Enhancing learning in K-12 schools

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

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer March 19, 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.

What are some current trends in K-12 projects?

Doug Everhart: The world around us evolves so quickly that learning environments must be able to adapt for different uses and learning styles. Traditional lecture-style classrooms are being replaced with open, collaborative areas, flexible labs and maker spaces that allow students to harmonize learning with hands-on experience. There is an ever-growing need for technology-rich, interactive and flexible spaces. The systems we design need to be set up with similar flexibility to react to an ever-changing space.

Keith Hammelman: There is an enhanced focus on technology integration into the design and operation of K-12 facilities. This includes a light and learning/alertness/productivity link — by using daylight and lighting for circadian entrainment, lighting for disinfection (germicidal ultraviolet light). We are also seeing a focus on providing buildings that are resilient to future impacts from climate change. This could include the full electrification of buildings to allow for the facility to be powered by on-site renewables.

Brian A. Hummel: One of the trends we are seeing is that classroom floorplans are more open and more flexible. This is being achieved by having moveable walls or large doors that can turn spaces from smaller learning spaces to larger learning spaces or vice versa. The term flex classroom, flex space, small-group break-out and gathering spaces are some of the common flexible space room names being used.

Richard Sparozic: Kohler Ronan has seen an increase in requests for provisions for renewable energy measures to be considered. Clients understand the importance of considering green technology and reducing building energy consumption.

Casimir Zalewski: K-12 schools have had a greater focus on safety, resiliency and collaboration.

  • Safety: Secured vestibules, sightlines into classrooms and even wall materials have all been topics of discussions to make sure the students and faculty are safe.
  • Resiliency: The selection of systems and components continues to be another topic for discussion. Districts have been looking for flexibility in operation modes to allow for programmed pre- and post-purges of spaces, design for the ability of higher filtration levels or ventilation rates and the standardization of plumbing and lighting fixtures to reduce the strain on maintenance budgets.
  • Collaboration: Learning doesn’t just happen in classrooms. Schools are looking for more opportunities for shared experiences between classes and teachers. Additionally, white box maker spaces haves been very desirable to support academics and collaboration partnership.

What future trends should engineers expect for such projects?

Keith Hammelman: Data collection metrics built into lighting systems — integration of systems, power over Ethernet lighting systems will be increasing in popularity because the ability to easily integrate these systems together with other technologies. This integration will allow for users to individually control their environments to improve the educational environment.

Casimir Zalewski: The future for K-12 continues to resemble more flexible spaces, continued support for integrated technology and facilities that can respond to current and future health and safety concerns. The design of these facilities continues to trend toward integrated design to provide an environment for the entire education experience and not just classroom learning.

Brian A. Hummel: The challenge with the flexible space configuration options is how to zone and control the heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. When the moveable walls are repositioned to make the space into smaller spaces or larger spaces, temperature control can be a challenge. Many times, providing temperature control systems to the smallest configuration is costly due to more equipment and more control points. Temperature averaging and other control strategies are used to handle the different configurations.

Doug Everhart: Creative use of technology touching all aspects of building systems design and being a key component of content display and communication within the classroom. The one-to-one movement in addition to the recent pandemic is putting technology directly in the very capable hands of students and educators. Educators and students are no longer static within the classroom. They are mobile, flexible and now sometimes fully remote — creating a need for robust, flexible and, in most cases, wireless technology infrastructure that responds to and doesn’t distract from learning.

Richard Sparozic: Net-zero or net-zero-ready schools are becoming more of the norm. Many states, including Connecticut, are adopting the standard in their own codes that require that K-12 schools be designed and constructed to meet higher performing energy standards in an effort to reduce energy consumption.

What modifications are you being asked to make to meet COVID-19 requirements?

Brian A. Hummel: We have a couple of challenges with respect to COVID-19 requirements a with existing schools and new schools. The challenge with existing schools is the equipment may not be able to handle additional outside air or higher air filter requirements. Equipment needs to be carefully evaluated on existing schools to make sure that adding more outside air or higher filter efficiencies will not impact equipment performance or function.

