Boom Time

Progress report: Has shown significant growth, and despite temporary setbacks, continues to move forward. Has some trouble with general math but showing great signs of improvement. Demonstrating great use of innovative design and technology but sometimes needs to work better with others. Increased population, record school bond referendums, improvements to bidding processes and greater accept...

By Kathryn M. Rospond, Contributing Writer January 1, 2003

Progress report: Has shown significant growth, and despite temporary setbacks, continues to move forward. Has some trouble with general math but showing great signs of improvement. Demonstrating great use of innovative design and technology but sometimes needs to work better with others.

Increased population, record school bond referendums, improvements to bidding processes and greater acceptance of alternative design programs all are working together to make school construction one of the bright spots for 2003 and beyond. From California to Florida, the outlook generally is one of significant growth. Even in cash-strapped New York City, which reported in August 2001 a nearly $3 billion shortfall in its five-year, $7 billion school construction budget, new schools are continuing to be financed.

“On top of a massive amount of ongoing addition and renovation work, we’re just exploding with growth,” says Debra Lupton, AIA, director of marketing for Orlando-based TLC Engineering for Architecture.

“We’re having a temporary bump as a result of international issues, but I fully expect the market to be back on course and moving ahead in the next five to six months,” adds Michael E. Hall, AIA, REFP, chief marketing officer for Fanning/Howey Associates Inc. “The need is out there. It’s not going away, and it’s only going to increase.”

Julie Eizenberg, principal of Santa Monica, Calif.-based Koning Eizenberg Architecture, best sums up the big picture: “It’s boom time,” she says. “If you’re in schools, it’s a good place to be.”

Show me the money

One of the factors influencing the school market outlook has been the success of measures passed in the recent November elections. “It’s taking a lot more effort by school districts in referendum states to educate the public and get bonds passed, but they’re doing the job,” Hall says.

Florida voters, for example, approved two citizen initiatives that are expected to be the impetus for much work. Amendment 8 requires the state to offer free, high-quality preschool classes to all 4-year-old children; Georgia currently is the only other state that offers a universal pre-kindergarten program. The second measure, Amendment 9, mandates smaller classroom sizes with limits of 18 students for kindergarten through third grade; 22 students for fourth through eighth grade; and 25 students in high-school classes—a reduction from 60 students per class in some cases. As part of the measure, the state—not local districts—will pay the associated costs, which are estimated to range from $8 billion to $27.5 billion over eight years.

In California, voters approved $22.4 billion in state and local bond measures. This included Proposition 47, a $13 billion general obligation bond—the largest in state history—that earmarks $11.4 billion for construction and renovation of K-12 facilities and $1.65 billion for higher education facilities. In a further breakdown, $6.35 billion of the total is set aside for buying land and building new facilities; $3.3 billion is made available for reconstruction and modernization of existing facilities; and $1.7 billion is earmarked to alleviate overcrowding.

At the community level, voters approved $9.41 billion in 90 local measures, including $3.35 billion for the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest school district in the country. The largest local bond in California history, this measure will provide Los Angeles with 120 new schools and 115,000 new classroom seats.

Also passed as part of California’s Proposition 47 was the authorization to place a $12.3 billion bond measure on the 2004 primary election ballot. The split would be $10 billion for K-12—half for new construction and a quarter each for modernization and overcrowding—and $2.3 billion for higher education.

“That’s a big vote in a recession,” Stephen Levy, a senior economist at the Center for the Continuing Study of the California Economy, told the Associated Press after the November elections. “This is clearly an electorate that, in a time of recession, is saying these investments are important for the future and the state’s quality of life.”

Even in suburban and rural Illinois, where school bond measures historically fail, the outlook is positive for future referendums. In Lake County, for example, while six of 11 school tax-hike measures were defeated, this is considered an improvement over the eight measures defeated in spring 2002 and the 100% defeat of seven proposed measures in spring 2001. A 20-cent increase measure in the county’s Fremont Elementary School District, which would have resulted in no additional cost to taxpayers because of a debt restructuring, was defeated for the fourth straight time but only by 23 votes, compared to an approximate 600-vote margin last fall.

“We have a great opportunity in the spring,” Superintendent Rick Taylor was quoted as saying in local reports. “We’re going to seize the momentum. This would have been no tax increase for homeowners, and it’s just a matter of getting that information out,” says the superintendent.

The buck stops here

In New York City, home of the nation’s largest school system, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein have chosen a different path for construction financing—namely, trimming their own fat. In an effort begun by former Chancellor Harold O. Levy and carried through by Bloomberg and Klein, the city is aiming to reduce the average cost of new construction from $432 per sq. ft. to $325 per sq. ft.; the national average is $146 per sq. ft. At the same time, space devoted to education programs will increase from 55% to the national standard of 60%. Plans to reach these goals include:

Merging the city’s School Construction Authority and the Dept. of Education’s Division of School Facilities into one entity that will oversee both school construction and repairs. This will eliminate redundant efforts, lower administration costs and create a direct line of authority and accountability.

Opening the bidding process to receive more competitive bids. According to a report issued under Levy, it was discovered that one subcontractor was awarded 60% of the school system’s plumbing contracts and 54% of its HVAC contracts on nearly $1 billion in projects; another subcontractor was awarded 63% of the electrical contracts.

