Designing high-tech K-12 schools

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 22, 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’s the biggest trend you see today in K-12 school projects?

Doug Everhart: Using technology as a creative tool within the learning environment is what I see to be a key trend in K-12 projects today. Technology is touching all aspects of the systems we design and is a key component of content display and communication within the classroom. The one-to-one movement that has spread across the country is putting technology directly in the very capable hands of students and educators. Teachers and students are no longer static within the classroom—they are mobile and flexible. This creates a necessity for robust, flexible, and in most cases, wireless infrastructure that responds to and does not distract from learning.

Jason Gerke: Many of our projects in this market include large gathering spaces that serve multiple purposes. Middle schools for example, typically have large central areas that are multistory to support interaction between grade levels from different areas of a building. These spaces may also serve as the cafeteria, theater, and even gymnasium. The mechanical, electrical, plumbing (MEP) systems in these spaces need to be flexible for the many proposed uses, as well as be able to quickly transition from one use to the next.

April L. Halling: Open, flexible, and collaborative spaces seem to be the new direction that K-12 education buildings are implementing. These spaces are intended to serve a single classroom or a combination of grade levels using moveable walls and centralized common spaces.

Johnny Wood: One of the biggest trends we are seeing in K-12 projects is “security.” Security includes many engineering realms. Site access, building access, movement throughout the building, secure vestibules, card access, and security camera coverage, just to name a few. Ensuring the engineering systems accommodate all these needs is key to any K-12 design. Incorporating these security aspects into K-12 projects while having them continue to look and feel like a school and not a prison or detention center is a challenge in today’s designs.

CSE: What trends do you think are on the horizon for such projects? 

Gerke: As with many other markets, the K-12 building market will continue to see increased technology built into the facilities. This technology will increase wireless connectivity for building users with more than one electronic device, have the flexibility to expand or contract learning environments at a classroom level, and automatically control window tinting and electrochromic glass in buildings with more glazing.

Wood: We see K-12 projects including “collaborative” spaces on the horizon. These spaces allow more interaction between students and more free movement of students during activities than in the traditional classroom setting. Designing the engineering systems to accommodate the many different activities that can occur in these types of spaces is key to the MEP design. We see either more schools being constructed or additional square footage being added to existing buildings but with little increase in owners’ maintenance staff. The key to this trend is giving owners engineering systems with which they are familiar and are confident in maintaining. We see more “joint-use” facilities occurring. Many of our K-12 projects have portions of the building either used by churches, local community groups, or other local entities. Designing the MEP systems to accommodate the use of the facility by other groups outside normal school operating hours is a key consideration in the design.

Halling: Color tuning the color temperature of lighting will become more prominent to mimic natural sun patterns and synchronize with circadian rhythm. Preliminary studies seem to indicate this results in an increase in concentration and a decrease in behavioral problems. The ability to change the color temperature to a cooler one, like 4100K, can improve concentration during testing, and changing to a warmer color temperature can increase relaxation if students are feeling stress or other agitations.

Everhart: Since user content within the classroom and building systems are now directly interfacing with technology, this creates a tremendous potential for the synergy of systems to be responsive to each individual in the learning environment. The future of K-12 includes building monitoring systems reacting to the user or user group to increase real-time performance and user experiences by precisely controlling room scheduling, air quality, temperature, setbacks, lighting, and audio/video (AV).

CSE: Are you noticing an increase in the building of new projects, versus retrofitting existing buildings?

Brandon Pierson: We’ve seen a recent trend in declining enrollment in many of the districts. There are some districts that are seeing growth in certain isolated areas, but we see the majority faced with the challenge of stagnant or declining enrollment. There is typically an overall cost-benefit analysis between building new versus renovating and/or expanding an existing building. Most of our projects have been additions or renovations in the Midwest, with design teams focusing on system evaluation to maximize districts’ resources.

