How to design K-12 schools: How codes and standards affect design

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: 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?

Lowrey: In my area we adopted the International Code Council codes (International Building Code, International Fire Code) and everything starts within those documents. Often K-12 schools are regulated by the state in which they reside. The state may have additional requirements or amendments to the adopted codes that must be used as well.

Tomaj: The main codes and standards I use include NFPA 70: National Electrical Code, International Energy Conservation Code, International Building Code, International Fire Code, International Mechanical Code, International Plumbing Code and NFPA 101: Life Safety Code may be most commonly used. There are others, depending on a specific application. The most recent and has had a major influence on how we design education facilities is ICC 500, which now requires a two-hour storm shelter rated for EF5 tornadoes and 250 mph winds. Further, I believe engineers should be familiar with all ASHRAE , Illuminating Engineering Society and IEEE standards.

Gradishar: The suite of ICC codes are most commonly applied to projects in our local area. There are some jurisdictions that adopt some standards from the NFPA beyond what are referenced in the ICC codes. For instance, NFPA 101: Life Safety Code, NFPA 1: Fire Code and NFPA 45: Standard on Fire Protection for Laboratories Using Chemicals have requirements that apply to K-12 occupancies that can bring in more stringent requirements than the ICC.

Further, understanding the local jurisdiction energy conservation, sustainability and wellness design requirements is critical. Some localities are much farther along than others in their strategies to reduce energy consumption and improve resilience. For example, Washington, D.C.’s, mayor signed the Clean Energy Omnibus Amendment Act of 2018 that aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2032. Since then, the district has enacted plans and legislation to achieve this goal, including a requirement to have all buildings in the city more than 50,000 square feet meet a median energy score and plans for achieving 100% renewable electricity by 2023.

CSE: What are some best practices to ensure that such buildings meet and exceed codes and standards?

Gradishar: Having a code consultant on the design team to perform a review of the design at each milestone is one of the best ways to ensure buildings meet the requirements of local code. Further, as using the allowance in codes for alternate means and materials lends to lower construction and maintenance costs and less restriction in design theory, a code consultant that has a relationship with the local jurisdiction code officials can be the difference between acceptance or rejection of such alternates.

Lowrey: As we start discussing the design standards, I think very few design professionals have knowledge in the commonly used fire system standards. The design professional is aware of the fire systems, what they are, basics on how they work and support the systems as they relate to life safety. However, I don’t believe there are many that truly understand the design of the systems, what circumstances they are expected to operate in normal conditions and how they are to operate in an emergency. I think it would be a benefit to most of the projects if more of the design team had a better understanding of the fire/life safety systems.

Hammelman: To exceed the requirements of the energy codes, we are using energy modeling within the design process to ensure that we exceed the code minimums. This process allows for energy to be used as part of the decision-making process for all of the building systems, which starts with the building orientation and envelope, then the lighting systems, followed by the HVAC systems within the facility.

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

Hammelman: The updating of the energy codes across the country is requiring that the design of facilities include systems that many building owners are not familiar with at this point and is increasing the cost to building some of their projects. This is being balanced though by many of our clients requiring life cycle cost analysis performed on their projects to ensure that paybacks are available for the enhanced code requirements. We are also seeing that many of our clients are requiring that projects exceed code minimums by a certain percentage to allow for grant money from local utilities to be procured to enhance the project budgets.

Tomaj: Often, it’s the code and standards that push for more energy-efficient designs. Case in point is the mainstream design with LED lighting. With the Texas statewide adoption of 2015 IECC, the lighting power density was reduced to a point where it was very difficult to design a K-12 school with fluorescent lighting and meet the power density. School districts were coping with higher than anticipated inflation in construction cost, making them reluctant to spend additional money on LED lighting, so few school districts were using LEDs. It was the adoption of the 2015 IECC that pushed LED lighting past the tipping point in Texas.

CSE: What new or updated code or standard do you feel will change the way such projects are designed, bid out or built?

Lowrey: I think NFPA 3000: Standard for an Active Shooter/Hostile Event Response (ASHER) Program will have an impact on design as it opens the pre-planning on how an active shooter/hostile incident will be managed. It opens or requires communication between response organizations as well as the school districts.

Gradishar: There is a new standard NFPA 4: Standard for Integrated Fire Protection and Life Safety System Testing that provides a protocol to verify the various fire and life safety systems in a building that are designed to work together (e.g., fire suppression, fire alarm, smoke control systems) are in fact integrated as the designers intended. Though only currently referenced by NFPA 1, NFPA 101 and NFPA 5000, which are not adopted by all jurisdictions, it sets a precedence for these life safety systems to be tested in an integrated manner that is beyond the current standard procedure individually. Designers and builders should be aware of this requirement coming down the pipeline as it will add cost and time to construction.

Hammelman: A code requirement we are seeing more frequently is to provide storm shelters within facilities that can withstand an EF5 tornado and protect the occupants during the storm event. This is placing pressure on design teams to incorporate this storm shelter into the design while minimizing the cost for this facility. Many of these shelters are required to have facilities that are self-sufficient for a period of two hours during a storm event. This includes ventilation, lighting, power, drinking water, toilet facilities and sanitary sewer services. These shelters need to be independent structures with a design that prevent small debris from entering the space to protect the occupants of the shelter.

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

Gradishar: The biggest challenge from a code perspective is understanding what is required by the local jurisdiction for the alteration and renovation of existing buildings. Most jurisdictions use the International Existing Building Code with local amendments. And the IEBC has several paths that can be followed to demonstrate code compliance. Often designers will replace systems that are not required to be replaced, adding unnecessary cost to a project.

Lowrey: Existing building often have egress issues that must be addressed as well as emergency response access issues. Often, the only area to add additions to existing buildings falls within existing emergency access. What do we or how can we still provide adequate access with the proposed addition without sacrificing emergency operational needs? This obviously is determined on a case-by-case situation. Factors include engineered fire systems installed within the existing building and proposed for the new additions, size, personal numbers, response time of the responding agency.

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