Technology drives K-12 school changes

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

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer April 1, 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

What are the current trends in K-12 projects?

Luis Alvarez: Currently the implementation of technology in classrooms and athletic facilities is need for many K-12 clients. Whether it is in a classroom or a basketball court, the access to audiovisual and information technology gives teachers and coaches necessary tools to be more creative and interactive with students who are immersed in technology and expect it to be integrated into their environments. The pandemic in particular has heightened the need for technology infrastructure to provide schools with versatility to conduct their classes.

Additionally, changes in lighting technology are creating more interactive and customizable spaces. Sophisticated digital controls allow for fine-tuned adjustments like dimming, lighting zones and color temperatures that provide greater flexibility in the way classrooms and other spaces can be used and configured.

David Bonaventure: With COVID, clients have shown an increase in concern about indoor air quality. We have engineers have preached this need for the longest but it has been a struggle due to the cost of handling outside air in our hot, humid client.

Lawrin T. Ellis: The expansion and understanding of the promises and limitations of technology associated with cloud computing, personalized and hybrid learning and team collaboration tools. This leads to flexible learning spaces that can be easily transformed to accommodate developing and changing educational pedagogy.

Keith Hammerschmidt: We are seeing that the biggest trends in the K-12 projects are currently energy savings and proper ventilation. A large portion of a school district’s expenses are utilities, which is why a lot of school districts are wanting to install the most efficient systems. School districts are paying higher initial costs to go with a slightly more expensive system for mechanical equipment, lighting or water distribution, to save on utilities. Proper ventilation is also a big factor with COVID 19. ASHRAE was a large supporter of providing proper ventilation in a building to help provide healthier buildings.

Scott Peck: In the past few years, there has been a trend for districts to build and operate childcare centers. Districts have started doing this for several reasons: one being that it is a revenue stream for the districts as parents/caregivers must pay for their children to attend. Without an in-district childcare center, parents/caregivers may send their child to a neighboring district’s program, directing that revenue stream elsewhere. In some instances, once a child is ready to start the K-12 curriculum, they have already established friendships — both parents and students, within the neighboring districts childcare program. With the School of Choice option in the state of Michigan, parents/caregivers have the choice to send their child to neighboring school districts for their K-12 curriculum allowing them to stay with the friends they have made. The per-pupal funding from the state follows the student, thus the neighboring district now receives the state funding for that student.

The High School for Law and Justice is part of the Houston Independent School District. A creative flexible space is both the cafeteria and lounge area as well as the theater and assembly area with electrical infrastructure supporting both uses. Courtesy: Page

What future trends should engineers expect?

Luis Alvarez: Sustainable design is a trend we will continue to at forefront in K-12 and across all market sectors. The Austin Independent School District has stipulated in their design standards that every new building needs to be “photovoltaic ready,” meaning that infrastructure must have the flexibility to be able to connect to a PV system in the future. U.S. Green Building Council LEED certifications are increasingly sought after by K-12 clients.

David Bonaventure: I believe IAQ will be at the forefront and I believe the electrification/de-carbonization of K-12 will start getting a lot of traction. Especially in high schools. Teenagers know the issues with climate change and will help push the goal of net zero energy in the future.

Lawrin T. Ellis: To start with, investment in the professional development of educators. flexibility and adaptability. The expanding use of EdTech, including use of integrated learning solutions, augmented reality, personalized learning modules, the benefits (and drawbacks) of the internet of things and persistence of online education. Today’s students will be working in areas we cannot fully imagine for the near future. These challenges require technology designers to be constantly aware of the evolving educational environment.

Keith Hammerschmidt: Future trends that we see are schools being designed to net zero capable. As energy codes continue to get more stringent, schools are already having to pay higher prices based on the design requirements to meet the energy code. In this case, in the future when energy codes continue to develop, it won’t cost the school district much more to go net zero. We have already designed one elementary school as net zero, Sherwood Elementary, in Springfield, Missouri.

What modifications are you being asked to make to meet COVID-19 requirements?

David Bonaventure: Increasing the filter ratings to MERV 13 on equipment and adding de-ionization equipment.

Lawrin T. Ellis: The primary response to controlling COVID-19 for both new construction and HVAC maintenance replacement projects in local school districts has been to transition from MERV 8 to MERV 13 filters.

Keith Hammerschmidt: We see a lot of school districts remodeling existing buildings that don’t have proper ventilation to bring them up to current codes for ventilation. On new buildings, while our current design has always been to design to ASHRAE Standard 62.1: Ventilation for Acceptable Indoor Air Quality ventilation requirements as a minimum and provide dedicated outside air systems, the modifications we are seeing on new construction is higher filtration and the addition of isolation-type rooms. Ensuring all equipment has a minimum of MERV 13 and providing negative pressure isolation rooms are two ways our design has changed on K-12 buildings since COVID-19.

Scott Peck: We are being asked by a lot of our clients to offer suggestions on what they can do to help with COVID-19 at their facilities. We have come up with several HVAC modification strategies that may help reduce COVID-19 spread within buildings. The modification strategies have been divided into three levels with the highest level being more challenging to implement, however it does provide more protection. The levels are divided in the following way.