With new schools higher air filter efficiency, HVAC system zoning, higher outside air quantiles and other emerging technologies can be used to help mitigate to some degree COVID-19 spread, but are not a full solution. Modern ventilation standards, such as ASHRAE 62.1, address the delivery of outdoor air to dilute contaminants and offset odors from finishes and occupants. With COVID-19, there is now increased interest in additional ventilation as a means to dilute the viral concentrations.

Modern HVAC systems incorporate multiple stages of filtration in some equipment, known as prefilter and final filter. Filtration effectiveness is categorized by MERV ratings, with MERV 8 for the prefilter and MERV 13 for final filtration being most common. MERV 13 is being used in units with single-stage filters. Energy use must also be balanced as higher air filter efficiencies cause more air pressure drop, higher fan energy and higher outside air quantities also may require more energy to condition the air. Operations of the school such as circulation patterns, reducing occupancy in spaces for more distancing, barriers between occupants and masking are the primary defense of COVID-19 spread.

Richard Sparozic: Our engineers have been asked to consider strategies such as increased ventilation, humidification, bipolar Ionization and ultraviolet germicidal Irradiation as effective means to mitigate the spread of viruses such as COVID-19 and bacteria. While each element can help improve building air quality, each presents unique challenges which must be taken into account. This is especially true when the building is aiming to achieve a certification such as net-zero, where reducing energy consumption is one of the chief concerns. In addition, touchless faucets, hands-free flushing of toilets and automatic doors have been requested.

Keith Hammelman: We have been asked to explore germicidal ultraviolet installations within classrooms and HVAC systems to deactivate the COVID-19 virus. We have also been asked to provide measures to increase both the filtration levels in existing systems and also increase the amount of ventilation air into spaces. There has also been a focus on the understanding of how these systems affect the long-term operational costs of the facilities with these enhancements.

Casimir Zalewski: In recent projects, some clients have requested we provide higher levels of filtration, increased ventilation, reduced room-to-room mixing and additional operational flexibility. In central station air handling units, we have been providing MERV 14 filters and in smaller unitary equipment we have included bipolar needlepoint ionization. Where possible, we have provided dedicated outdoor air units serving decoupled room level terminal equipment with heating and cooling capacity to reduce room-to-room mixing while also providing additional ventilation to each room. In addition to sizing the main air handling systems to accommodate increased ventilation, each system has been programmed to be able to either operate in an optimum start or use pre- and post-ventilation strategies.

Doug Everhart: Many of our projects regarding COVID-19 mitigation strategies have used 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. Considerations when increasing the outdoor air coming into the space certainly vary depending on the location and climate of your building when looking at things like temperature set points and humidity control. Beyond COVID-19 requirements, there are multiple additional positive attributes to increasing a facility’s indoor air quality such as overall higher cognitive functions including: information usage; crisis response; focused, applied and basic activity level; and task orientation.

What are engineers doing to ensure such projects meet challenges associated with emerging technologies?

Keith Hammelman: With the use of new and emerging technologies, an engineer should ensure that building owners are adequately trained in the operation of new technologies to allow the implementation to be successful. The owner should be comfortable with the decision to employ a new technology within the buildings and this will allow the system implementation to be successful.

Casimir Zalewski: Approaching any new technology typically starts with a conversation. Whether the query begins with the professional or the client, there must be a discussion on its pros and cons, its initial cost and operating cost and the client’s overall comfort with the new technology. Often, engineers simply need to leave provisions for it — space in a unit, pressure allowance, power or control system input/output to accept it at a later date.

Brian A. Hummel: The trend we are seeing with both new and existing school construction is upgrading to new control system and upgrading to more open architecture open protocol control systems. An example of this would be an open BACnet system with a Tridium Niagara Framework front end and allowing multiple BACnet manufactures to bid the building controls system. This open architecture allows for the overall front end to be the consistent over time and multiple building construction phases or remodel/expansions to use different BACnet-compliant controls manufactures.

Tell us about a recent project you’ve worked on that’s innovative, large-scale or otherwise noteworthy.

Casimir Zalewski: On a recent 162,000-square-foot middle school infrastructure replacement project in southeast Michigan, we were asked to develop a plan to address the school’s energy efficiency, quality of the learning environment and its ability to respond to health concerns. The school used large central station air handling units with limited filtration and air movement to each classroom.