Everhart: I still see a healthy mix of new construction projects as well as renovation or adaptive reuse projects. In more urban or historical settings, we see a lean toward retrofitting existing buildings. We are currently working on the conversion of North Kansas City (Mo.) Schools district’s original North Kansas City (Northtown) High School, which maintains the existing historical structure with an addition that includes upgraded systems and technology infrastructure for educational purposes. The intentional juxtaposition of modern and historical is a striking aesthetic, while the systems provide a modern-level function and performance.

Halling: We see a balance of new buildings to replace aging facilities as well as renovations and additions to existing buildings. A large driving factor seems to be the age of the facility; the older the facility, the more likely it will be more cost-effective to replace it with a new, energy-efficient facility. Where there is a significant cost savings to renovate or add strategic spaces to expand an existing facility, districts tend to take that approach. We see renovation and addition more often in facilities that are less than 25 years old.

Wood: We still see a good mixture of both new construction and renovation of existing buildings. In the majority of these situations, the MEP systems are beyond their useful life and are replaced, but the building structure itself is maintained. The State of North Carolina Department of Public Instruction actually has a “Renovation Feasibility Analysis” form, which is required to be submitted during the design process to confirm the need for replacement or renovation.

Gerke: In late 2018, Wisconsin passed nearly all school referendums proposed in communities throughout the state. This amounted to nearly $2 billion in approved new funding for K-12 schools. We have seen many of the districts propose a variety of new buildings, but a significant portion—up to half—is being spent on upgrades to existing buildings to either extend the life of the facility or to increase the security of the building.

CSE: Tell us about a recent project you’ve worked on that’s innovative, large-scale, or otherwise noteworthy. Please tell us about the location, systems your team engineered, key players, interesting challenges or solutions, and other significant details. If one is available, please link to or attach a case study or portfolio description of the project. 

Halling: Belton High School in Belton, Mo., was originally constructed as a freshman center with a master plan to expand to house grades 9 through 12. In addition to expanding the classroom wings twice, the facility has undergone transformation with advanced curriculum spaces including science labs, a commercial culinary arts program, an eight-lane competition natatorium, and a 1,500-seat indoor fieldhouse. An extra challenge was to incorporate the commercial kitchen space into a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) tornado shelter to provide extra protection during such an event. Additional ventilation and opening protection was required to be integrated into the design to ensure adequate protection and to meet FEMA standards. The construction of these additions has spanned almost 10 years, making integration with existing systems challenging.

Everhart: Our team was privileged to work on the Missouri Innovation Campus, which opened in August 2017 in Lee’s Summit, Mo. The Missouri Innovation Campus connects high school juniors and seniors to real-world experience, giving them the opportunity to earn a four-year bachelor’s degree just 2 years after high school graduation. A collaboration between Kansas City-area businesses, Lee’s Summit R-7 School District, Metropolitan Community College–Kansas City, and the University of Central Missouri, the program has received national recognition from former President Barack Obama, who deemed it, “A recipe for success for the long-term.” A key focus of the design was adaptability. Since learning environments continually evolve, a variable air volume (VAV) system and flexible power and lighting solutions were used in classrooms, meeting spaces, and training labs to keep spaces flexible as teaching methods change. The VAV air handling units (AHUs) stayed inside the building, served by hot-water high-efficiency boilers and a quiet air-cooled chiller. This extends the life of the units, lowers long-term costs, minimizes maintenance needs, and creates a safer workplace. Education and lifelong learning are core tenets of our culture at Henderson Engineers. The Missouri Innovation Campus is an esteemed program recognized for the innovative ways it equips students for the future.

Gerke: Our latest and largest school project to complete construction is located in Sheboygan Falls, Wis. This school is more than 120,000 sq ft and holds approximately 500 students in grades 5 through 8. This project included a number of innovate design features intended to create an excellent learning experience in a safe environment, including flexible learning spaces that are adaptable to future learning trends, neighborhood classroom concepts with classroom walls that are moveable to create large learning environments connecting students from other classrooms, and a highly efficient mechanical system that resulted in a significant incentive from Focus on Energy, which is Wisconsin’s energy efficiency and renewable resource program.

