Learning how to engineer colleges, universities better: Codes and standards

Read about emerging trends in college and university buildings, and learn about the emerging trends impacting their design

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer October 25, 2019


Travis Fletcher 


Fletcher brings more than 15 years in the construction and real estate development industries to the company. He is an active member of industry organizations such as the Urban Land Institute, Smart Cities Council and Orange County Business Council. 

Ryan Fryman 

TLC Engineering Solutions 

Fryman has managed the engineering team for numerous higher education facilities, predominantly for public universities in Florida. His range of experience extends from fitness centers to highly sophisticated laboratory buildings and housing to university administration buildings, commonly attaining LEED Gold certification or higher. 

Carl Holden 

Henderson Engineers Inc. 

As Vice President|Higher Education Practice Director, Holden works on local, national and international projects. His areas of specialty include higher education, medical education, K-12 schools and sustainability-focused projects. 

John O’Connell 

Kohler Ronan 

As senior associate, OConnells primary responsibility is managing the companys electrical department. He keeps current with industry trends such as green building design and LEED certification to educate other staff. 

David K. Piluski 

RTM Engineering 

Piluski has more than three decades of experience designing MEP systems for a broad range of new construction projects as well as renovations. His specialties include higher education, health care and restaurant/entertainment facilities. 

Bob Sherman 

Affiliated Engineers Inc. 

As principal and project manager, Sherman offers expertise in higher education research labs and health care facilities, During his tenure, he has led more than 2 million square feet of functionally complex facility projects.  

Randy C. Twedt 


Since joining the company 25 years ago, Twedt has worked on a diverse range of MEP projects. His contributions include medical projects, multiunit residences, university structures, courthouses and more. 

Jeffrey P. Wegner 


Since joining the firm in 2013, Wegner has worked on a range of projects, focusing on life sciences, biotechnology, pharmaceutical, aerospace and other high-tech projects. His expertise includes site utility master planning, alternative energy solutions, biocontainment and more. 

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

OConnell: Many states have dedicated school design and construction guidelines, which are important to consider. For example, in Connecticut, state funded projects are required to meet the CT High Performance building standards or LEED equivalent. Each can impact the design process. Additionally, understanding of state energy codes is important as well. Choosing an energy code, International Energy Conservation Code versus ASHRAE 90.1, can impact MEP systems. Since MEP systems are required to follow one of these codes in their entirety it is important to understand which will be applicable to your project. An example of this is a requirement in ASHRAE 90.1 for power receptacles within certain space types to de-energized when the space is unoccupied. This requirement is not referenced in IECC. 

Piluski: As a mechanical engineer specializing in HVAC systems, ASHRAE is my primary resource. In the past, ASHRAEs influence remained within the realm of HVAC and refrigeration design, but integrated building technologies and overall performance criteria have made ASHRAE a more universal source for not only scientific and design reference, but a foundation for code criteria and compliance. As an independent research organization, ASHRAE can effectively provide credible guidance and support for the design and construction processes. 

Fryman: Most of the colleges and universities I have worked with have adopted the building codes common to the municipality where they are located. That has typically been the International Building Code or a local code that is closely based on the IBCfor example, the Florida Building Code.  

One common misconception is that a typical building in a higher education application has to follow the requirements of the educational occupancy classification. That occupancy classification applies to facilities providing educational purposes through the 12th grade. Educational facilities for students above the 12th grade fall under the business occupancy, which has generally less stringent requirements. It is important to be aware of situations where a college or university building may house a charter school component that serves high school students. In this case the building would need to meet the requirements of an educational occupancy.  

Many colleges and universities have their own design and/or construction standards in place to indicate requirements common to all their facilities. Project-specific conditions may call for a variance that often requires submitting a request to the authority having jurisdiction before making such changes. Some larger colleges and universities may have their own in-house AHJ to provide plans review and inspections, where others may procure these services from the local municipality or state offices. While working with colleges or universities that have buildings on a large contiguous campus and also buildings remote to that main campus, an engineer may find that the requirements spelled out in a campus design standard document are impossible to comply with.  

For example, if a university has a campuswide chilled water, hot water or steam system and all buildings are required to have equipment that is based on the use of those systems, obviously that would not apply to a facility that may be built at another site convenient to the operations of that specific building; like a marine science laboratory on the ocean that is associated with a land-locked university. That same marine science building may require all stainlesssteel equipment components for equipment exposed to the salt air, where that would not be a typical requirement in the campus standards for a building on the main campus.  

