Engineering in K-12 schools: Codes and standards

Engineers offer practical advice and best practices on how to design HVAC, electrical, lighting, and fire protection systems in K-12 schools while meeting all codes and standards.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer March 17, 2014


  • Keith R. Hammelman, PE, Vice president, CannonDesign, Aurora, Ill.
  • Robert V. Hedman, PE, LEED AP BD+C, Senior associate, Kohler Ronan LLC, Danbury, Conn.
  • Pete Jefferson, PE, LEED AP, HBDP, Principal/vice president, M.E. Group, Overland Park, Kan.
  • Essi Najafi, Principal, Global Engineering Solutions, Rockville, Md.
  • Rodney V. Oathout, PE, CEM, LEED AP, Regional engineering leader/principal, DLR Group, Overland Park, Kan.
  • Sunondo Roy, PE, LEED AP BD+C, Vice president, CCJM Engineers, Chicago, Il.

CSE: What codes, standards, or guidelines do you use as a guide as you work on these facilities?

Jefferson: I got to work with ASHRAE on developing the most recent Advanced Energy Design Guide for K-12 Schools, so I’m a big advocate for that. It’s climate-zone specific, and intended to present realistic solutions to achieving high levels of energy reduction. We don’t typically use it prescriptively, but it’s a great starting point to kick off important discussions on high-performance design and approaches.

Najafi: Our projects incorporate a range of directive requirements, such as client developed standards, performance assessment criteria (such as LEED), as well as current codes, including the new International Green Construction Code (IgCC).

Hedman: LEED, State High Performance Building Standards, ASHRAE 90.1, ASHRAE Advanced Energy Design Guides, and ANSI 12.60 are typically used in designing systems for these facilities.

CSE: How have Energy Star, ASHRAE, U.S. Green Building Council, etc., affected your work on K-12 schools? What are some positive/negative aspects of these guides?

Roy: Most established school districts mandate LEED for Schools. This rating system draws in ASHRAE standards, and most energy codes also adopt aspects of ASHRAE 90.1 of varying editions. LEED forcibly pulls in the most current edition. Generally, there are very few negatives with the requirements of LEED or the ASHRAE standards other than minimal incremental construction cost premiums for higher efficiency equipment and more robust controls. Owners will eventually realize that annual operating costs will quickly pay back most cost premiums.

Oathout: The Energy Star program, including Portfolio Manager and Target Finder, have been valuable tools for organizing energy reduction programs that we develop for our K-12 clients. We like the tangible comparisons available through Energy Star. The Energy Star brand is recognizable to the larger school community that contributes to the credibility of our results.

Najafi: Sustainable practices have positively influenced our design approaches, inclusive of related issues such as ventilation. The focus has shifted from following prescribed traditional practices to one that prioritizes the reduction of energy use. This not only has been positive in the sustainable building performance, but also has been a catalyst for energizing the creative engineering approach in our field of practice.

Hammelman: These standards bring a heightened awareness to facility directors and managers, allowing them to compare their building’s performance against the industry and their competition. The standards push the bar, from a systems perspective, requiring more owners to hire trained staff to operate the buildings and systems. Engineers previously designed relatively simple systems based upon available budget and capital and desire to facilitate operability but, with current mandated goals of improving energy efficiency, we now generally have the opportunity to install more complex systems. This shift is positive, with improving energy efficiencies and reducing operating cost standpoint, but requires more owner and installation contractor training to understand the designed systems’ performance goals and operating strategies. LEED certification is a major focus of our clients, but it shouldn’t be the only goal. Instead, we should set measurable performance goals and validate them after the project is completed.

Hedman: In many states, schools receiving state funding are required to meet these standards, therefore requiring more costly and complex systems. As a result, lower energy use is achieved. However, these types of systems typically required an increased maintenance program and a staff knowledgeable with the system operation.

Jefferson: The USGBC has made the “greening of schools” a huge priority, and we’ve tried to take that mission to our projects. I think the biggest negative we’ve found with the LEED program is in working with rural school districts. Rural communities are not “sprawl,” which LEED discourages. I think that there needs to be further thought given to what sustainability means in the context of small farming/ranching communities, and how that differs from urban environments.

CSE: Which code/standard proves to be most challenging in such facilities?

Hedman: The International Energy Conservation Code (IECC), while not difficult to implement in a design, can pose challenges to the project budget adopted by a municipality.

Najafi: With the emergence of the codified sustainability practices represented in the IgCC, there is a matrix of requirements that need to be navigated to determine the best path forward.

Hammelman: The most challenging code that impacts our clients is the recent adoption of the IECC 2012, which pushes the envelope on energy performance within facilities. It requires owners and contractors to rethink their traditional constructed facilities, especially with the requirement that a project is fully commissioned within a certain time frame after the certificate of occupancy is issued. These codes also influence the architectural community, because meeting the energy code can no longer be addressed as an engineering issue but also requires forethought with regard to architectural design decisions and construction. These standards are increasing the need for energy modeling early on in the design process to confirm compliance with the energy codes.

CSE: Do you find codes affecting K-12 school structures to be more or less taxing than those impacting work on other building types?

Najafi: School systems are focal points for the community in terms of projecting a sustainable approach for the constructed environment. At the same time, construction budgets are constantly challenged. This leads to a more mindful approach for the design process than in the past. However, internal operational and maintenance practices often limit our choices when selecting systems.

Hedman: As every building type has specific code sections which need to be addressed in design, we see little difference in the code impact on the design of schools as opposed to other building types.