New Construction Silver: A project of hope

By Dawn Reiss, Contributing Editor December 1, 2008

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The Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., is probably best known for its nationally acclaimed Ivy League preparatory Cranbrook School, which sits on a 40-acre campus. In that same city is the Wing Lake Developmental Center, a school that serves approximately 100 students with special needs—ages three to 26—who reside in the 28 Oakland County public school districts.

For many years, the center operated in a building that dated back to a 1880s one-room stone schoolhouse. Although the antiquated school expanded in the 1940s and ’50s, decades later it had to contend with poor ventilation, limited power, and poor technology access. Teachers in the old building were constantly improvising, even to meet basic needs such as plugging in medical equipment. That’s when Peter Basso Assocs ., Troy, Mich., was called in to help engineer an efficient handicap-accessible building equipped with modern conveniences and safety precautions.

Challenges and solutions

The project faced its share of hurdles. For starters, the original plan was slashed by a million dollars, to $10.6 million, halfway through the project after funding fell short. As a result, many of the original ideas had to be reconfigured.

Another problem was the original schoolhouse. The easiest solution was to demolish the existing building and start from scratch, but the local historical society thought both the original schoolhouse and its later additions, designed by an award-winning architect, should be preserved. Ultimately, the school district kept the original stone school and demolished the additions.

Extra safety requirements increased costs of the 40,000-sq-ft facility, which opened in fall 2008. Emergency lighting that isn’t typically required in a classroom was deemed necessary by the school district since many of the students use wheelchairs, need lifts to move around, and can’t be left in the dark.

Because the teachers and aides have to use their hands more frequently to assist children, the center didn’t want a traditional telephone handset in the six bathrooms that were shared between the 12 classrooms. Instead, emergency call buttons were installed to allow educators to push a button and then talk, hands-free, into the air while tending to students. The bathrooms needed a space large enough to maneuver a wheelchair while allowing student privacy in a room that included changing tables, a showering facility, and toilets. Routing drain lines over 40 heat pumps in the second-floor mezzanine became a problem since the code, at that time, did not allow the drain lines to go directly to the floor drains. As a result, the design team had to tie all the drain lines together and indirectly waste them to a hub outlet on the first floor.

Because many students use wheelchairs, a large canopy overhang was installed at the front entrance. This protects the students from inclement weather, while an electric snowmelt system clears ice from walkways.

The building’s prefabricated architecture created low ceilings in a roof that slopes at varying angles. The 9- and 10-ft ceiling height in the gym, much shorter than the typical 20 ft, meant recessed and pedant lights had to be installed to allow room for a basketball hoop.

Emergency circuits, along with a generator, had to be installed to ensure students with breathing apparatuses could still receive power in the event of an emergency. But because of budget constraints, the school couldn’t afford the generator necessary to power the entire building at one time. To solve the problem, Peter Basso Assocs. installed a small generator that back feeds the entire building so the school can pick and choose which portion—up to 50% of the building—can receive power during an outage.

Even seemingly simple things like selecting clocks became a problem. Analog clocks without second hands were purchased initially. Then the school informed Peter Basso that it needed clocks with second hands to check the students’ pulses.

“In a normal classroom, those are things you don’t typically think about,” said Nick Friedrich, the electrical project leader. “But you learn things as you go.”

Since students occasionally lie on the floor during class, lighting fixtures with indirect/direct lighting were installed. The direct lamps can be turned off so lights don’t shine in students’ eyes if they look up at the ceiling.

Being as energy-efficient as possible, while staying within budget, meant that a geothermal system was out of the question, Friedrich said. Instead, a mechanical system consisting primarily of closed loop water source heat pumps—with variable speed drives—was used to reduce operating costs and serve the building based on use and occupancy. Prior to distribution, ventilation and mixed air is filtered through 30% efficient prefilters and 65% efficient cartridge filters. Return air for each individual heat pump passes through a 30% efficient filter prior to mixing with ventilation air.

Despite all the constraints, Friedrich said the building is a success.

“They are ecstatic,” he said. “Before, they had an old beat-up old school that was dull and boring; now they have a nice building with proper ventilation and bright lighting. You can just see the difference in the kids’ faces.”