Designing high-tech K-12 schools: Automation and controls

The technology at play in today’s K-12 schools is evolving rapidly—inside the classrooms, and in the various systems behind the scenes. Engineers handling such projects, whether the work is on new facilities or retrofits, have their work cut out for them.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer March 28, 2019


Doug Everhart, PE, LEED AP, K-12 Education Practice Director, Vice President, Henderson Engineers, Kansas City

Jason Gerke, PE, CxA, LEED AP BD+C, Principal, Mechanical/Plumbing Group Leader  GRAEF USA, Milwaukee

April L. Halling, PE, Project Manager, RTM Engineering Consultants, Overland Park, Kan.

Brandon Pierson, PE, LEED AP, Lead Mechanical Engineer, IMEG Corp., Rock Island, Ill.

Johnny Wood, PE, LEED AP BD+C, CxA, CPD, Senior Associate, Senior Project Manager, Dewberry, Raleigh, N.C.

CSE: What mechanical, electrical, plumbing, or fire protection systems within K-12 school buildings require specialized automation or controls that previously might not have?

Gerke: The continual increase in mechanical system efficiencies in the 2015 and now 2018 codes raises the bar on energy-performance requirements for equipment and systems. Now, standard requirements for carbon dioxide (CO2) monitoring in densely occupied spaces has increased the use of multi-use sensors in many occupied spaces. These sensors need to not only monitor space levels of CO2, temperature, and humidity, but they also need to continue to evolve with features to automatically calibrate these sensors so that drift from setpoints does not result in increased energy use. The failure of these automation devices could actually someday result in less-efficient buildings because systems and operators end up relying on failed devices. We have all seen the failures in older pneumatic systems where thermostats are out of calibration or control air is leaking out of the system. These observations are easy to make in systems where the issue can be visually observed and touched. There is a fear that DDC systems will keep these issues concealed. So, the continued development of self-sensing and self-calibrating control features will soon become a paramount feature in DDC systems.

Everhart: In today’s world, all the systems we design in K-12 facilities are tied to building automation.

CSE: Have you experienced the Internet of Things (IoT) come up in discussion or implemented on such projects? How has this integration impacted the project? If so, please give an example. 

Everhart: Our K-12 clients and partners have indeed begun to ask how IoT solutions might be integrated into their buildings. Recently, it was a request from a high school sports coach to be able to control parking lot lighting, athletics area lighting, and HVAC systems warm-up based on arrival time back at the school from “away” road games. I feel we are just on the leading edge of this concept taking off in K-12 facilities. I see this mainly impacting K-12 in allowing systems to respond and react to user or user group schedules based on information directly from an individual’s device.

CSE: Is your team using BIM in conjunction with the architects, trades, and owners to design a project? Describe an instance in which you’ve turned over the BIM to the owner for long-term operations and maintenance (O&M) or measurement and verification (M&V). 

Pierson: The IMEG education teams regularly design and develop their MEP K-12 projects in BIM using Revit. We work closely with our architectural clients in developing a model in which clashes are detected and resolved throughout the design process. The BIM allows the design team to see the various building components in their actual form, allowing careful consideration of spatial place, adjacency, access, and service clearances. Our design-build projects foster collaboration with the trade contractors in developing the MEP BIM that is tailored to the intersection of engineering best practices and practical construction methods. Often, the BIM is used as a starting point for shop drawings and fabrication take-offs. We have not seen a big push from the K-12 districts to turn over BIM for long-term maintenance purposes.