Classroom Environments

By Barbara Horwitz-Bennett, Contributing Editor September 1, 2006

Although some local markets are hotter than others, nationwide, the K-12 market is going strong both for new construction and renovation. As one might expect, K-12 building activity is strongest in the Sun Belt and parts of the West, where the “parent population”—25- to 55-year-olds—is expanding the fastest.

“We’ve been extremely active with education work in Florida with such a large influx of people,” says Matt Wiechart, P.E., principal with TLC Engineering for Architecture’s Ft. Myers office.

But demographics isn’t the only force affecting this market. Government initiatives are exerting a strong influence as well:

• In Florida, where many students are currently in portable classrooms, a state amendment was passed a few years ago that limits the size of K-12 classes, creating a further need for classroom space.

• In New York, a program enacted a number of years ago spurred just about every school district to initiate a project, according to Carl Stewart, operations manager, Turner Construction, Albany. And although activity in the New York state school system has slowed in the past couple of years, things are starting to pick up once again.

• In Massachusetts, the governor recently revamped the way in which K-12 projects are funded, and the state is getting ready for a big upswing when a current funding moratorium is lifted next summer.

• In Illinois, a recent $1 billion funding proposal by Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley may eventually bring a couple dozen newly constructed schools to crowded city areas.

On the other hand, some areas of the country are experiencing the reverse. In New Jersey, a recently hot market has begun to cool with high city taxes and current school projects running as much as $230 per sq. ft., according to Bob Blakeman, AIA, principal, Paulos Sokolowski & Sartor (PS&S), Warren, N.J.

Regardless of whether K-12 construction is up or down, specific trends are affecting design. Classroom design is focused on accommodating new teaching methods and technologies, creating greater flexibility and producing better acoustics. And as is the case with the building industry in general, owners are asking for, and designers are emphasizing, energy efficiency and sustainability.

Energy savings

In places where environmentally friendly design has become the norm and in high demand, designers are forced to be creative. For example, according to Max Billington, P.E., chief electrical engineer and K-12 team leader with The RMH Group, Lakewood, Colo., a number of their clients are asking to be in the range of 25,000 to 30,000 BTUs per sq. ft. per year, where 45,000 to 60,000 has traditionally been the average. “That’s been a real challenge, because to get down below 45,000, you really have to do some exceptional things,” he says.

One means of capturing significant savings is daylighting. “By utilizing sidelights and skylights, we can sometimes turn off all the lights on the second floor and half of the lights on the ground floor from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., which is virtually 90% of a building’s occupied time,” claims Billington.

In addition to the reduction in electricity usage, daylighting also saves on air-conditioning requirements, sometimes enabling a 20% to 30% reduction in chiller size. Firms such as TLC frequently include occupancy sensors and “sweep” lighting controls in their designs to complement their daylight-harvesting strategies.

Yet another strategy for energy savings, particularly for large school districts with sizable energy-usage profiles, is to take advantage of utility demand and usage programs. Participating in such programs “can reward the district with lower energy costs, as well as [serve as an] incentive for usage reduction and on-call demand reductions,” explains Ed Allen, P.E., principal, academic practice group, van Zelm Heywood & Shadford, West Hartford, Conn.

Moving even further outside the box, PS&S has been involved in some creative schoolhouse roof designs, including reflective roofs to repel the sunlight and green roofs for greater insulation, less heat gain and water absorption, according to Bob Blakeman, AIA, principal with PS&S.

Finally, one other energy-efficient technology that is gaining momentum in the school market is geothermal/geoexchange (see “Digging for Energy Savings,” right). While the technology’s high first cost is making school districts think twice before pursuing this approach, some states are making geothermal more attractive by offering incentives.

And this, of course, brings us to a discussion of the mechanical side of the equation.

Impact on HVAC

On the HVAC side, schools are looking for high performance, healthy air and quiet systems. “School districts are asking us to focus on designing high-performance envelopes and HVAC systems,” says Kim Shinn, P.E., LEED AP, principal and director of sustainable design, based in TLC’s Nashville office. “Healthy indoor environments are also a big driver—improved filtration, greater ventilation efficiency, dual-path air-handling systems to make sure that humidity is kept under control, low-VOC finishes and other materials, operable windows, better acoustics and more instrumentation to track things like space carbon dioxide, humidity and temperatures for logging, reporting and diagnostics.”

