Technology drives K-12 school changes in automation and controls

Updates, COVID and tech trends are shifting the way K-12 schools are designed with regard to building automation and controls

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer April 5, 2022
Courtesy: Zyscovich Architects


Luis Alvarez, PE, Electrical Engineer, Associate, Page, Austin, Texas, David Bonaventure, PE, CEM, Principal, Salas O’Brien LLC, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Lawrin T. Ellis, PE, LEED AP, Managing Principal, TLC Engineering Solutions Inc., Fort Myers, Florida, Keith Hammerschmidt, PE, Senior Project Manager, RTM Engineer Consultants, Overland Park, Kansas, Scott Peck, PE, Vice President, Peter Basso Associates, Troy, Michigan


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

David Bonaventure: Demand control ventilation for sure. Due to our high energy costs to pre-treat outside air, being able to provide the fresh air that is actually required is a large benefit to the school system from an energy perspective as well as overall classroom health.

Lawrin T. Ellis: Certainly the growing research toward and development of products for monitoring and treating indoor air quality integration into building automation benefit students and staff in districts that are able to implement and maintain this technology.

Keith Hammerschmidt: The biggest system benefiting from automation is a toss between lighting and mechanical systems. Both lighting and mechanical automation has helped the school district save on utility costs. With automation of lighting, costs are reduced by turning lights off when spaces are not being occupied or when daylight is sufficient and interior lights aren’t needed.

However, automation on the mechanical side has also helped the school districts save on utilities by controlling the range of individual temperature control in a space, automatically overriding space temperature during periods of nonoccupancy and reducing ventilation airflow based on occupancy.

How has the use of smart technologies helped meet the requirements schools have set to achieve healthier buildings regarding COVID-19 restrictions?

Lawrin T. Ellis: The Florida Building Codes require the use of occupancy sensors and has for many years. We also typically use the building automation systems to monitor filter loading to signal replacement. We starting introducing air quality monitoring to the local districts, but to date none have included this technology into the standards.

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

Lawrin T. Ellis: School district construction standards are faced with a bureaucracy and institutional inertia that prevents them from keeping up with the technology trends. As a result, it’s common for districts to deviate from their standards on a project-by-project basis and end up with a solution that may work well for an individual campus but falls short in the district staff’s ability to provide long-term support as the solutions for three recent campuses may end up entirely different and upgrades to existing campuses even more varied.

It also provides a complication to the design team as projects are designed 2 to 3 years before a new campus may reach completion, necessitating redesigns and costly change orders as the district staff reevaluate their needs along the way based on new technology products. This can be improved by planning flexible infrastructure and pathways and client’s engaging a common consultant to develop the district standards and integrate them across all projects rather than having each project designed by whichever technology consultant happened to be teamed with the successful architect during the RFQ solicitation. Having the infrastructure provided by the contractor but the electronics and components purchased directly by the district also reduces costs and change order fees as technology trends evolve during a project’s construction.

Rendering of new Collier County High School GGG. The school is scheduled to open in August 2023. Courtesy: Zyscovich Architects

How is your team using building information modeling (BIM) in conjunction with the architects, trades and owner to design a project?

David Bonaventure: our firm is designs fully in BIM to a 300 LOD. We even use Autodesk Revit on projects where the architect is still working in CAD. We have found that just sticking to one platform has been very beneficial from a design efficiency view.

Lawrin T. Ellis: We locate all back boxes, speakers, displays, classroom technology, projectors, screens and other devices in BIM, including viewing cones and clearance zones. This BIM model serves an important role in ensuring proper sightlines, accessibility, comfortable ergonomics and serviceability, as well as allows takeoffs when it comes time for procurement to begin.

Keith Hammerschmidt: BIM has been a huge part in designing schools. It helps in the design phase of coordinating all aspects of the design with architect, structural and MEP. We have also provided our design models to the contractors to help them perform clash detection during the construction phase.

How are you incorporating flexibility into the design of integrated technologies?

Lawrin T. Ellis: Providing flexible infrastructure is crucial. Larger back boxes and ceiling boxes at AV equipment and adequate conduit and pathways to accessible ceilings. Over the life of these buildings, the classroom technology can be expected to be replaced every 6 to 8 years but the infrastructure has to last 30 to 50 years. You cannot design a solution based on the minimum possible needs and still be prepared for the upcoming trends. It is our responsibility to anticipate for the future.

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

Lawrin T. Ellis: More projects are becoming largely network and internet protocol-based, but IoT discussions have never made it farther than as a buzzword in an early concept meeting. These devices have major risks associated with cybersecurity, student privacy and reliability. With ransomware on the rise, all possible avenues for network intrusion must be secured.

What smart devices are school districts requesting and how are you meeting these needs?

Lawrin T. Ellis: Interactive displays, turnkey presentation systems, accommodations for “bring your own device” and collaboration stations are common. Some K-12 institutions have dipped their toes in the water and explored collaborative active learning or flipped classroom environments that are more common in higher ed, but this is far from the norm.

When we design projects for this, we open dialogues with district staff on precisely how these systems will function and once the projects are completed, it is common that we meet with end users to prepare them for these specialty classrooms and how they will need to adjust their curriculum and instructional styles to provide the most effective learning environments. If our services simply stop at substation completion, end users can feel overwhelmed and unprepared for these classrooms, leading to underused solutions as instructors revert back to the traditional lecture-style instruction in front of a whiteboard or display.