Enhancing the learning experience in K-12 schools

K-12 schools are among the most important projects engineers can tackle. Professionals with expertise in mechanical, electrical, plumbing, fire protection, lighting, and commissioning offer design advice for educational facilities.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer March 29, 2016


Tony Cocea, PE, Principal, DLR Group, Los Angeles

Michael Do, CEM, CxA, AX TCP, Director of Engineering Sciences and Commissioning, Setty, Fairfax, Va.

James Dolan, PE, CEM, CPMP, LEED AP, Principal in Charge of Energy Engineering Services, OLA Consulting Engineers, Hawthorne, N.Y.

Mark Fisher, PE, LEED AP, Principal, AlfaTech Consulting Engineers, San Jose, Calif.

Douglas R. Hundley Jr., PE, CGD, LEED AP, CxA, Mechanical Engineer, CMTA Consulting Engineers, Louisville, Ky.

Peter McClive, PE, LEED AP, Senior Vice President, CannonDesign, Grand Island, N.Y.

CSE: Please describe a recent K-12 school project you’ve worked on—share details about the project, including location, building type, team involved, etc.

Tony Cocea: DLR Group is in the midst of a comprehensive program to upgrade the lighting systems at Malibu High School in California. The project includes the classrooms, library, administration, gymnasium, auditorium, and cafeteria buildings. We are replacing existing fluorescent fixtures with LED fixtures. We implemented the latest California Title 24 requirements for controls and used Exergy digital network lighting controls.

We also are working at Paseo Del Rey and Coldwater elementary schools in Los Angeles. Each project had a basis of design (BOD) document and a lifecycle cost analysis provided as a part of the predesign effort. The BOD alleviated any confusion between the designer and the owner because it provided a document to reference and a way to best facilitate communication with the owner. The projects included single-story existing classroom buildings and involved mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP), and structural design.

Michael Do: At the New Ballou High School in Washington, D.C., our company is designing an innovative net zero school facility with common HVAC and energy systems, but combined in a unique manner. The building is slated for 4 floors, with a total building area of 322,000 sq ft, and includes a large football stadium. The District of Columbia is pursuing U.S. Green Building Council LEED Platinum as well as a Net Zero Energy Building certification.

Mark Fisher: AlfaTech, as a part of lead architect BCA’s design team, completed MEP design for the new 140,000-sq-ft Christopher High School in Gilroy, Calif., which has achieved Collaborative for High Performance School (CHPS) schools status. The campus includes classrooms, a cafeteria, and a gym. Phase I of this project also recently received the Award of Excellence at the 2011 Leroy F. Greene Design and Planning Awards.

Douglas R. Hundley Jr.: A recent project we completed is a new high school in a rural district of Kentucky: Nelson County Public Schools. Thomas Nelson High School was a new high school to relieve the existing high school, which was exceeding capacity. The new school is a 144,000-sq-ft, 1,000-student school, serving grade levels 9 to 12. In addition to the traditional classrooms, the facility included a 2,000-seat gymnasium, 450-seat auditorium, field house, football field, baseball field, softball field, soccer field, and band-practice area.

The district was very interested in high-performance design, and through collaborative design starting at the programming and schematic phase, the school is operating at an energy-use intensity (EUI) of 22.7, and is the most efficient high school in the state of Kentucky. High-performance strategies include a ground-source heat pump system, dedicated outdoor air units with energy recovery and occupancy-based ventilation controls, daylighting of all south-facing classrooms, insulating concrete form (ICF) wall construction, super-insulated roof, and window tuning to reduce solar loading.

Peter McClive: The Inventing Tomorrow project has made the Niagara Falls City School District the first known school district in New York State to construct dedicated, shared science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) labs in every school building. Stakeholders believe that providing students with STEM education from kindergarten through high school encourages collaborative problem solving and multifaceted exploration to be a natural part of students’ thought process. In particular, Niagara Falls High School received two STEM specialty labs, one focused on engineering and one on biomedical technology. The engineering lab is equipped with overhead utility grids, mobile furniture, a prep room, lab utilities, and 3-D printing; the biomedical technology lab provides fully outfitted student lab stations, a fume hood, a prep room, and a 3-D interactive whiteboard allowing virtual dissection. K-8 labs, agile for a wide variety of subject matter, consist of three distinct zones: an open area for large, possibly floor-based project work; a workshop zone with mobile group tables and chairs; and a resource bar for computing, note taking, and work-in-progress displays. Custom-designed rock walls adorn each lab, displaying a cross-section of the geological layers of the nearby Niagara Gorge, complete with related fossils and era timelines.

CSE: When commissioning K-12 school buildings, what’s the biggest challenge?

James Dolan: A key challenge for commissioning is that the commissioning authority (CxA) is often brought in later in the design or near the start of construction. Successful commissioning relies on the CxA integrating with the team early, helping the owner establish the owner’s project requirements (OPR) at the outset of a project. Due to funding structures, the CxA for public schools is often brought later in the project, when key features to help with comfort, turnover, and maintenance are already "value-engineered."

