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virginia tech residence hall 2

A good fit

Feb. 3, 2023
Meeting the challenge of designing and building on tight sites.

Schools of all sizes, especially colleges and universities, constantly evolve to meet new pedagogical standards and student demands. Campuses are in a constant state of flux as facilities are updated and new buildings added.

The challenge of adding facilities to campuses that are landlocked or significantly developed has been a major challenge for education and facilities professionals. Whether plans call for adding a building, removing and replacing an older facility, or renovating and expanding an existing building, site constraints are an increasingly common obstacle.

Working within a tight site, especially if that site is adjacent to existing facilities, adds many layers of complexity to a project. Fortunately, school leaders and a project's design-build team, including the architects, general contractors and engineers, can turn to a number of strategies that address potential challenges early and deliver a successful project.

The recently completed and opened Creativity and Innovation District Residence Hall at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., offers insights into building a new facility in a crowded part of an established campus and integrating the building on campus effectively. The 230,896-square-foot facility is a six-story residence hall that houses about 600 students and includes graduate teaching assistant apartments and a resident faculty apartment. The residence hall also has academic support spaces, such as classrooms, an auditorium, library, art studios, laundry facilities, rooftop green spaces, and metal, wood, and welding shops.

Built on the site of the former University Club, the residence hall is adjacent to the school’s Graduate Life Center and situated in an established part of campus. This location required the university and its design-build team to take some creative approaches because of the site constraints on the four-acre parcel.

Three challenges and the corresponding strategies offer important lessons for other education institutions that are considering new facilities on tight sites.    

Understanding the site

As with any development and construction project, a thorough understanding of the site is critical. Development projects in established areas of campus are comparable to infill projects in urban areas. The site for the Creativity and Innovation District Residence Hall had many challenging features, including its proximity to other buildings, a steep slope, underground utilities that connect much of the campus, and an existing box culvert which carries the central branch of a creek underneath the site.

Identifying all potential site challenges at the beginning of the planning process is crucial. Additional time spent on site review will provide the design-build team with the information they need to properly prepare for a project. This research early in the process helps to reduce the likelihood of unexpected surprises and significant change orders during construction. The Virginia Tech team identified site challenges in bridging documents and schematic plans it created before engaging with an architect, general contractor, and site engineer. For example, the steep site conditions meant that grading around the building would directly affect the building’s layout and drive early design considerations.

The box culvert was another site characteristic that affected the building’s design. Knowing the alignment, elevations, size, and composition of the culvert was critical to the site and the building design, and the final decision for the building was to bridge the existing culvert rather than relocating the culvert. Identifying the culvert’s location during the planning stage ensured proper design and avoided what could have become a significant – and costly – headache if it weren’t discovered until construction.

Floodplain factors

Another component of understanding a site is considering potential floodplain implications, especially as long-term weather trends change. The occurrence of severe storms and other extreme weather has increased in recent years, and these trends may continue or accelerate. New development on campus should take these changes into account, specifically related to stormwater flow and potential flooding. When a school adds facilities, especially in a developed area of campus, additional pressure is put on the campus environment. New buildings could begin to encroach on floodplains. For example, the Creativity and Innovation District Residence Hall was built within a FEMA floodplain and the Town of Blacksburg’s Floodplain Overlay District.

The design-build team developed a hydrologic (HEC-HMS) model to determine the tributary flow rates and a hydraulic (HEC-RAS) model to establish the existing base flood elevation. Using the existing model as the base, the team and Virginia Tech’s Office of University Planning collaborated to meet the floodplain requirements, while also responding the university’s equally important goals of universal access and “visual openness, intentional pedestrian connections, and a variety of landscape spaces.”

Recognizing the implications of having the site in the floodplain meant that floodplain considerations were a key factor in the building’s initial design. Anticipating extreme weather will result in a better building design as well. When calculating the base flood elevation, consider how that should affect the lowest finished floor elevation. Should the lowest finished floor be raised even farther above the base flood plain to avoid potential flooding in severe storms?

Finally, take a holistic approach to stormwater and floodplain management. Many colleges and universities, including Virginia Tech, have a stormwater master plan for their campuses. Ensure those plans are updated frequently and maintained. Campus floodplain master plans are a great tool to have as well.

Utilities and infrastructure 

As many facilities professionals know, what lies beneath the ground on campus is as important as what is visible above the ground. An extensive network of utilities and other infrastructure that powers a modern college and university campus is often hidden beneath expansive green spaces, walkways, and roads. When adding buildings to a campus, especially in an established and developed area of campus, utility considerations cannot be overlooked.

New buildings are likely to require the rerouting of existing utilities and create the need for new utilities. Coordination and early planning are paramount to ensure that utilities are adequately addressed and that existing services aren’t interrupted during construction. Proper utility planning is crucial to avoid mistakes during construction, such as accidentally knocking out power or telecommunications to a wide swath of campus.

Prior to construction, several utilities serving a major portion of the Virginia Tech campus and the Town of Blacksburg crossed the site for the Creativity and Innovation Residence Hall — a sanitary sewer, a water main, a communications duct bank, and an electrical duct bank. These utilities needed to be rerouted around the building site, while adhering to separation requirements and considering new utilities for the building, such as chilled water and high-pressure steam lines. As with all tight sites, space was a challenge when rerouting existing utilities and designing new utility plans. Today, the sanitary sewer, chilled water lines, telephone lines, and storm sewer, are now situated under an adjacent street, and an electrical duct bank and storm sewer lie under another road.

Coordination of both the horizontal and vertical locations of these utilities was a critical component of the design. The design-build team used software to profile each utility and determine potential conflicts during design. The team coordinated with other consultants to eliminate the conflicts.

Lessons for the Future

Campus projects come in all shapes, sizes, and environments. As colleges, universities, and other schools look for creative ways to add facilities to their campuses, new challenges arise. Site complexity and limits will remain a key factor that most education and facilities professionals need to consider when planning for new buildings on campus.

Virginia Tech’s Creativity and Innovation Residence Hall demonstrates that education institutions can deliver an exceptional new building on a tight site in an established and developed area on campus. Early collaboration between a school and its design-build team can make all the difference in the success of a project. Likewise, it’s paramount that the team remain nimble. Unseen challenges will arise, but planning and coordination will empower the design-build team to address those issues.  


Laura Morillo ([email protected]is a senior project manager at TRC Companies in Blacksburg, Va. She has worked extensively on site development and infrastructure projects.
About the Author

Laura Morillo

Laura Morillo ([email protected]) is a senior project manager at TRC Companies in Blacksburg, Va. She has worked extensively on site development and infrastructure projects.

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