Revising the bidding procedure and allowing negotiations with the lowest bidder for reduced prices.

Expanding a program for leasing facilities vs. ground-up construction.

Throwing out thousands of pages of outdated design practices and allowing for current trends. For example, a shift from concrete masonry construction to high-impact drywall would be allowed. Likewise, hot-water heat could be substituted for steam heat.

“[The plan] is more in line with what private industry does,” says Bernard Zipprich, AIA, a principal with Richard Dattner & Partners Architects in Manhattan. “The city is going in a positive direction to save cost, and we, as designers, are moving along with them in that direction.”

The move to a more open process is a positive trend for the nation, according to Eizenberg, largely because it introduces fresh ideas into both the design and construction process. “Districts don’t necessarily want to take risks with most projects,” she says. “But there are many things to be learned from firms that don’t normally design schools. And, there are design practices used in other building types that can be transferred economically to schools.”

2002 School Referendum Highlights

Voters in 18 states considered a total of 24 education-related measures on Nov. 5, 2002, including smaller class sizes, state-funded preschools and school improvement funding. This compares to 25 measures in 15 states in 2000 and 21 measures in 16 states in 1998. Following is a list of citizen initiatives and state legislative referendums that passed and their dollar values where available:

Alaska: Proposition C . State general obligation educational and museum facility, design, construction and major maintenance bonds. (Value: $236,805,441)

California: Proposition 47 . Funding for construction and renovation of K-12 school facilities and higher-education facilities from state and local general obligation bonds; the state pays 50% of the cost of new-construction projects and 60% of the cost for approved modernization projects. (Value: $13.05 billion)

Florida: Amendment 8 .

Voluntary universal pre-kindergarten education.

Florida: Amendment 9 .

Amendment to reduce class size. (Value: $8 billion – $27.5 billion)

New Mexico: Bond Measure 2 . State general obligation bonds for capital expenses and improvements. (Value: not to exceed $93,429,707)

Oregon: Measure 15 . Bonds for seismic rehabilitation and retrofit of public education buildings to withstand earthquakes.

Virginia: Question 1 . Funding for college and university capital expenses. (Value: not to exceed $900,480,645)

(Source: National Conference of State Legislatures)

Trends of Note

Internet connections, indoor environmental quality and school prototypes are among the leading topics when it comes to new school design.

Public School 69 in the Dyker Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn has earned headlines in New York for its innovative design, including its status as the first school in the city to be equipped with a wireless computer system. As part of its progressive plan, P.S. 69 provides every third-, fourth- and fifth-grade student—as of opening day in September 2002, the school housed 650 students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade—with a laptop and individual radio receiver. Transmitters located throughout the building then provide necessary connections to the Internet as well as the school’s intranet.

Web-based designs in conjunction with digital controls also are earning their mark behind the scenes as a way to link mechanical and electrical systems between buildings in a school system, says Charles A. McCoy, executive director of the Michigan City, Ind., office for Fanning/Howey Associates Inc. “Energy management combined with offsite communication is a must for many schools today,” McCoy says. “While we still see some proprietary systems in use, the trend continues to lean toward universal systems that are compatible with analysis software.”

In the humid climate of Florida and other parts of the South, concrete tilt-wall construction often is taking the place of conventional masonry, says Brett McKinstry, P.E., regional director of the Fort Myers, Fla., office of TLC Engineering. “It speeds the construction process and helps us meet the tight construction guidelines for better indoor air quality by helping to pressurize the facility.”

Another topic creating rumblings in the engineering community is the development of a specification by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) to reduce the level of noise in classrooms caused by air-conditioning systems. ANSI S12.60-200x was written in response to a new Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) rule that was created on behalf of children with hearing disabilities. If accepted, the ANSI standard would require sound levels in classrooms to not exceed NC26—a level deemed excessive by Dan Int-Hout, chief engineer at Krueger, manufacturer of grilles, registers and diffusers. “Yes, this standard would be good for my business,” Int-Hout says, “but it means that 80% to 90% of the HVAC systems out there would have to be redone. It’s true that air-conditioning systems in classrooms can be too noisy, but you can’t imagine the cost to comply with this…billions, perhaps trillions of dollars. It may just be an issue of what is the right number. As it stands, it’s onerous.”

Last but not least is the growing debate about school prototypes. While not a new concept, prototypes, which use segments of an existing design or even an exact replica of an entire school, have gained popularity in recent years because of overcrowding, tight budgets and the need for faster construction. Proponents favor the general cost savings, while opponents criticize the further homogenization of the American landscape.

“It’s kind of like ‘kicking the tires’ and seeing what you like,” TLC’s McKinstry says. “But so often, it’s a matter of funding and needing classrooms.”

Making the case for comfort in public schools—Facts and figures for quick reference:

A U.S. Dept. of Education survey conducted in 1999 and published in 2000 reports that 40% of responding schools in the Midwest and 37% in the Northeast said their schools needed air conditioning but had none.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends that classroom temperatures range between 72°F and 76°F, with humidity levels between 30% and 60%, to enhance both student and teacher performance.

The U.S. General Accounting Office in 1995 reported that 14 million students were attending classes in schools that needed major infrastructure improvements or demolition and that 15.5 students were in schools with inadequate HVAC systems.

(Source: White Paper: Public School Air Conditioning in the Balance by Marsha E. Ackermann, Ph.D.)