Most traditional college dormitories do not have swimming pools, computer labs, fitness centers, and a host of other desirable amenities. In fact, student housing built by higher education facilities has traditionally consisted of rooms or suites along central corridors with suite or hall baths and has been constructed to meet more fundamental needs. Many were not originally air conditioned, and few, if any, offered residents amenities like full kitchens or group study rooms.

According to Gary Schwarzmueller, executive director of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, the trend to amenity-laden, Internet-connected, home-like student housing is a fairly recent one. It is being driven in part by the growing number of private housing developers and operators pursuing the student housing market.

"There is a lot more outside development of dorms now than there used to be. We have gone from the vast majority of higher education new construction and renovation projects being built with state and federal assistance to more private development, primarily because the old sources of funding have dried up. At the same time, student enrollment is on an up-tick," explains Schwarzmueller.

Focused on focusing the students

When Ambling Companies, Inc. (Valdosta, GA) began working with Texas Southern University (TSU) to develop University Courtyard Apartments, a new, 307-bed student housing community in downtown Houston, planners held focus groups with students to determine the right mix of education-supporting and home-like amenities. As a result, the four-bedroom and two-bath apartment suites (also managed by Ambling) feature everything from private bedrooms with panic alarms (supplied by Network Multifamily Security, Dallas, TX) that are monitored by the university's public safety department, to full kitchens with microwave ovens.

Everyone has high-speed Internet access and cable TV hookups. There's even a study center with computer labs, private study carrels, group study rooms, and copier and printer services. There is also a pool and fitness center, as well as game tables. The list goes on and on.

But identifying and delivering these attractive amenities in a home-like environment are two very different projects. With the help of SL Engineers (Atlanta), the project began taking shape. According to Jeff Paramore, the electrical engineer on the project team lead by Amir Safaie at SL Engineers, "We were really after more apartment-style [housing] than a dorm."

Ambling, an experienced student housing developer, had its own set of top priorities including preserving precious indoor and outdoor space for all of those amenities. And since Ambling planned to manage the property, it was concerned about controlling energy costs across the board, but particularly with regard to heating and cooling costs. During the design process, Ambling began looking for an hvac solution that would address those priorities.

Roominess for roomies

Ron Butler, the University Courtyard project manager in the Architectural, Engineering and Construction Services department at TSU, examined the cost associated with running chilled water lines to the university's chilling towers and found it was prohibitive. "It was more cost efficient to go with standalone units," says Butler. He also felt it was more practical to offer students the climate control flexibility that the individual systems would afford.

The project team chose Friedrich Air Conditioning's Vert-I-Pak(r) 3-ton, single-package vertical units to cool and heat each four-bedroom apartment. Because the Vert-I-Pak system can be installed in a small mechanical closet in each common living area, Ambling and SL Engineers were able to design more aesthetically appealing indoor and outdoor living spaces which is paramount when competing for customers among an increasingly savvy and selective student population. The quiet and efficient units will also provide students with a peaceful study environment, while Ambling will reap both the short- and long-term financial benefits of installing energy-efficient systems.

The installation contractor, Atlas Air, (Houston) ran Class 1 flex duct from the Vert-I-Pak through web trusses in the floor above to a ceiling radiation damper in each room of the suite. According to Atlas Air's Fred Perdue, if split systems had been used instead of the single packaged vertical systems, each four-story building would have had about 40 outdoor condensing units. These would have cluttered the grounds, raised landscaping costs, and complicated the process of creating an attractive building exterior.

If you build it, they will come

Merrill Durand, assistant property manager for University Courtyard Apartments, is pleased with the overall energy consumption and reliability of the Vert-I-Pak systems. "We have not had any maintenance requests except filter changes," says Durand.

Ambling is proud of this project's end result. And students have already given it a big seal of approval. Soon after opening the doors, University Courtyard Apartments were almost fully occupied.

The university is also impressed with the flexibility and cost effectiveness of single package vertical systems. Dr. Willie Marshall, TSU's associate provost for student affairs, says, "This is an important project for Texas Southern University. Our students have state-of-the-art facilities, including this particular housing project that includes spacious living quarters, the latest technology, and other amenities including a beautifully landscaped courtyard. This project is a key element in assisting the university with student retention." ES