How to design K-12 schools: Building automation and controls

With increasingly complex systems and technology coming into play, work on modern K-12 projects is anything but elementary

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer March 25, 2020


Doug Everhart, Henderson Engineers

As a vice president and K-12 practice director, Everhart leads a team of education experts. With more than a decade of experience, his specialty involves designing innovative learning environments for students and teachers that use the spaces.

Anna Gradishar, Arup

As an Associate Fire Protection Engineer, Gradishar combines her fire protection and first responder backgrounds to offer expertise to owners, facility managers, tenants and design teams. She has developed comprehensive fire protection and life safety approaches for numerous building types and occupancies.

Keith Hammelman, CannonDesign

In his role as senior vice president, Hammelman focuses on the design and construction of pre-K-12 facilities, serving as the lead mechanical engineer for the firm’s central region. His sustainable project approach goes beyond the best mechanical system to the systemwide integration throughout an entire building.

David Lowrey, Boulder Fire Rescue

Lowrey has served with Boulder Fire Rescue for more than 20 years. He oversees the Community Risk Reduction Division, including code enforcement, building construction, life safety education and fire investigations.

Robert N. Roop, Peter Basso Associates

As principal and market leader for the company’s PBA’s K-12 Schools Group, Roop has spent more than half of his 32-year career exclusively designing educational facilities. He acts as the firm’s primary mechanical engineering technical resource for K-12 school projects.

Engiell Tomaj, Stantec

Tomaj first joined the company in 2012, first as associate, then promoted to principal and Business Center Discipline Leader. He holds an electrical engineering degree as well as an MBA.

Michael L. Younts, Dewberry

Serving as electrical engineer, Younts has been with the firm for more than 13 years. His expertise includes LEED projects, educational facilities and other areas.

CSE: From your experience, what systems within K-12 school projects are benefiting from automation that previously might not have been?

Hammelman: We are seeing that lighting control systems are benefiting automation to allow them to operate efficiently within the building.

Roop: Most recently, we have integrated lighting control, daylight harvesting, security and access control and site lighting systems into the building automation system, minimizing the number of systems districts need to maintain.

Tomaj: I believe a building’s temperature controls system and lighting systems are benefiting from automation. These systems, when designed well and installed as designed, can prove to save the school district energy and money, allowing for future flexibility.

CSE: What types of system integration and/or interoperability issues have you overcome for these projects and how did you do so?

Tomaj: A big opportunity we have is this dream for “seamless integration” between these technologies from one head end. School districts want to open on dashboard view system status, analyze data and trends and make necessary adjustments. The results so far have been disappointing at best. When you have a school district with 50 elementary schools, for example and every other school has a different lighting controls system and BAS — old or new, with varying sophistication required to program — how can you expect maintenance staff to remember the training they went through years after the initial commissioning was completed and keep up with these systems to ensure optimal performance? It’s impractical.

Many of the new lighting controls system claim to allow for “seamless integration” via BACnet with the BAS. Many BAS contractors claim that if the lighting controls uses BACnet protocol, they can interface with it. We specify it as suggested by these parties, but the results are always lackluster. This sports car of a lighting controls system is being towed by the BAS and the BAS controls contractor is reluctant to even touch it — to them it’s a mystery black box. It seems that every system that should integrate to provide you a “smart building” uses proprietary language, because they want to corner a market.

Overcoming this is work in progress. Here are some suggestions for specifiers:

  • Provide a clear, point-by-point sequence of operations for lighting controls and BAS.
  • Provide a clear responsibilities matrix.
  • Design meetings with the controls manufacturer and BAS contractor to ensure the system requirements are clearly specified and to create “buy-in.”
  • Have the BAS contractor provide the lighting controls system, this way they are the sole integrator.
  • Standardize with one lighting controls system and one BAS integrator for the whole district. (This is challenging, because laws in certain states for public projects mandate a minimum of three manufacturers be specified for competitive bidding and equal opportunity.)

We don’t get asked to solve many post-occupancy issues, but when we do the root cause is often related BAS controls integration. I believe there is an incredible opportunity to make this integration seamless and intuitive for all building types, not just K-12, and I’m paying close attention to this topic.

CSE: Is your team using building information modeling in conjunction with the architects, trades and owner to design a project? Describe an instance in which you’ve turned over the BIM to the facility maintenance team for long-term operations and maintenance or measurement and verification.

Gradishar: We don’t hand over our design models to the owner for O&M, because our models don’t typically contain most of the data necessary for O&M or M&V, such as asset manufacturer, model number, serial number, warranty info, install date, etc. Most of this data would come from an as-built model provided by the contractor. However, upon request, we could provide our design models to the contractor as a basis to develop an as-built model.

Younts: BIM delivery is the project delivery vehicle we use for most of our capital improvement projects. Conversely, we typically use more traditional computer-aided design programs to deliver our maintenance and life cycle projects to take advantage of readily available CAD plans and information from the original construction of older facilities. At the end of our more recent capital improvement projects, we have turned over the BIM model to the owner. However, I have not personally seen it directly used for O&M at this point. I feel this will change as we continue to move forward with BIM.

Tomaj: We use BIM almost exclusively on our K-12 projects; however, we have not had a K-12 client take much advantage of this model as this question may allude to.

CSE: In what way is the need for more smart technology and features in such buildings affecting your work on these projects?

Tomaj: I think most engineers that have been around long enough can agree that technology has helped us do more work in less time, but this has not translated into increased effectiveness.

CSE: Has the “internet of things” come up in discussion or been implemented on such projects? How has this integration impacted the project?

Hammelman: IoT is coming up in discussions with owners for K-12 facilities, but is still slow to be implemented in our K-12 projects. We are seeing that some of our clients are looking to use continuous commissioning in their maintenance programs to predict when equipment may be failing or how they can save energy within their facilities