“Energy conservation is a huge trend today with the dramatic rise in energy costs,” says Martin E. Schmidt, P.E., LEED AP, manager of mechanical engineering, The Schemmer Assocs., Omaha, Neb. “For mechanical design, energy-saving measures include the incorporation of energy recovery and a dehumidification cycle into the outside air ventilation units. Carbon dioxide detectors are also being used for demand-control ventilation and variable-frequency drives are becoming standard.”

Touching upon another key trend, changing codes and standards are focusing more on acoustics, so K-12 designers are seriously dealing with how to bring those decibels down. For example, according to Allen, the adoption of new ANSI guidelines by different municipalities has driven the selection of building mechanical systems away from in-room fan systems such as unit ventilators, fan-coil units or fan-powered VAV boxes, to low-velocity air systems and non-fan-powered terminal heating and cooling devices, such as convectors and radiant systems. “School HVAC design is going through a substantial change right now to meet both energy and acoustical performance needs and still meet aggressive cost budgets,” says Allen.

And with such a substantial focus on IAQ levels, dust-attracting carpets and VOC-emitting wall finishes can no longer be relied upon to absorb sound. “Architecturally, all that’s left are acoustical ceilings, so a lot of school districts are responding by installing sound-enhancement systems in classrooms,” explains Jim Keohane, P.E., principal and senior mechanical engineer with TLC’sFt. Myers office.

Consequently, it’s not uncommon to find teachers wearing microphone-like devices around their necks to project their voices through speakers installed in classroom ceilings.

Classrooms in transition

While the quest for energy efficiency has had a major impact on the design of mechanical and electrical systems for schools, the changing nature of the learning environment is also dictating new approaches to M/E/P design. For example, the old classroom layout of four lines of student desks facing the teacher is falling by the wayside. New teaching methods that emphasize small group learning and team projects call for much different configurations.

“There is a big effort to make sure designs are coming out of discussions about how kids are going to be taught,” explains Ralph Rohwer, vice president, Heery International, Seattle. Consequently, today’s classroom is often being split into sectors to support different approaches to learning.

Furthermore, the construction itself needs to be flexible enough to accommodate anticipated changes in classroom configuration based upon teaching methodology trends and fluctuating enrollment.

“We use very few bearing walls and try to stick to a post-and-beam system so things can be reconfigured down the road,” explains Rohwer. “We’re also seeing removable walls, but they aren’t a panacea.”

Also, designing different-sized classrooms and installing folding doors between classrooms is a good strategy, adds Kevin Rettich, P.E., senior vice president with Peter Basso Assocs., Troy, Mich.

Yet another change for traditional school buildings is the fact that schools are opening their doors to share their facilities with the community at large.

“We’re seeing public schools and municipalities partnering to incorporate recreational centers, libraries and resource centers in the schools to achieve greater utilization, prudent use of public funds and the benefits of a wider diversity of people utilizing the facilities,” explains R. William Cramer, AIA, principal, The Schemmer Assocs.

Adding to that list, PS&S’ Blakeman mentions school theaters and outdoor courtyard space are areas being utilized for community functions. Of course, along with increased facility use comes expanded building operations, with an impact on building systems life and energy use. “It’s no longer a 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. school day, but 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. as well,” he adds.

High-tech teaching

But the search for energy efficiency and the need for flexible space configurations aren’t the only factors transforming M/E/P design in the K-12 sector. Just as significant is the increasing incorporation of high-tech equipment in the classrooms.“Nine out of 10 times, a school’s technology program is a major component of their building project,” explains Turner’s Stewart. “As a matter of fact, one school recently had a $7 million technology package.”

In Seattle, for example, just about every elementary school is being outfitted with smart boards and projectors, claims Rohwer. “One client wanted us to put a smart board in every high school classroom,” adds his colleague, Tom Ellis, AIA, a project director with Heery International’s Lexington, Mass. office.

