Making the grade with K-12 projects

With state-of-the-art learning facilities, sustainability concerns, and modern design, K-12 schools can be just as advanced as colleges and universities and—for consulting-specifying engineers—just as demanding.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer March 31, 2017


Mike Barbes, PE, LC, Senior Electrical Engineer, AECOM, Atlanta

Ben Hobbs, PE, Mechanical Engineer, CMTA Consulting Engineers, Lexington, Ky.

Timothy J. LaRose, PE, Vice President Development, Education, JENSEN HUGHES, Warwick, R.I.

Jason Moyer, PE, PMP, STS, Senior Mechanical Manager, Brinjac Engineering, Baltimore

Jon Rasmussen, PE, LEED AP BD+C, Energy+Engineering Leader/Senior Associate, DLR Group, Denver

CSE: What’s the No. 1 trend you see today in the design of K-12 schools?

Mike Barbes: There seems to be an ever-increasing need for voice/data systems. A lot of schools no longer issue printed books. Students receive tablets with the required curriculum data preinstalled, thus creating a need for wireless access points, cable-management systems, and additional receptacles for charging purposes.

Ben Hobbs: I find that many new school designs will contain collaborative learning spaces where the space use then becomes flexible. These typically have been located in an effort to provide multiple classrooms with easy access to the space and are meant to provide a collaboration area for more than one class at a time.

Timothy J. LaRose: Emergency voice/alarm communication systems (EV/ACS) becoming integrated with public address systems is a trend. In many aging, existing schools, both of these systems may reach their respective usable lifecycles at the same time—and with the current code changes, these systems are capable of being combined. These may also serve a third purpose of meeting the security needs for communication during lockdown procedures.

Jason Moyer: I’ve noticed a trend toward providing a simple system design for operation and maintenance (O&M) while achieving energy-reduction goals set for the project.

Jon Rasmussen: Schools today are striving for flexible learning environments. School districts want to help today’s students excel and also be positioned for the student of tomorrow. We all see how quickly technology is being implemented into education. We’re also discovering factors that can enhance or inhibit the quality of the learning experience. Today’s schools are working hard to build facilities with the adaptability to evolve with our students and their ever-changing learning environment.

CSE: What other trends should engineers be aware of for such projects in the near future (1 to 3 years)?

LaRose: The need for hardware to satisfy fire safety requirements and security needs. Many K-12 school systems are using aftermarket locking hardware that violates the applicable fire codes. Understand the school districts’ approach to lockdown procedures and not just comply with the minimum building and fire code requirements. When hardware is properly designed into new construction to meet the school’s security needs, it may not significantly increase the construction costs, but it can be a very costly mistake if the hardware is missed and must be added after construction.

Hobbs: Virtual reality (VR) integration into buildings and curriculum where VR can be used in conjunction with a building’s mechanical, engineering, plumbing (MEP) systems to provide information and real-time interaction with MEP systems. Interactive green learning spaces where students have access to weather stations, photovoltaics (PV), rain catchment, solar thermal, green roofs, and other newer technologies that can be implemented into a curriculum. Net zero energy and “net zero ready” is also becoming more common. With the energy code adopting higher-performing requirements and renewable energy costs decreasing, the cost to construct a net zero energy or net zero energy-ready building is becoming more feasible for school districts. I see more net zero energy and net zero energy-ready projects every year.

Moyer: Being aware of providing comfort for the learning environment, which includes thermal and sound requirements. Also, designing systems that locate equipment within the building but not in the learning areas, so as not to disrupt daily activities while providing adequate zone control.

Barbes: Increased security concerns will require cameras/monitors, controlled access points, and communications between controlled entry points and administrative control locations.

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

Barbes: It is somewhat difficult to pinpoint a particular school. Most schools seem to have “standard” electrical engineering requirements. The most common varying design element is the lighting (fixture types, sources, etc.).

Rasmussen: Agua Fria Union High School District High School No. 5 is the first new-build high school in the Phoenix metropolitan area in more than 5 years. For this project, the Agua Fria Union High School District’s team defined this vision: Blurring the lines between ages and abilities, we will foster authentic learning and curricular exploration by expanding the definition of what a “place-based” high school can be. DLR Group’s design emphasizes spatial flexibility and sustainability as primary means of fulfilling the high school’s goals. The new facility will offer the opportunity to strengthen relationships, foster multiple pedagogies to better individualize learning opportunities, and nurture a culture that is student-focused and faculty-guided.

Hobbs: Holabird and Graceland Park Elementary and Middle Schools, located in Baltimore, are being designed to be net zero with the use of PVs. The design process involved numerous consultants and large-scale programming meetings that brought consultants and owner’s representatives to the table on multiple occasions to cultivate expectations and buy-in to achieve net zero. The building will operate using geothermal for all heating, cooling, and ventilating. Water-source heat pumps will cool and heat spaces and a single dedicated outside-air unit connected to a water-to-water heat pump will provide outside air to all 90,000 sq ft. Carbon dioxide demand-control ventilation will allow for outside air to be provided in occupied spaces and allow outside air to be reduced in spaces where occupants are not located. The hydronic system will be a distributive pumping building-loop system with a decoupled well field operated on temperature difference. There will be LED lighting throughout that will be supplemented with solar lighting tubes to create natural daylighting in multiple spaces. Insulating concrete forms (ICFs) will be used to create a well-insulated and tight envelope. The building is currently designed to perform at an energy-use intensity (EUI) of 25 or less.