Do: As more innovative strategies are designed in an attempt to save energy, CxAs must have strong controls and integration skill sets to guide and verify the proper implementation and integration of these systems. Many of these contractors have been "building these schools for 20 years" and additional coordination is needed, especially with regard to the integration and controls of systems such as dedicated heat-recovery chillers, geothermal, chilled-beam, and variable refrigerant flow (VRF) systems. Additionally, sometimes sequences of operation are overly complex, leading to difficulties in programming and execution. It is important for designers to be conscious of both energy efficiency and constructability when creating their controls strategies, and for commissioning engineers to be able to bridge any gaps that may exist.

Fisher: We find that many contractors are unfamiliar with commissioning, so educating them on the process is a challenge. Also, selection of the low bidder (no matter what) is a challenge, as you typically "get what you pay for" and the quality of service can be lower than with other, more experienced bidders. Also, air conditioning is required in most districts, but teachers dislike the noise the air conditioner makes, and some even turn them off. Therefore, acoustics is a very important consideration.

McClive: New York State’s Energy Conservation Construction Code (adopted January 2015) mandates commissioning for all MEP systems. Consultants need to explicitly state their assumptions regarding commissioning in proposals while advising clients that commissioning is now a code requirement.

Hundley: The biggest challenge we face on projects is timely completion of the building systems to complete proper commissioning before school is occupied. Typically, we are commissioning the school after the building is occupied. Commissioning the buildings after the building has been occupied results in increased time to complete the work, as we have to address complaints, which are usually a result of incomplete systems or incorrect setpoints. It is not to say that the controls contractor is at fault, as project schedules always get compressed at the end. This is a challenge the entire team needs to help improve.

Cocea: I am lucky, DLR Group’s Building Optimization Team provides commissioning so we can offer that as a service to clients in-house.

CSE: Public school enrollment is predicted to increase 6% through 2025. How will this population increase change classroom requirements, school safety, or other design issues?

Hundley: Population increase will require classrooms to be more flexible, allowing multiple teaching configurations. Improvements in classroom technology will be critical for teachers to make sure all students are getting the best education, in school or at home. School safety is a present concern, regardless of population increase. We have seen tremendous changes in security in the past 5 years, and expect it to continually evolve as technology improves.

Cocea: The designers in DLR Group’s K-12 studio are constantly innovating and evolving K-12 design. Our engineering teams are integrated into those design teams, and as energy cost continues to climb, the design of HVAC building systems will become the focal point. These systems need to be resilient and flexible and, to some degree, redundant. For example, if an auditorium has an HVAC system set to accommodate 600 students, being a performance-based system, it should be capable of adjusting to the elements so there is no shortage of air, heating, or water.

Fisher: We have found that enrollment in some local areas is declining due to the housing crunch. California law includes class-size limitations so an increase in population would result in new construction (more portables and/or classrooms to be built). However, many districts consider leasing of portables as a waste of money, so they will typically end up building permanent buildings whenever possible.

CSE: On what aspect of K-12 projects do you see the most emphasis being placed by building owners? In what areas is your firm doing the most engineering work?

Fisher: Clients are leaning toward more sustainable projects (building envelope, natural lighting, etc.). There are still some roadblocks, however. Construction budgets are usually locked due to bond amounts being fixed, so payback isn’t really a critical element in the design process. In other words, districts typically cannot increase the budget to purchase elements of the project that may have a favorable payback. Also, California’s Proposition 39 budgets for the general fund (for operations and maintenance, or O&M, projects) and bonds (for construction projects) are separate, so moving operational budgets to construction budgets to purchase more efficient systems is not possible.

McClive: Emphasis is being placed on three key areas:

1. Health and safety in the existing buildings, to comply with latest life safety codes—systems include fire alarm, carbon monoxide-detection, and ADA-related building components

2. Energy and sustainability following nationally accepted benchmarks for the design, construction, and operation of high-performance green buildings

3. Commissioning including inspection, testing, and training to confirm that building systems are operating correctly and conform to the design intent.

Hundley: Owners are looking for flexible classrooms with classroom technology to address different teaching methods. Classroom technology requirements have tremendously expanded. Students use so much technology at home, and the classroom is the natural extension. As technology devices play a larger role in our everyday life, classrooms have taken advantage of these for learning in creative ways. One-to-one and bring-your-own-device (BYOD) schools are on the increase, and that ushers in a new set of infrastructure requirements to satisfy the usage load. For instance, wireless in the past might have been provided for convenience, but now it is often required to enable interactive learning practices and for the teacher’s lesson plans. The most engineering work is spent on HVAC and classroom technology design.

Cocea: Energy use and environmental impact. These elements are intertwined; they’re connected. We have to be able to size the owners’ concerns and get them interested in allowing us to design a very energy-efficient system. HVAC, water reclamation, and electrical design form the main focus for DLR Group to comply with the benchmarks we have set for energy efficiency. A less energy-intensive system will cost an owner more upfront, but the longevity of the system gives them a better deal over time. It’s up to the designers to make building owners see the bigger picture.