We replaced these systems with multiple dedicated outdoor air systems using MERV 14 filters and energy recovery to pretreat the outside air. The dedicated outdoor air system units used purges on the energy wheel to protect against cross contamination. Each classroom was provided with variable flow refrigerant cassettes with energy recovery that mixed fresh air with classroom air shifting heating and cooling energy from one space to another through the refrigerant system.

The overall HVAC system was designed to limit room-to-room mixing of supply (ventilation) air. Additionally, the central systems were designed with additional ventilation capacity and programed through the building automation system to be able to quickly increase ventilation rates and provide either an optimum start or pre and-post ventilation mode of the spaces.

Also, we replaced all of the existing lighting with LED lighting that features daylighting controls and dimming capabilities for expanded abilities.

Doug Everhart: The Belvedere Middle School project is a $120 million large-scale design-build Los Angeles Unified School District comprehensive modernization project that consists largely of the new construction of a brand-new campus for a public middle school in the East Los Angeles area. Henderson Engineers teamed with Rosendin Electric, Pan Pacific Mechanical, NAC Architecture and Hensel Phelps to ultimately win the project through a design competition by showcasing our team’s vision of building/system design, sustainable approach and speed of construction.

The design team worked with Hensel Phelps to break the project into two large construction phases that would allow the school to remain fully occupied and operational without using any temporary housing, while allowing the overall construction timeframe to be significantly reduced. This created major challenges for keeping existing campus dry and wet utilities active during demolition while also working with the utility providers to upgrade campus systems to accommodate the new buildings.

Henderson Engineers collaborated with the mechanical, electrical, plumbing, fire protection and technology trade partners through the design and permitting phase, allowing for full-scale clash detection using Level 400 BIM modeling during construction documents, early pricing exercises and ultimately early procurement of equipment, which is all leading to a more streamlined construction process. Some notable aspects of the project include:

  • 50% site electrical energy offset using rooftop photovoltaic systems.
  • California High-Performing Schools designation.
  • 1,200-seat auditorium used by the school and community.
  • Community garden.

Richard Sparozic: Kohler Ronan just completed the design of the first net-zero public school in Connecticut. By eliminating fossil fuels and incorporating both photovoltaic and geothermal systems, the school will have an energy use intensity under 25.

How are engineers designing these kinds of projects to keep costs down while offering appealing features, complying with relevant codes and meeting client needs?

Richard Sparozic: Providing the client with a building they are proud to own and operate is an integrated effort between the entire design team. New and better technologies allow buildings to be designed with improved envelopes and fenestration. With the addition of incorporating daylighting and maximizing natural light, these measures allow for the building systems to be reduced in size — saving the client costs.

Keith Hammelman: We do this by collaborating early with industry partners, shepherding conversations about life cycle and return on investment and having triple bottom line conversations with clients and stakeholders.

Doug Everhart: Buildings need to work and engineers help make that happen through the standardization of equipment and systems from a sourcing standpoint. Engineers need to be involved early in the planning process alongside facilities maintenance staff to provide solutions. Ideally, a well-thought-out building or campus wide masterplan that properly allocates funds for appropriate addressing of building systems (both existing and new) is key in creating environments that meet these goals.

To tackle these issues head-on, our engineers look to apply a process early on that:

  • Evaluates current needs and overall performance and budget goals.
  • Prioritizes options for new systems or upgrades based on equipment life, procurement, performance, code standards, maintenance and critical needs.
  • Plans and coordinates systems with constructability in mind with proper budgeting checks and pricing milestones.
  • Implements systems in construction phase with proper oversight and commissioning.

How has your team incorporated integrated project delivery, virtual reality or virtual design and construction into a project?

Brian A. Hummel: Most of our projects start with 3D modeling even before we are awarded the project. 3D preliminary concepts are presented to the client during the interview process to give them an idea of our firm’s concepts for their project. Once we are awarded the project, 3D modeling and BIM is used to generate building plans. All disciplines working on the projects work withing the same BIM model, integrating the design process. VR tools are used to present high importance areas to the clients, giving them very realistic experience of what the space will be like once constructed. IPD and VR are here to stay building design world.