Moyer: The renovation and expansion of the Robert Poole Middle School (see photo) in Baltimore. The original Robert Poole Middle School building was built in 1924 and is being completely renovated and expanded to approximately 127,000 sq ft. Brinjac Engineering provided the complete mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and fire protection (MEP/FP) design. The goal of the project is to obtain LEED Silver certification. The project is on track to exceed this goal and achieve Gold status. The Energy and Atmosphere credit 1 has been awarded 17 points for the energy reduction. This has been achieved primarily through the mechanical, electrical, and envelope designs. Geothermal and dedicated outdoor-air HVAC systems along with reduced lighting levels and lighting/receptacle controls have contributed to the significant energy savings. A total of seven LEED points was also achieved under the Water Efficiency credits WEc1 and WEc3.

LaRose: Our firm is involved in nearly $2 million in consulting in the K-12 market nationally, so it is difficult to choose just one specific project or role. Our largest market is Department of the State Architect (DSA) shop drawings for sprinkler, fire alarm, and security in California. Recently, we have worked on 20 to 25 projects throughout California. Our largest project was a new high school in Irvine where we worked as a subconsultant to an MEP for development of the sprinkler drawings in 2-D and 3-D. The project was a completely new $157 million, 43-acre campus including classroom buildings, a theater, student center, and athletic fields—a very fast-paced and exciting project started for the firm in 2013.

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

Hobbs: The experience can drastically vary depending on the skill levels of all users involved. When the design team and contractors show an attention to detail and maximize the capabilities of BIM, a coordinated set of documents and plans follow in the wake of an interactive design process. Designers and contractors are forced in a positive way to understand the building and how it works as a sum of the parts. I also believe this creates a very front-loaded design process. In my experience, BIM can be punitive if you are not careful and prepared to setup everything correctly from the beginning. On the flip side, a project where all members aren’t fully on board with BIM and/or are new to the process and its requirements and downfalls can become difficult to finish and polish—it can lead to a cycle of looking back to move forward.

Moyer: We have completed the design, and construction is in progress for two schools in Baltimore where BIM was incorporated. The key is to set expectations early with the owner, contractor, and design team with respect to the level of acceptance and type of clashes reported within the model that can be handled in the field during construction. In addition, it is important that the design team have a regular exchange of the model so as to limit the coordination that occurs after submissions.

LaRose: Many new projects have been designed in BIM recently, and it is the coordination efforts after the initial design that have become challenging. Most fire protection equipment manufacturers are in the infancy of creating 3-D libraries for sprinkler components, so they are not 100% accurate for the coordination efforts. Additionally, the conversion of shop-drawing-level design to and from 3-D is still not very fluid. It has improved in the past 2 to 3 years, but still needs much more work to make it a beneficial tool for sprinkler design. Currently, it is an inefficient way to design a sprinkler system because the 2-D output is not at shop-drawing level for permitting.

CSE: Have you designed any such projects using the integrated project delivery (IPD) method? If so, describe one.

Moyer: For the Robert Poole Middle School, our design team followed the LEED v4 integrated design process from the outset of the project. This process involved energy- and water-related systems with the goal of performing simple analysis of various options to reduce energy and water loads in the building. At the same time, including all disciplines proved beneficial so that the full impact of decisions was understood prior to making anything final. This also allowed the owner to make an informed final decision so that project requirements and goals were maintained.

CSE: Describe the commissioning, recommissioning, or retro-commissioning process for a K-12 school project. At what point was your team brought in, and what changes or suggestions were you able to implement via commissioning?

Rasmussen: Commissioning for a K-12 project is a valuable service needed for every project. We begin by helping the school district define the project goals for HVAC and lighting system operations and maintenance. We monitor the goals throughout the design and construction process. Near the completion of construction, the commissioning provider conducts integrated testing to demonstrate that the systems perform in the energy-efficient manner that they were designed to achieve. We also help to train the staff so they can continue to operate the school at its optimal performance. As the lifecycle of the building progresses, the commissioning provider may also implement recommissioning or retro-commissioning that retunes the energy performance of the school. Implementing commissioning for schools reduces energy costs and allows the district to spend their funds on the education of the students rather than on energy consumption.

Moyer: In almost all cases, our company is contracted prior to the design/development document issue. This provides us an opportunity to work with the owner on developing a comprehensive owner’s project requirements (OPR) document, which provides the design team with clear instructions on the owner’s expectations for building operations. Throughout the design phase, our firm uses the OPR during reviews to ensure the design continues to meet the owner requirements. This allows us to catch the minutia in components that have a large impact on end-user satisfaction, such as temperature adjusters on thermostats or zone-occupancy override panels. Schools pose specific challenges with occupancy and scheduling. The commissioning team can help address these challenges at an early stage by questioning zoning so equipment can be dedicated to various zones to improve efficiency when the school is only partially occupied. Items that reduce risk are recommended to be included in the specifications and plans, such as separating geothermal loops from building water loops, testing specific duct sections even when at low pressure, inclusion of unoccupied dehumidification sequences, etc.

Access to equipment is typically an issue that we raise. We will include observations such as no doors or ladders provided to reach rooftop equipment or inadequate coil pull on chillers and air handling units. The largest effort expended during commissioning is on the HVAC and lighting controls. Ill-defined sequences and setpoints, poorly described graphical head-end requirements, and misunderstood integration between packaged equipment controls and energy-management systems are typical and required input by the commissioning agent during the design-review phase, and especially during the submittal-review phase when all the submittals are collated to determine that controls are integrated across the entire system.

LaRose: Commissioning of fire alarm systems is really the only system for our fire protection engineers.  Generally, when we are responsible for commissioning, we are involved in the project from the beginning of the design. Therefore, it usually goes very smooth—as long as we are given the opportunity to be involved in the entire construction process and included in the shop-drawing-plan review and rough inspections. This allows the final commissioning to be free of last-minute, significant modifications. Today’s fire alarm systems are becoming increasingly more complex with the integration of EV/ACS, public address, security, and mass notification systems, so it is important to be involved early in the design process.