CSE: Describe your experience working with the contractor, architect, owner, or other team members in creating a BIM model for a K-12 project.

Cocea: The experience is very positive. The use of BIM technology allows the team members to collaborate faster to deliver better construction documents; it helps reduce risk.

Hundley: We have completed many projects, using Autodesk Revit, to create a well-coordinated building. The most interesting projects include some net zero projects completed in Adrian, Mich.; Arlington, Va.; and Dallas. The BIM model has greatly impacted the MEP system design as far as the time spent in preparing documents. There has to be a fair balance of how much time is spent on modeling, and getting the owner the most value for the money spent.

McClive: Our company has been implementing BIM modeling standards and workflows in all project designs for the past 10 years. Our collection of integrated practice requirements was created to support the design, documentation, and project delivery. BIM models are a key design tool embraced by the entire project delivery team (owner, contractor, architect, engineer) in support of their project roles.

Fisher: We are not seeing BIM models typically in K-12 projects, but we have done them on community college projects. In our area, a lot of our projects are modernizations, and the K-12 districts aren’t able to make investments in the projects for BIM models of the existing facilities for a modernization.

CSE: Have you specified a unique water treatment or conservation system in a K-12 building?

Hundley: At Thomas Nelson High School we used an existing pond to capture surface runoff and irrigate the playing fields. No potable water is used to irrigate the playing fields. The water treatment consists of different filters to remove any particulates, but water treatment was not a concern, given the use. We also have completed numerous rainwater-harvesting systems, where we collect water off the roof and use it to flush toilets and urinals. Depending on the local requirements, water treatment varies. In Dallas, we used a UV light for bacterial treatment, filtration for particulates, and dyed the water so anyone that taps the piping knows that the water is nonpotable. These systems consist of 20,000-gallon buried tanks, with roof drain or gutter piping directed to the tanks. Depending on different site conditions or water utility cost, these systems have a return on investment (ROI) of 8 to 10 years.

Fisher: In California, water conservation is of utmost importance due to the extreme drought conditions throughout most of the state. We have specified numerous waterless urinals and low-flow fixtures to reduce water consumption for many of our K-12 clients. One waterless urinal saves more than 40,000 gallons of water per year, so this has proved to be very instrumental in water conservation. California also has stormwater-retention regulations; however, these are addressed in the civil design.

CSE: Describe a recent retrofit of a K-12 school building. What were the challenges and solutions?

Do: Renovations often include the repurposing of spaces. With tight budgets, schools often attempt to refurbish equipment in lieu of replacement. This presents issues when spaces originally designed for offices with low-occupant loads are then repurposed for higher classroom loads. This also presents issues with equipment and ductwork sizes, which require tremendous amounts of coordination with existing building systems, and require thorough building surveys to ensure construction issues are mitigated.

Cocea: First cost versus lifecycle costs is always a topic of discussion. I totally understand the influences and factors that clients weigh when looking at that first cost number, which is often more appealing. For example, we recently completed a renovation project for a school district that requested a school be retrofitted with the rooftop packaged units as a replacement of the 20-year-old water-source heat pump system. During the schematic-design phase of the project, we performed a lifecycle cost analysis and determined that a VRF system was the most appropriate system for the project. However, the school district selected the rooftop package units option, which offered a lower first-cost option.

Hundley: We complete multiple K-12 school building renovations every year. The biggest challenge is managing project scope and budget, so the work can be completed over the summer break. While there are a number of things that owners want to fix or change, you have to prioritize items, so the work can be completed in the allotted time frame. We have completed some projects over multiple phases, which include shutting down parts of the building and moving students, so phasing of systems and utilities are also critical.

Fisher: Some challenges we faced were structural in nature, relating to the weight of the new HVAC system in replacement projects (ensuring that the existing structural supports can hold the weight). Also, another challenge was the addition of the power to the new air conditioning systems in schools that did not previously have them. We recently designed to replace the existing HVAC with new, more efficient units for three schools in the south San Jose area.

McClive: In the first year of a 5-year planning process required by the New York State Education Department, the Addison Central School District, a small rural district serving 1,200 students, discovered that it faced an array of problems too complex to be met by mere piecemeal improvements: obsolete facilities, small classrooms, inadequate space for special education and other mandated programs, and a list of repairs vastly exceeding the annual operating budget. CannonDesign helped the district define priorities, ensure fair distribution of resources, and devise a logical, building-by-building phasing strategy that was unanimously approved by the district’s facilities committee, budget committee, and board of education.

The first phase, approved by referendum, converts the existing junior/senior high school serving grades 7 through 12 into a middle/high school serving grades 6 through 12. Additions and strategic infill house classrooms, science labs, a separate cafeteria, and a relocated and expanded library and media center. Dedicated "houses" cluster each grade with its own classrooms, special education rooms, science and computer labs, and toilets, encouraging flexibility, familiarity, and accountability. The challenge was to sequence the construction in phases that minimized disruption to classes and operations, allowed manageable blocks of work to commence during summer recess, and smaller work scope to occur during evening hours throughout the school year.