Engineering in K-12 schools: Energy-efficient, high-performance buildings
Engineers offer practical advice and best practices on how to design sustainable, high-performance K-12 schools.
- Keith R. Hammelman, PE, Vice president, CannonDesign, Aurora, Ill.
- Robert V. Hedman, PE, LEED AP BD+C, Senior associate, Kohler Ronan LLC, Danbury, Conn.
- Pete Jefferson, PE, LEED AP, HBDP, Principal/vice president, M.E. Group, Overland Park, Kan.
- Essi Najafi, Principal, Global Engineering Solutions, Rockville, Md.
- Rodney V. Oathout, PE, CEM, LEED AP, Regional engineering leader/principal, DLR Group, Overland Park, Kan.
- Sunondo Roy, PE, LEED AP BD+C, Vice president, CCJM Engineers, Chicago, Il.
CSE: Energy efficiency and sustainability are often the No. 1 request from building owners during new building design. What is your experience in this area?
Oathout: No doubt that sustainability is important; however, many of my K-12 clients are interested in energy efficiency and how costs avoided in building operations can be used for other purposes. DLR Group recently partnered with the Institute for the Built Environment (IBE) at Colorado State University for a research study of elementary school designs. The schools participating in the study were designed with sustainability in mind, but had not been evaluated for design effectiveness or the long-term impact on operations. The findings were interesting. The complete report, titled “Linking Performance & Experience – An Analysis of Green Schools,” can be downloaded from the IBE website.
Jefferson: Some of the earliest adopters of energy efficiency and sustainability were our K-12 clients. They are clients that “build and hold” properties, so they actually do care about long-term operational costs. So we’re really proud to have worked on some really sustainable schools. Just in the past 3 years, we have completed five LEED Gold K-12 projects, including one that achieved net-zero energy its first year, and the first Collaborative for High Performance Schools “Verified Leader” project in the country. We have another six K-12 projects that are in the submittal process for LEED Gold certification this year, so we’re really excited for those districts.
Najafi: High efficiency and sustainability demand has helped the HVAC industry to move technologically to the systems of the 21st century. After almost 50 years of slow progress and limited innovation, the past 10 years gave way to systems such as magnetic chillers, chilled beams, and variable refrigerant volume/flow systems, which push the envelope of efficiency to levels never attained before. LEED requirements, green building, and Energy Star requirements—and the willingness of building owners to meet them—have helped engineering designs to move from the imaginative creations of a few innovative engineers of the past, to today’s practices of mainstream engineering.
Hammelman: Energy efficiency is a primary driving factor for new buildings, but our clients often ask us to balance the energy cost reductions with long-term operability issues, such as the possible cost increases in maintenance or operational complexity of the systems. CannonDesign incorporates energy modeling in the early project stages to focus on optimum designs for the envelope, lighting, and HVAC systems, while balancing the client’s desires to understand the long-term operating costs. We also establish a series of performance goals for clients that can be measured at the project’s completion to determine the project’s success.
Hedman: The request for energy efficiency and sustainability has been universal for all new school projects that we have designed in the past 5 years. Municipalities are realizing while there is an initial capital cost to build a new school, the operating costs are recurring for the life of the building.
CSE: Many aspects of structure sustainability (power, HVAC, maintenance, etc.) require building personnel to follow certain practices in order to be effective. What, if anything, can you as an engineer do to help increase chances of success in this area?
Roy: The commissioning process basis of design (BoD) has to be written clearly and simply to capture specific design features that may be beyond the typical building engineer’s area of knowledge or expertise. Where we are expecting the system to be operated in a nonstandard way, it is imperative that the BoD identify unique systems and operational requirements. Beyond that, these points need to be addressed specifically during the final commissioning training of the staff and explicitly note the implications of not following the correct maintenance or operation procedures. If the training is being videotaped, make a point of including the special considerations and implications. If you surprise the operating staff with unique design solutions, the outcome is typically not good.
Najafi: There is no doubt that as the technology surrounding the MEP and fire protection systems is becoming increasingly more technologically advanced, the need for experienced and computer-savvy building engineers and technicians is also on the rise. Proper and clear control sequences for the operation of the systems, automated processes/controls, and operator-friendly graphic interface for monitoring and controlling the various building systems are a few of the practices followed by the current designs in an effort to simplify the human interface and remove the technological fear from operators with limited knowledge in the computer field. We have consistently advised our clients to retain the services of experienced commissioning agents and have refined our specifications to provide detailed testing and demonstration of the systems as part of delivering the project to the building owners.
Oathout: This question is the basis for one of the biggest challenges engineers have when designing K-12 facilities. We do our clients a disservice if the system design is overly complex so they have no chance of operating it successfully. It is important to understand your clients’ experience and capabilities in advance of starting the design. How technologically proficient is their building staff? What kind of staff turnover can we anticipate? It’s essential to design systems that school districts can operate efficiently over the lifecycle of the building.
Hedman: Understanding the intent of how the system was designed to operate, along with training on using the building management system, is critical. We have found it important to include training of the maintenance staff as part of the project specifications.
Jefferson: I think that if there’s one area where my design philosophy has evolved, it’s to work harder to pursue simplicity in the design. That’s a lesson learned from working with woefully understaffed and undertrained districts, helping them understand how their building is supposed to work. I’ve really come to believe that sometimes chasing that last little bit of energy efficiency, if done through adding complexity, can actually set the building back and result in poorer performance. That’s a big reason why we’re all-in on load reduction and passive strategies—there’s no complexity.