Designing high-tech K-12 schools: Codes and standards

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, especially when it comes to adhering to codes and standards.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer March 29, 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: Please explain some of the codes, standards, and guidelines you commonly use during the project’s design process for K-12 facilities. Which codes/standards should engineers be most aware of? 

Halling: For projects throughout the Midwest, tornado shelters will become a new requirement. As the 2015 International Building Code (IBC) is adopted, a requirement to provide shelters has been included for all education occupancies. Shelters are more than stronger walls and roofs. Additional ventilation requirements, sanitary facilities, and extended emergency lighting run times are a few of the requirements of ICC 500: Standard for the Design and Construction of Storm Shelters.

Wood: I believe these are the most commonly required codes to be familiar with in most areas:

Gerke: Many locations throughout the Midwest have adopted the 2015 ICC codes. A number of states have adopted these codes directly with minimal state amendments. The use of standard codes in many municipalities and states creates a standard that may be easily understood across the industry. This understanding applies to engineers that work in multiple jurisdictions and to equipment manufacturers who are able to standardize the features needed by designers in many locations. While some states are getting ready to move to the 2018 codes, many designers struggle with following guidelines created by ASHRAE. These guidelines are really the standard of care that should be followed on projects, even when they exceed the minimum code requirements. The most important ASHRAE guidelines for schools include ASHRAE Standard 62.1: Ventilation for Acceptable Indoor Air Quality for ventilation and the new Advanced Energy Design Guide Available to Help K-12 Schools Achieve Zero Energy. While the zero or net-zero energy goals may exceed the needs or sophistication for a specific school district, the Advanced Energy Design Guide series provides practical solutions for K-12 building types.

CSE: What are some best practices to ensure that such buildings meet and exceed codes and standards?

Wood: Many of the situations we face, particularly in renovations, are not simple. Many times, we meet with the building code officials/inspectors to discuss any questionable situation to ensure we agree the design meets the intent of the code.

Gerke: There are a number of available software programs aimed at making code compliance an easier endeavor. These programs range from those administered by the U.S. Department of Energy to software developed by specific states to meet their geographic requirements to software provided by companies to create detailed models of energy consumption for proposed buildings. Newer entries into the energy-modeling world include BIM modeling programs that include energy-analysis features or suites available as add-ons for these programs. The continued development of programs that work interactively in a single software environment will increase the productivity of design professionals.

CSE: How are codes, standards, or guidelines for energy efficiency impacting the design of such buildings?

Halling: Designing energy-efficient spaces is incredibly important. However, energy codes are increasing initial construction costs with limited benefit to the students and making the systems increasingly more complicated to maintain and commission. These added code requirements add incremental cost, but when multiplied over multiple classrooms, the incremental costs add up to a more substantial amount. Daylight-zone requirements, in particular, have complicated the lighting control system significantly.

Gerke: The continued evolution of codes and standards, along with new features from equipment manufacturers, increases the design team’s ability to create more efficient buildings. The increase in code requirements prompts designers to investigate creative solutions while pushing equipment manufacturers for the next level of efficiency. The increase in one area of energy efficiency will be the impetus for another group to make their area of responsibility even better. An example is increased building envelope tightness. This change in design increases the HVAC system design professional’s responsibility to calculate and design a system that is appropriate for the specific building. This increase in technical design leads the builders to increase their level of accuracy, and finally, the test and balance contractor will need to provide a more accurate measurement of airflows.

Engineers with Dewberry recently wrapped up work on renovations of the North Wake College and Career Academy in Wake Forest, N.C. Programs serviced in the building include the culinary arts (complete with a fully functioning kitchen), early childhood education, emergency medical science, business administration, and information technology support. The facility is situated in a building that previously housed a Winn-Dixie grocery store. Courtesy: Dewberry

CSE: What new or updated code or standard do you feel will change the way such projects are designed, bid out, or built? 

Halling: The 2015 IBC and associated storm shelter requirements of ICC 500 would impact projects.

CSE: What are some of the biggest challenges when considering code compliance and designing or working with existing K-12 facilities? 

Wood: One of the biggest challenges we face on renovating existing buildings is determining how much of the existing school has to be brought up to meet current code requirements.

Gerke: Initial review of code requirements is a very important aspect of any design project. However, the code-analysis phase of a remodeling project will set the scope for the project, as the requirements listed in the International Existing Building Code (IEBC) may increase the project scope or allow the scope to be more limited than previously assumed. While the IEBC allows a renovation project to comply with all requirements listed in the latest IBC or IMC, the design professional needs to evaluate if this is good practice or even meets the standard of care for a particular project. Not upgrading systems or equipment, not increasing the amount of ventilation air in an existing system (with available capacity), or not including specific control system capabilities may be shortsighted decisions. These decisions will affect the occupants’ experience as well as the energy consumed in a building. Rationalizing what you did to someone in the distant future helps rationalize how codes are interpreted and why decisions were made.