In fact, it’s no longer a decision whether to install such monitors, but what type of equipment to go with: plasma, LCD or flat screen. And since it typically takes a good 24 months to design and build a high school, the purchase of high-tech equipment is put off as long as possible in order to take advantage of the most up-to-date systems, according to Stuart Sutherland, an associate and electrical project manager with TLC’s Orlando office.

One of the newer technologies showing up in classrooms these days is the white board—a highly reflective screen that both shows projections and digitally records the information being written on the board. White boards are currently on the pricey side, but Blakeman anticipates that with time, as is usually the case with new technology, the cost will come down.

Of course, with all this advanced technology, Rettich adds an important caveat: the importance of training teachers to effectively use the equipment. And an honest assessment of the extent to which teachers will actually use such teaching tools must go into the decision of what to include in a school’s technology package.

Digging for Energy Savings

James Madison Middle School recently officially became the first Seattle public school to utilize a geothermal heating and cooling system, anticipating $15,000 in energy savings per year.

“We dug 173 wells under the sports field,” relays Heery International project manager Steven Moore. “It took two crews with drill rigs more than two months to accomplish the task, but we think the efforts will be worth it, as heating and cooling will be provided courtesy of the earth.”

“Water lines run 320 ft. down,” Moore continues. “The conductivity of the earth either warms up or cools down to 55°F. The heat pumps either compress to reach 80°F or expand to cool down.”

To the school’s benefit, geothermal systems require no combustion, no fuel storage and delivery and produce no indoor pollutants. Studies, in fact, have shown that geothermal systems help reduce annual emissions of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and nitric oxide. They also require minimal maintenance because there’s less equipment. “There’s no doubt we’ll spend less,” says Moore, “because we have no heaters and chillers to maintain.”

While the first cost of $125,000 was higher than traditional heat/chill pumps, due to the increased delta between the traditional boiler/chiller four-pipe coil unit system and the geothermal heat pump system, careful study showed that the school can expect the system to pay that cost back within eight years.

In addition to incorporating typical Seattle public school energy-saving features such as daylighting, occupancy sensors and low irrigation landscaping, the James Madison site also includes a bioswale.

“Rainwater runoff carries oil from cars, and that oil winds up in the storm system,” according to Moore. The plants and grasses that make up the bioswale, located at the north end of the sports field, filter out that oil.

Principal Julie Hudson hopes to encourage teachers to use features such as the geothermal unit and bioswale as teaching tools. “We’ve already got an active recycling program and are working hard to transition into a more paperless environment,” she says. “I think these new features will provide great learning opportunities for our students.”

Moore is currently running trend date to determine how well the system is performing. If all goes as expected, he believes the city will be the first to reap the positive results.

By Sue Wasserman, Public Relations Manager, Heery International, Atlanta

Creating Schools from Big Boxes

With the increasing cost of property and construction materials, a handful of school districts have undertaken creative adaptive re-use projects, such as converting warehouses or big-box retail into school buildings.

For example, in Newark, N.J., the city came upon an abandoned warehouse with an 18-in. concrete foundation, thick floors and lots of surrounding property. Because demolition costs would have run in the range of $3.5 million, the city opted to leave the structural frame in tact and rebuild it as a public/amenities space including a school cafeteria, gym and media center, according to Bob Blakeman, AIA, principal of Paulos Sokolowski & Sartor, Warren, N.J., the architectural firm on the project.

“We were able to capture the [existing] high, atrium space and then build classrooms next to it,” he explains. “In the end, we saved $5 million with a good adaptive re-use of the space.”

In another case, a school district in Omaha, Neb. was the recipient of a site, donated by the Wider Omaha Lutheran School Assn., that housed an indoor equestrian center. Schemmer Assocs. was brought in to assess the facility and concluded that with a good structural system, the building’s configuration could be well adapted into classroom wings and common areas. Consequently, such a master plan was then developed, explains Principal R. William Cramer, AIA.

And down South, an old K-Mart store was recently converted into a school building in Ft. Myers, Fla. Even though, in this case, the school district didn’t necessarily reap big savings on the project, it was very good from an environmental point of view, according to Jim Keohane, P.E., principal and senior mechanical engineer, TLC Engineering for Architecture, Ft. Myers.