We Need to Rethink the BUSINESS of Student Housing

By: Derek A. Hodgin, PE, RBEC, CCCA
Construction Science and Engineering, Inc.

Many college students are currently living in recently constructed mid-rise wood frame buildings that are intended to meet minimum building code requirements, to be reasonably safe and durable. The mid-rise wood-frame student housing business is huge. There has been such a tremendous amount of construction, that competition to sell beds is fierce. The industry has responded by spending money on amenities and marketing gimmicks to attract students, rather than on improved construction quality. Our forensic engineering firm has investigated water intrusion, wood rot, termites, fire-safety issues and structural failures on more than 20 mid-rise wood frame projects in the last 2 years, and they are becoming more frequent.

Combining code-minimum construction with disconnected student occupants (that may occasionally be less than mature) is a terrible idea that has (and will continue) to result in problems. There is a reason that traditional university dorms were constructed to be institutional grade buildings. To sit back and continue to defend our current path by saying that it is allowed by the building code is irresponsible and shows a lack of understanding. As a Professional Engineer, I am required to protect the welfare and safety of the public. Until the building code changes, or we figure out alternate ways to improve construction practices, we will continue to deal with predictable problems of safety and durability. Unfortunately, any significant changes in the building code are historically preceded by a tragedy. With as much evidence as we already have regarding performance issues, you would think that we could be proactive and make changes now, instead of waiting for the tragedy.

Students deserve safe and durable buildings; we are currently not doing a good job delivering. Just because something is allowed, or provides an attractive return on investment, does not make it a good idea. We have an opportunity to put the brakes on minimum code-compliant mid-rise wood frame student housing and implement requirements to improve construction practices. There are fellow engineers and architects, manufacturers of building components, students and professors across the country that would likely be available to collaborate on revising existing standards and developing incentives for constructing better buildings. Others (elected officials, fire fighters, building officials and construction experts) are speaking out across the country to make changes to this segment of construction; now is the time to join the discussion, not after we allow more potential problems to be constructed!

We keep saying: “If you see something, say something.” I am saying something.

Derek Hodgin, P.E.
Clemson, SC