Technology drives K-12 school changes, while meeting codes and standards

Updates, COVID and tech trends are shifting the way K-12 schools are designed to achieve code

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer April 8, 2022
Courtesy: Page


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

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?

Luis Alvarez: For an electrical engineer the first and foremost code to be aware of is NFPA 70: National Electrical Code. Its purpose is the practical safeguarding of persons and property from hazards arising from the use of electricity (per article 90.1 of NEC 2020). This is the bread and butter for any electrical engineer working within standard safety requirements for any electrical installation. The electrical engineer needs to be aware of any specific set of design standards individual clients may also follow.

For example, the Austin ISD has a project development manual that lays out requirements including sustainability, basis of design guidelines, facility design standards, performance requirements and specifications among other topics related to the design of schools and the different areas such as classrooms, fine arts, athletics, etc.

The International Energy Conservation Code provides important requirements for sustainability and lighting design, in particular, including requirements for lighting controls, daylight harvesting and dimming capabilities. Finally, several of the other codes in the International Code Collection, including the International Building Code, International Mechanical Code and International Fire Code can factor into electrical design in schools with requirements for emergency egress backup power or those with full kitchens.

Lawrin T. Ellis: The Florida Building Codes, Florida Energy Conservation Code, IECC, National Electrical Code and a number of ASHRAE standards are the primary codes and standards we follow. The Florida Building Code, Building, Chapter 4, SPECIAL DETAILED REQUIREMENTS BASED ON OCCUPANCY AND USE, has two subsections specific to education: SECTION 453, STATE REQUIREMENTS FOR EDUCATIONAL FACILITIES and SECTION 468, SCHOOLS, COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES.

Design and construction for K-12 educational facilities must be in compliance with these sections. Note that charter schools are not required to comply with Sections 453 and 468. However, they are eligible for funding from the school districts. This has created quite a bit contention over time due to the restrictive funding usage legislation.

Keith Hammerschmidt: Most jurisdictions are using International Building Code and NEC. These incorporate a lot of the ASHRAE standards, NFPA codes and standards and the American Society of Plumbing Engineers standards.

One code section that is really starting to get important around the Kansas City area is the ICC 500 storm shelter code. Almost every school is now starting to be designed with a Federal Emergency Management Agency storm shelter.

Scott Peck: Electrically there are several codes and standards that are commonly used. NFPA 70 is by far the most commonly used. Other national codes used are NFPA 101: Life Safety Code, NFPA 72: National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, ASHRAE Standard 90.1: Energy Standard for Buildings Except Low-Rise Residential Buildings and state-level codes. Engineers need to be aware and comply with all required codes for a particular project.

At James Bowie High School in Austin, Texas, the new fine arts and athletic facilities required full integration of audiovisual and information technology to ensure teachers and students can maximize the spaces for creative and interactive uses and experiences. Courtesy: Page

What new code/standard do you believe local jurisdictions will adopt to meet COVID-19 health guidelines?

Lawrin T. Ellis: Most local school districts try to follow compliance with the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. However, due to the charged political environment and contention over school mask mandates, it is doubtful that school districts will adopt any meaning COVID-19 legislation, at least not anytime soon.

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

Lawrin T. Ellis: Energy codes related to electrical systems have had the greatest impact on lighting and lighting controls. With requirements for vacancy and daylight sensing, combined with the need for greater flexibility in multimedia presentations and distance learning, low-voltage lighting control systems are now becoming the standard in each individual classroom. The low-voltage controls allow easier integration of dimming systems and multizone switching with control modules for vacancy/occupancy and daylight harvesting.

Keith Hammerschmidt: As energy codes continue to get more stringent, it forces school districts and engineers to build more efficient buildings. However, this also drives up the cost of construction and getting difficult for some schools to build new construction.

Scott Peck: ASHRAE Standard 90.1: Energy Standard for Buildings Except Low-Rise Residential Buildings has the most impact on energy efficiency design of K-12 school buildings. As with all codes, each new code cycle brings along more stringent requirements, thus requiring the design to be more energy efficient.

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

Luis Alvarez: Existing buildings designed 15 to 20 years ago do not have the infrastructure a modern design requires. This is true for telecommunication backbones and electrical capacity. Finding space for the routing of new feeds and branch circuits can be difficult in existing buildings, particularly if as-built drawings are inaccurate or lack detail.

Electrical codes have undergone numerous changes in recent years and care must be taken in every modified area to make sure that all aspects of the existing building are brought up to current requirements. Ground fault protection, lighting controls and receptacle requirements of conference rooms are just a few of many aspects of the design that will likely need to be brought up to the latest code stipulations.

Additionally, older service entrance equipment can impose limitations on what can be added (for example, service equipment designed with the six handle rule) and in many cases new equipment may be the best option rather than trying to repurpose equipment that may not have the options of new breakers or manufacturer support.

Lawrin T. Ellis: Certain electrical codes and equipment standards have become more stringent and have a direct impact on existing building major renovations. Some examples of these are requirements for dedicated neutral conductors in circuit homeruns, rather than earlier practice of sharing common neutrals and new or updated product listings (i.e., UL) for existing and modified electrical equipment.

Scott Peck: When working in existing buildings it is not uncommon to come across installations that are not compliant with the current codes. In most instances, if it is a system you are not touching, it is grandfathered in and no changes are needed. The problem becomes a much larger issue when there are existing code compliance issues with a system you are modifying or adding to. There is a saying, “if you touch it, you own it.” Meaning if you are modifying or adding to a system you must bring at least that part of the system up to current codes. This can snowball at times and lead to many required changes that may or may not have been known when the budget was established.

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

Lawrin T. Ellis: We have staff that are certified in Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, CPTED. When and where possible we work with our architectural clients to implement strategies reduce crime, victimization and fear of crime, not only for K-12, but all public sector projects.