Wood: We are just finishing up the design of the 370,725-sq-ft, 4-story, Wake County Public School Fuquay-Varina High School. Fuquay High is one of the largest school projects we have been involved in. The mechanical system consists of high-efficiency air-cooled chillers and high-efficiency, condensing gas boilers along with single-zone, VAV AHUs and VAV units with terminal units spread throughout the campus. The plumbing system consists of high-efficiency, condensing gas water heaters, electric water heaters, grease traps, an acid neutralization system, and plumbing fixtures spread throughout the campus. The fire protection system consists of a fire pump, sprinkler risers, and zone-control valve assemblies spread throughout the campus. The electrical system consists of LED lighting, vacancy sensor control of lighting, switchgear, an emergency generator, door-access control, intrusion detection, intercom, a voice evacuation fire alarm, performance sound systems, and telecommunications.

CSE: Have you worked on any K-12-level school facilities with specialized curricula (i.e., math-science academies)? If so, please describe your experience.

Wood: North Wake College and Career Academy (NWCCA) is an innovative early college high school. The school is a partnership between Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) and Wake Tech Community College (WTCC). Our rigorous and innovative educational approach uses project-based learning, a teaching method where students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging, and complex real-world question, problem, or challenge. Students complete their high school diploma taking honors- and Advanced Placement-level courses and earn business education credits through WCPSS career and technical education (CTE). Students also earn a WTCC certificate in one of five program areas (culinary arts, early childhood education, emergency medical science, business administration, and information technology [IT] tech support) and are eligible to enroll in additional college-level courses through WTCC to earn free, transferable college credits while still in high school. The key design component of a facility of this nature is to ensure both the K-12 and higher education components are met in the design of the facility. Many of these classes occur in the evenings so the operation schedule is a great consideration. The building consists of a large fully operational culinary arts lab, early college classrooms, emergency medical science labs, and IT/technology labs along with general classrooms. The school is located in a building that was previously a Winn-Dixie grocery store.

Halling: High school facilities are increasingly including advanced education courses, which require specialized facility spaces. Science laboratories have the potential to include vacuum, compressed air, and natural gas distribution systems. Medical and bioscience laboratories may include nurse-call systems and medical gas distribution systems. Special care must be taken to make sure these systems have additional shut-off and isolation to ensure student safety.

Everhart: Henderson has partnered with Olathe (Kan.) Public Schools on the design for their fifth high school, Olathe West. As part of the district’s commitment to hands-on learning, Olathe West High School is home to two “21st Century Academies” that teach students skills they can apply toward their post-secondary careers: Public Safety Academy focuses on police and fire; Green Technology Academy centers on biodiesel, wind energy, and solar power. The systems were intentionally designed as teaching tools within the curriculums. Systems supporting the Green Technologies Academy, for example, include a photovoltaic (PV) array directly on grade and accessible outside that is tied to isolated metering of the department; it is sized to offset its total energy use. Students within the academy can download and interact with specific department energy-performance data from the building automation system presented on classroom displays through the use of an energy dashboard. In the horticulture lab portion of the academy, students can use the rainwater-harvesting system, which was designed to serve a roof-mounted greenhouse and green roof irrigation.

CSE: How are engineers designing K-12 facilities to keep costs down while offering appealing features, complying with relevant codes, and meeting client needs?

Pierson: Engineers work with the owners to evaluate system options that meet the schools’ needs and targeted budgets. Engineers also work with architects on equipment locations to optimize the distribution of systems to improve energy efficiency and costs. Equipment and material types are reviewed to provide cost-effective options that meet code and the owner’s requirements. Engineers consider constructability in their designs to minimize labor during construction. Low-voltage systems including building automation controls are evaluated to create buildingwide solutions in lieu of individual systems that provide duplicated costs.