  • Level 1: use a minimum MERV 13 air filter, increase ventilation to 24/7, flush the building with outside air pre and post occupancy each day.
  • Level 2: use a minimum MERV 14 air filter in addition to bringing in as much outside air as possible while maintaining occupant comfort.
  • Level 3: Use HEPA air filters, maintain humidity levels in the 40% to 60% range, install ultraviolet germicidal irradiation or bipolar ionization.

Not all of these strategies will work for every HVAC system. The system must be investigated first to determine what is feasible.

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

What are engineers doing to ensure such projects meet challenges associated with emerging technologies?

Luis Alvarez: The education sector works is very similar to the health care sector in that buildings are expected to operate a minimum of 20 to 30 years. Renovation and reuse of existing structures is a desirable means of reducing costs. Ideally our infrastructure designs plan for inevitable future upgrades as technology continues to change rapidly. This can be a challenge when working with existing infrastructure. From the electrical perspective, we need to make sure enough extra capacity is in place for added new equipment, in terms of load capacity, breaker space and wall space for new additions.

David Bonaventure: This has been difficult as of late due to social distancing requirements. However, a lot of companies are providing webinars. While that is helpful, it does not replace the meetings to go over new technologies.

Lawrin T. Ellis: TLC has a dedicated group of sustainability-focused engineers. Peak Institute, or PI, constantly monitor and vet emerging technologies and certification programs such as WELL, Fitwel, etc. Their research efforts are shared across TLC. In addition, our health care group leadership keep our engineers and designers appraised of the ongoing recommendations and practices with respect to indoor environmental health and safety.

Tell us about a recent project you’ve worked on that’s innovative, large-scale or otherwise noteworthy. Please tell us about the location, systems your team engineered, key players, interesting challenges or solutions and other significant details. If one is available, please link to or attach a case study or portfolio description of the project.

Luis Alvarez: Rosedale school, located in Austin, Texas, is a brand new school for students with special needs. It is replacing a school that had reached the end of its life on the same property. The project gave us an opportunity to design a school with state-of-the-art technology, not only for typical advances in IT and audiovisual equipment, but also for the specific needs of the children attending school there. New sensory exploration technologies required special power and lighting needs, including the use of dimming and color temperature controls to adjust the ambiance of the rooms to accommodate the needs of children who might be sensitive to visual stimuli. Motorized harness systems were installed in classrooms and restrooms throughout the school to assist teachers and students in mobility exercises and daily needs.

Lawrin T. Ellis: High School GGG, in Naples, Florida, is the first new high school for Collier County Public Schools in nearly 20 years. The 61 acre site supports a three-story, 246,431-square-foot high school and site buildings designed to serve 2,000 students and features five career academies: engineering, health science, law studies, information technology and entrepreneurship and finance.

The project architect of record is Jose Murguido, RA, AIA of Zyscovich Architects. TLC provided engineering and design services including structural, plumbing and fire protection, mechanical, electrical and fire alarm engineering; security systems, AV and voice data systems design; and architectural acoustic consulting services. Key players include project manager and mechanical engineer of record Marcel C. Manda, PE; Michale J. Barrile, PE, electrical engineer of record; and Jamese F. Spears, PE, structural engineer of record.

The school features an incredibly complex envelope geometry. Accurately capturing the envelope’s angular geometry, fins with recessed windows, covered open concourses and multitiered construction required time and careful attention to accurately model the building’s cooling/heating loads. In addition, changes through design development and early construction documents provided continuous challenges for our structural design team.

In addition, the mechanical systems feature a 1.062-million gallon chilled water thermal energy tank with 9,300 ton-hours of usable cooling capacity. The estimated incentive payment for the thermal energy storage system is $785,000 with a payback period of 5 to 7 years. K-12 TES systems designed by TLC’s Fort Myers office have resulted in over $8.7 million in incentive payments.

Keith Hammerschmidt: A project that RTM is currently working on in the Kansas City area consists of 5 elementary schools for Shawnee Mission School District. These five schools will be LEED certified when construction is complete and some of them may potentially be LEED Silver. As all of the schools are unique in their own way, they are all designed to keep the students engaged. These schools are designed with large open collaboration areas to allow students from different classes and grades to co-learn together. This creates a challenge for the lighting design and mechanical design with different alcoves and large open spaces multiple students may use together, however it isn’t used for the entire school day.

On the plumbing side, we have created rainwater harvesting barrels for students to engage in outdoor environments and use rain water to help grow plants. SMSD is also on the forefront of building energy-efficient schools that are environmentally friendly. This is why they chose to have these schools get LEED accredited.

How are engineers designing these kinds of projects to keep costs down while offering appealing features, complying with relevant codes and meeting client needs?

Lawrin T. Ellis: TLC has implemented highly sustainable design strategies since the early inception of LEED, typically outpacing code requirements. We do our best to keep the entire design team and owner informed of smart, cost-effective options and our clients have come to expect this as part of every project.

Scott Peck: One of the best ways to keep costs down, while meeting the client’s needs, is to work closely with the district’s facility manager to get a solid understanding of what and how he or she is expecting the mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems to perform. It’s also important to have an understanding of their maintenance budget/abilities as many facility directors are being asked to do more with less staff and budget.

With this knowledge, the engineering team can work with the district to come up with MEP solutions that will meet their needs now and in the future. This is often accomplished by making the choice to pay more upfront for a higher quality piece of equipment or feature, which will ultimately pay dividends later with reduced maintenance costs as opposed to going with the lowest initial install cost. No matter what system is chosen, it must comply with all relevant codes.