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University scrambles to find housing after insurance commissioner says dorms unsafe

One of five residence halls that make up The Woods, a new complex at UNC Asheville. City firefighters have been living in the complex since late August while workers addressed fire hazards that State Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey said made the buildings unsafe.
One of five residence halls that make up The Woods, a new complex at UNC Asheville. City firefighters have been living in the complex since late August while workers addressed fire hazards that State Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey said made the buildings unsafe.

The University of North Carolina Asheville must scramble to find places for hundreds of incoming students to live, after the state insurance commissioner determined that five new residence halls are a safety hazard and prohibited the university from using them.

Commissioner Mike Causey informed UNC Asheville of his decision Thursday, the day before students were scheduled to move in to dorms on campus.

But a Department of Insurance spokesman said the Asheville Fire Department first identified the safety hazards last spring. They include a lack of sprinklers in the attics of the five new dorms, the use of wood in the stairwells and the location of water pipes in the stairwells that could make it difficult to get out during a fire, said spokesman Barry Smith.

University officials say they understood the buildings to be safe. They say the issues raised by the Department of Insurance were corrected under the direction of the State Construction Office, which oversaw the construction of the buildings and declared them ready for occupancy on Wednesday.

“Our new residence halls are safe or we would not have allowed our students to begin to move in,” UNC Asheville Chancellor Nancy J. Cable said in a statement. “In an abundance of caution due to this unexpected development, we are relocating our students until this situation is resolved.

“We believe these buildings are safe as was confirmed by the Office of State Construction,” Cable continued. “We are moving with deliberate speed to ensure minimal disruption to our students and the start of our academic year.”

The five new residence halls, called The Woods, offer apartment-style housing with full-size kitchens. The buildings are four stories each, with a capacity of 294 students. The university says 272 students were due to move in before the start of the fall semester on Monday. Those students will be put up in area hotels for the time being.

In her statement, Cable said earlier Department of Insurance inspections revealed concerns, but that those were addressed by an engineering firm and the architect and were “accepted and approved” by the State Construction Office.

Causey said his office got jurisdiction over the buildings on Wednesday, when the State Construction Office turned them over to the university for occupancy.

“As Insurance Commissioner, safety is my top priority,” Causey said in a statement. “I will not allow anyone to live in a building that may pose a threat to their life or well-being.”

Causey also said he was confident his office could work with the university to “swiftly abate the hazards” to allow students to move in. But Smith said it’s not clear how long installing sprinklers in the attic and moving water pipes in the stairwells would take.

“It’s not an overnight fix,” said Smith. He added that officials with the department and the university would talk on Friday about how to proceed. “We’re hoping it will be resolved quickly, and we’re hoping that the students will have a safe place to reside and study,” he said.

Smith said the buildings were properly designed and that the problems occurred during construction.

“The plans had the correct details,” he said. “They were just not followed in the construction.”

UNC Asheville is a liberal arts school with about 3,900 undergraduate students.

Accidental house fires are a serious safety threat. Learn how to cut down your risk by exercising these simple prevention tips.

Richard Stradling: 919-829-4739, @RStradling
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