Article No: 165

2006-05-03 09:17:38
College Dorms Boast Balanced Design
By: Concrete Homes


Perhaps more than any other living space, the college dormitory raises the concern for safety as parents entrust the care of their young adults to others for the first time. Balanced design is nowhere as important as when several hundred students occupy the same building. Recent studies have shown that in addition to the other main components of balanced design, fire detection, such as alarm systems and fire suppression (i.e. sprinkler systems), and fire containment in the form of correct building materials and procedures determine the effectiveness of the balanced matrix. Masonry products remain the most proven and effective materials for balanced design; the more fire-resistant and non-combustible materials are integrated into designs, the more fires will be effectively contained.

While safety is paramount in creating a home away from home atmosphere, other factors have to be considered as well, including the logistics of communal living, integration of new construction into the fabric of the existing campus, and the comfort of students. Masonry design offers a sense of stability and endurance aesthetically as well as practically. Providing quality and integrity in building materials and design, though not perceptibly cost-effective in the short term, creates greater returns in the long run. A lifelong product should be the desired end when integrating into the fabric of a college campus. The quality of such construction goes hand in hand with fire safety and providing a home away from home.

Lindenwood University is a traditional liberal arts college of 12,000 students located in St. Charles, Missouri, a town well known as the point of origin for the Lewis and Clark expedition. The historic campus dates back to 1827, and its oldest residence hall to 1854. Embarking on an aggressive 10-year campus improvement master plan, the college has recently added four dormitories to its community, with two additional housing units planned for completion by the fall of 2005. Part of the attraction of masonry in the design of Lindenwood's new construction is the fact that much of the existing plant is masonry as well, and has withstood the test of time. The idea of blending the look and feel of the old campus with the new is essential to the architectural flow of its master plan.

Dr. Dennis Spellman, President of Lindenwood University, speaks fondly of the campus‚ its historic significance, and the size and scale that seem to agree with its residents. Of the university's master plan, Dr. Spellman comments, "One of the challenges is to make everything fit; to build a campus community and not just dorm rooms." Both new and old campus provides "a feeling of stability and permanence," says Dr. Spellman, "as well as a feeling of safety and stability in your school." Some buildings are being retrofitted to create a greater sense of stylistic integration; even gabled roofs are rising over the flat-roofed architecture of the 1960s.

Dr. Spellman was also insistent on the scale of the dormitories: nothing over four stories. "Envision sending an 18-year-old to a high-rise; parents and students want a safe environment." To that end, university architects of record, Hastings and Chivetta Architects, designed the new dormitories four stories high using a mixture of masonry products.

"The campus has a rich fabric of masonry," says James Favier of Hastings and Chivetta. "We were very cognizant of that language. Our buildings are very contextual. Each building has its own signature. We like masonry: It's durable, and there's life to it." In addition, Favier points to the "great fire-separation properties" of masonry, and although more costly to build with, "you have the benefits of safety and good acoustics." Favier also points to the comfort factor in these buildings: "In traditional architecture, you create a home away from home; these buildings are comfortable, and all the materials are used in the right place."

Dr. Spellman echoes these sentiments in his observations of the effects of careful planning by the university and its architects: "Every year we've added housing. The physical part of the campus community really helps when you have a facility where it doesn't work against you. People have a sense that it works for them; it's to their size and their scale. As you take a campus tour you hear and listen for that tone--it's their space, it's not just a room. There's an atmosphere and feel to it, and highest on the list of everything is safety."

The core of the new dormitories is CMU 12-inch block from the poured foundation through the first floor, followed by 8-inch block for the remaining three stories. Surrounding the block core, creating a cavity wall system, is a burnished red brick--a fine, textured, shadowy red-flashed blend, manufactured to match the brick of the existing campus buildings. Bands of limestone-colored cast stone highlight the brick at the beltline one-quarter of the building's height, creating a rusticated base. It is also used in windowsills and along gable ends, creating nice contrasts.

A ground-faced CMU is used in interior public spaces such as seating areas, corridors and stairwells. Hollow core floor panels made of precast lightweight concrete (measuring 4 feet wide by 20 feet long by 8 inches thick) were anchored over bearing walls, creating compartmented fire-resistant units of each room. Utility conduit was set in the ribs in these panels and the floor finished off with a 2-inch concrete overlay. Bar reinforcement is grouted between units at joints as well as around the perimeter of the flooring system.

The effect of this design in terms of fire containment and acoustics is unmatched. In total, 57,000 CMUs were used per building, along with 60,000 bricks. The dormitories contain 12,000 square feet per floor, with a total of 50,000 square feet per building. The new dormitories house 180 students in a combination of suites and private rooms. Favier likens the living arrangement of the new dormitories to "a feeling of having your own room. There's a comfortable student lounge, which is like a living room, and rooms for college organizations on the first floor."

Dr. Spellman is not one to cut corners in terms of safety or comfort. Room size and living areas, as far as dormitory living goes, are expansive, as much as 5 percent greater in square footage than most residence halls. This factor is noted by students who often opt to remain on campus. Currently, 3,200 students live on campus, and the comfort and safety value of these buildings raises student retention at the college. "The number one recognition is to my customer," says Dr. Spellman. "Every year our dorms are full, and that says something."

Mark Wilhelms, a representative of material supplier Kirchner Block and Brick, understands the importance of Lindenwood's insistence on safety and durability, and at the same time not sacrificing the look and feel of the campus fabric. Lindenwood's investment was "put in the quality of the buildings," says Wilhelms. Care was taken to match the color and texture of the new materials to the old. "These are lifelong products. They blend in with the campus community. The president of the college wants these buildings to be here in another 100 years." In addition, an investment has been made in terms of safety that is a direct result of materials chosen for construction. In the event of a conflagration, "fire is going to stay in one room," says Wilhelms.

The materials and design of Lindenwood's dormitories have "great fire separation properties," according to architect Favier, who adds, "because of pressures on universities, many are going to wood construction." One of the most tragic occurrences in recent years was the dormitory fire at Seton Hall University in Orange, New Jersey, on January 19, 2000. Three students lost their lives in that event, yet recommendations for abeyance and prevention of fires in college dormitories still hinge on sprinkler systems alone.

Recent studies in New York and Connecticut concerning fire safety in college dormitories both cite the Seton Hall fire, but fall short of recommending fire containment measures, and rely instead on detection and suppression. The considerable lobbying efforts on behalf of sprinkler manufacturers misinform public perception of fire safety codes and of the efficacy of sprinkler systems. While a vital component of balanced design, sprinkler systems are highly fallible, subject to malfunction, and cannot act alone in saving lives. Alarm systems are also subject to failure. Reports about the horrifying consequences of fires and the devastation they create invariably cite one or both of these measures at fault.

Fire containment in the form of fire-resistive construction and compartmentation closes the circle in balanced design. The ability of concrete masonry products to resist heat transfer and contain fires can save both lives and structures.?The structural integrity is less threatened in a masonry building, and is therefore safer for firefighters. Structural failure or collapse is less likely to occur, creating considerably less risk for those who put their lives on the line whenever they enter a burning building. Costs are greater in masonry construction, but consider the long-term benefits: greater structural integrity, a longer-lasting building, and above all, a safer one for its occupants.

This article and photography is reprinted with permission from Concrete Masonry Designs, courtesy of the National Concrete Masonry Association.