, so no universal solution will apply to developing new housing. That's why it is essential that campus planners and designers carefully weigh all their options before choosing any development approach.

Cárdenas and Domenech oversee the urban design and housing division of Domenech, Hicks & Krockmalnic (DHK), an architectural firm based in Boston.

NOTABLE

60,000

Median size, in square feet, of a new housing facility contructed in 2004 for 210 residents.

Source: American School and University's 16th Annual Residence Hall Construction Report, June 2005.

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