Enhancing learning in K-12 schools via building codes

Students and teachers benefit from many engineering codes and standards in K-12 schools

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer March 25, 2021

Doug Everhart, PE, LEEP AP, K-12 education practice director|principal, Henderson Engineers, Lenexa, Kansas

Keith Hammelman, PE, principal, CannonDesign, Chicago

Brian A. Hummel, PE, LEED AP BD+C, mechanical engineer, senior associate, DLR Group, Phoenix

Richard Sparozic, PE, mechanical engineer, Kohler Ronan Consulting Engineers, Danbury, Conn.

Casimir Zalewski, PE, LEED AP, CPD, principal, Stantec, Berkley, Mich.

Please explain some of the codes, standards and guidelines you commonly use during the project’s design process. Which codes/standards should engineers be most aware of?

Casimir Zalewski: While a thorough understanding of all local building codes and reference standards are important, in K-12 design, understanding all applicable life safety codes and which authorities have jurisdiction can be critical. When retrofitting K-12 projects, many architects and engineers find situations where there are gray areas in the code or where one code conflicts with another especially regarding life safety dampers, wall ratings, etc.

To alleviate potential challenges in construction that derive from inspections, it’s important to engage with the right authorities and have conversations with those individuals early to identify the scope of the project, understand the applicable codes and standards and review how the design will achieve compliance. This can also help plan review comments that require additional construction cost that may not have been otherwise allocated if those early discussions did not occur.

Doug Everhart: We are researching ways to have storm shelters be self-sufficient of a domestic water service during a catastrophic event. If a tornado does hit the area and it wipes out buildings, the water that was serving them will be sticking out of the ground and water will be coming out of the open-ended pipe. This will take pressure and flow away from the shelter, possibly leaving it with no water supply at all. By the use of a flow through tank, we can store water for use during the emergency for a minimum of two hours and the water is fresh since it is used on a daily basis.

Richard Sparozic: Most commonly used codes are the International Building Codes. Familiarity with both ASHRAE 90.1 and International Energy Conservation Code is critical as both of the codes have changed significantly in the past few years, requiring engineers to design buildings that are more energy efficient.

What new code/standard do you believe schools will adopt to meet COVID-19 health guidelines?

Keith Hammelman: As a member of the ASHRAE Epidemic Task Force for reopening schools, I have been seeing a focus on increased ventilation requirements within facilities and the need to balance energy efficiency of the systems to provide ventilation. I believe that the codes will adjust to provide the need to install more energy recovery systems in climate zones which traditional have not seen this requirement before.

I also do believe that there will be a focus on providing minimum humidity level requirements within new K-12 buildings with also a focus on improving building envelope design. However, in existing facilities there will be a limitation on how this is provided because existing building envelopes were not designed to provide humidification of the facility.

Richard Sparozic: ASHRAE has published a few technical papers on COVID-19 and schools. Perhaps a more formal standard will be prepared by ASHRAE in the future to deal with COVID and future pandemics.

Doug Everhart: Many of our projects starting during the pandemic have used the WELL building standard with enhanced measures for air quality, lighting quality and building and occupant health. Enhanced MERV 13 filtration, increased outside air (ASHRAE 62 +20%) and displacement air, which delivers low velocity air at the occupant level and flushes at the top of the space, are all good strategies that can be implemented, if well planned, for assisted infection control in schools. The industry is moving toward healthy buildings, not just good energy performance.

How are codes, standards or guidelines for energy efficiency impacting the design of K-12 schools?

Keith Hammelman: The codes and standards are increasing the awareness of design professionals, code officials and owners on the importance of increased energy efficiency within buildings. As the codes develop further tools are being implemented which may have not existed 10 years ago, with California Title 24 Chapter 6 leading way.

Casimir Zalewski: Energy code requirements are driving K-12 projects to use more energy recovery and sophisticated automation systems. Many of the prescriptive energy requirements dictate energy-saving reset of either central system static pressure or central system head pressure, demand control ventilation strategies and provisions to limit simultaneous heating and cooling to name a few. Building commissioning is also included in the requirements of most energy codes. All of these items drive cost and need to be considered in the overall project budget so while the quality of the environments is improving, the first cost for the improved HVAC systems, automation and commissioning can affect the overall project.

Codes and standards such as International Mechanical Code, IECC and ASHRAE 90.1 are all impacting the energy efficiency of schools. With every code cycle, new code is adopted by various jurisdictions, the codes and standards increase the overall energy efficiency of buildings envelope and increase the minimum operating efficiency of equipment. The new codes also require more system features that increase energy efficiency such as outside air economizer and energy recovery requirements, these vary depending on climate zone of the project.

Doug Everhart: Many districts have adopted the local codes, but might put a stretch goal on their projects of exceeding code by some percentage. This goal of reaching beyond the code is an effective means of elevating performance while not creating conflicts between the enforced code and their desires. The stringency of these depends on the code in place and the district’s comfort with understanding the level of performance this will produce by default.

What are some of the biggest challenges when considering code compliance and designing or working with existing buildings?

Casimir Zalewski: Complying with current life safety codes and standards can be challenging. We have encountered many schools that used the corridors as return air plenums without any protected openings in the walls. Additionally, many ceilings are riddled with 50 years of legacy wiring and cabling. Modifications to schools to add components have not always been either permitted or inspected.

So, as you begin design, you may find many hidden costs to add life safety dampers, remove legacy wiring or patch and repair large sections of what should be rated walls. Furthermore, many of these items are not apparent until construction begins due to the nature of hard ceilings, lack of existing drawings or other potential challenges. The importance of contingencies and allowances and a continuous open dialog between the design professional, trade professional and client are necessary to avoid potentially stressful situations.

Richard Sparozic: Depending on the magnitude of the existing building renovation, existing structures present many unique challenges. Ceiling cavity limitations are often one of the most important items that require coordination between all trades in design to ensure new mechanical, electrical, plumbing and fire protection utilities can be accommodated. Alternatively, when buildings are partially renovated, building life safety improvements can become challenging and expand beyond the initial project boundary.

As an example, Kohler Ronan recently worked on a project which required an addition to be added to an existing structure. During the course of our investigation of existing building systems, it was found that the existing fire alarm control panel was out of date and lacked spare capacity. As a result, its replacement was required to be incorporated into the project; this had not been anticipated.

Doug Everhart: Over the years, education methods, technology and population have driven changes to school facilities. To keep up, schools have seen upgrades, additions and renovations from a variety of eras leaving maintenance staff with an assortment of HVAC and electrical systems in a variety of conditions. This presents a challenge to maintaining a successful learning environment that is safe, comfortable and functional. We’ve found that using master planning with school districts helps document and evaluate what is in your facility. Because once you know what you have, you can better prioritize improvements and make your budget work harder.

What codes or guidelines have you used to enhance the security on such a project?

Doug Everhart: While NFPA 3000 deals mostly with policy and procedures surrounding hostile event response, it serves to guide the discussion when working with clients to plan the infrastructure that will support that plan to do everything possible to mitigate risk when seconds count and lives are on the line. Situational awareness, control of access to sensitive spaces and communication are a huge part of that and electronic security assets are a vital tool to facilitate those things.