Gerke: The latest edition of the International Code Council (ICC) codes adopted throughout the U.S. have created a situation where many of the latest technologies to increase energy efficiency have become standard requirements in the design and construction of a building. These requirements sometimes increase the first cost of a project, but they provide payback in the form of reduced energy use during the life of a building. It is well-understood that construction costs account for only 20% to 40% of the total lifecycle cost of a structure. The design team needs to assess multiple alternatives during the design phase for all major systems in order to make educated decisions that will continue to affect the building once construction is complete.

Everhart: The key to providing clients with the high-performing systems at a competitive cost is proper planning. We find that when our team is involved early in conceptual-level planning, we can help identify energy/performance goals, cost targets, and system life and maintenance desires. This process of initial goal setting and identifying priorities helps us steer the team toward proper system selection. Careful planning of infrastructure that uses common paths through the building for technology, HVAC, and electrical systems is another key step toward cost efficiency. This is a successful result of early and intentional planning.

Wood: They are:

  • Using familiar, readily available products.
  • Monitoring the bidding time frames and bidding climate of the area the project is located in.
  • Serving larger areas with equipment, to limit the amount of equipment required.
  • Ensuring the time frame allowed for construction is reasonable for the work to be performed (limiting overtime work required).

CSE: How are K-12 buildings being designed to be more energyefficient? 

Everhart: Our team focuses on a process that first minimizes load, both equipment load and thermal load, within the building through proper operational planning and building orientation. We then tackle systems selection with a focus on building performance. Our team uses early conceptual energy modeling to optimize the building envelope and compare mechanical systems that meet the individual project priorities and goals. Schematic and design development-refined modeling then focuses on optimizing individual components of the selected system to further increase efficiency. In post-occupancy, we look to measure building performance in comparison with the energy model, making adjustments within the system in the field to optimize performance based on true operation.

Wood: There are a few ways:

  • Serving larger areas with equipment; allowing more diversity in equipment.
  • Using low-flow-water plumbing fixtures.
  • Incorporating LED lighting.
  • Using isolated/separate areas outside of normal school hours so that the full school HVAC system is not required to operate to condition these areas.

Halling: A large factor to increase building efficiency is using controls systems for each system operation. Automatic daylighting controls reduce overall power usage, and central building management systems allow for building scheduling to ensure equipment is operating only while the facility is occupied.

Pierson: Energy codes have mandated significant increases in energy efficiency over the past decade. LED lighting has become the norm, with several control features such as dimmable controls, occupancy/vacancy sensors, and daylight harvesting. Power distribution systems are more efficient with submetering being used for monitoring the power consumption of different systems. PV systems are being incorporated into the building designs, whether the district chooses to own the system or enter into a power purchase agreement. Mechanical systems are being provided with dedicated outside air systems, energy recovery, variable refrigerant flow or other high-efficiency systems for primary-zone heating and cooling, and direct digital control (DDC) strategies that optimize overall system performance.

Gerke: Our experience has shown that buildings continue to be more tightly constructed. While this is a great advantage for the amount of energy required by the mechanical systems, it puts a greater level of priority on the HVAC systems. A tight building will have a lower infiltration rate, resulting in lower amounts of uncontrolled outside air entering the occupied spaces. While this is a positive result from an energy standpoint, it is important to continue studying and analyzing HVAC system outside air requirements and controllability. Besides the selection of mechanical systems, increased controllability of these systems (along with electrical systems) continues to deliver the most improvements in energy efficiency.

CSE: What is the biggest challenge you come across when designing K-12 school buildings?

Gerke: Many of these buildings are becoming increasingly more open to provide flexible learning environments. These open spaces become complicated from a mechanical systems standpoint, with the trend to create spaces with exposed structures and interconnected wings of a building. The exposed-structure trend creates complications when routing MEP utilities in an aesthetic manner as well as controlling the sound from HVAC systems in these large spaces. The openness of large school buildings also requires the engineering team to focus not just on pressure control of the overall building, but also in how these spaces are used and interact, such as kitchens, presentation areas, and other large gathering areas adjacent to primary building entry points.

Halling: Balancing first cost, long-term cost, flexibility of spaces, and comfortable learning environments.