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

Fryman: Higher education buildings are of a very wide variety and often have unusual requirements that are outside the typical requirements for an everyday office building. They can range from large indoor sports facilities to highhazard storage facilities and everything in between. The code enforcement groups that are tasked with ensuring that these buildings will all adequately safeguard the health, safety and welfare of building occupants often have to delve into unfamiliar parts of the relevant codes when confronted with a building type that is atypical.  

The best practice that a design team can adopt for every college or university project is to have a meeting with the plan review team of the AHJs office during or just after the schematic design phase. This will allow the design team to give the reviewers an idea of what the building components will be and discuss any possible code compliance challenges. This helps to ensure that all parties are on the same page with specific occupancy requirements, accessibility expectations or any other unusual project aspects that warrant up front discussions. This process always makes the design review process go more smoothly and keeps the project on schedule. Multiple iterations of code review and response to comments can potentially add weeks to the schedule.  

When designing college or university laboratory buildings, it is important during early stages of design to have in-depth conversations with the faculty and lab managers about the specific types and quantities of gases that will be present and how they will be delivered and stored in the spaces. The requirements for compressed air, vacuum, specially treated water, processed chilled water, ventilation needs, power and data requirements and any other system needs must also be determined very early in the design process. The gases could require specific ventilation or purge requirements and all of these decisions can impact the routing of systems that will dictate vertical shaft needs and horizontal routing pathways for systems that will need to be planned for during design. 

Piluski: Energy modeling and commissioning are proving to be effective in assuring that owner requirements are met while depicting the accurate performance of a building before it is even fully designed. 

CSE: How are codes, standards or guidelines for energy efficiency impacting the design of such projects? 

Wegner: Less known resources for energy efficiency include I2SL or International Institute for Sustainable Laboratories and ASHRAE Laboratory Design Guide. 

OConnell: Codes continue to become more stringent overtime, in particular regarding energy conservation. For example, stricter lighting level limitations, additional ventilation air and energy recovery requirements need to be considered when designing MEP systems. In some instances, implementing these code requirements necessitates the need for additional space either in the ceiling cavity or within a mechanical room. Coordinating the space requirement needs early on with the architect is important. 

Piluski: A good example is the evolution of LEED v.3 to LEED v.4, the 2018 IECC and most recent version of ASHRAE 90.1. We are seeing that there are more synergies between these codes and standards and that what was considered a highly innovative or efficient solution in previous versions tends to become a baseline requirement in newer releases. 

Fryman: Recent code changes, particularly in Florida, have set the bar high for meeting energy performance requirements. Performing energy modeling early, even before schematic design is complete is crucial to meeting energy performance requirements. Additionally, energy modeling is used as a tool in making design decisions early particularly with building orientation and massing. A simple shoebox level energy model can also quickly identify opportunities to drive down the energy budget. Subsequent modeling as the building envelope and systems become more developed serves to fine tune design decisions to achieve the best energy performance under the project budget goals.  

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

Piluski: Requirements for more advanced building energy modeling and commissioning will drive compliance and ultimately improve performance and long-term efficient operation for these projects. 

OConnell: Living building challenge, WELL certification and Passive House are all relatively new standards, which will each provide a challenge to the way projects are both designed and built. 

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

OConnell: Renovation of existing buildings often results in the question How much of the existing building is required to be upgraded as a result of newly adopted code? For this reason, it is important to discuss the project early in design with the local AHJ. This will assist the design team properly advising the owner which systems will require upgrade and that can remain as an existing condition, which reduce construction change orders. However, considerations are also needed to determine if a system should be replaced, even if permitted to remain, as good engineering practice. While a service clearance to equipment may be considered a minor existing condition, fire alarm systems and other life safety devices may be replaced and new codes implemented. 

Fryman: Existing buildings almost always have envelope features that make it very challenging to meet the current energy codes. Poor quality existing windows and wall and roof insulation values seem to always be a challenge to overcome. They can be overcome, but the building operating costs often suffer if the conditions cannot be corrected. 

Piluski: Many existing buildings were not intended to house or be the framework for advanced technology building systems. Ceiling space, mechanical equipment room space and other infrastructure limitations can make installations of some equipment difficult. For example, from the HVAC air-side aspect, installation of full air-side economizers or energy recovery ventilators in certain building will present a challenge when looking to use vertical shaft space, wall louver space or roof space where these were previously not available. Coordination and planning with the entire design team including architect and structural engineer will become necessary as well as educating the owner on why additional building revisions are necessary. 

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

Piluski: As unfortunate as it is, we are finding that colleges and universities are implementing such security measures as part of their own life safety plans moving forward. As engineers, we can bring expertise to the project in the way of using technology and sometimes very simple building modifications to provide safer egress or more secure lockdown, depending upon the threat.