The Right Answers?

K-12 school construction continues to see activity around the country, partly because of the spate of capital improvement referenda that passed in the last few years. But that well appears to be drying up. "With a lot of education cuts in the [Illinois] state budget, and even fairly affluent districts scrambling, the prospects for growth are not as exciting [as the past couple years]," says Mic...

By Barbara Horwitz-Bennett, Contributing Editor August 1, 2004

K-12 school construction continues to see activity around the country, partly because of the spate of capital improvement referenda that passed in the last few years. But that well appears to be drying up. “With a lot of education cuts in the [Illinois] state budget, and even fairly affluent districts scrambling, the prospects for growth are not as exciting [as the past couple years],” says Michael J. Meagher, senior vice president, McHugh Construction Company, Chicago.

Max Billington, P.E., chief electrical engineer with the RMH Group, Lakewood, Colo., has observed the same trend in Colorado. In 2003, 20% of his firm’s work came from the K-12 market, but it looks like that total will be down to 12% this year, and the firm only projects 8% for next year.

North to Alaska, it’s a similar, yet hopeful story. “Recent bond proposals to gain funding for new school projects have failed with the voters,” says Ken Ratcliffe, P.E., senior electrical engineer, AMC Engineers, Anchorage. “On the other hand, maintenance and remodeling work has been pretty consistent as school districts have been trying to maintain and extend the life of their existing facilities.”

Yet active pockets remain. In Texas, says Mark Vandervoort, AIA, vice president of Dallas-based HKS Architecture’s K-12 education group, they are as busy this year as they were last year.

In the Sunshine State, the market also is strong but only because Florida recently passed legislation limiting class size. Although it won’t go into effect until 2010, districts are now required to gradually reduce class size until they are down to no more than 18 students per class for kindergarten through third grade; 22 students for fourth through eighth grade; and 25 students for high school classes.

Of course, such legislation means more classrooms, but where do school boards find the money? In some cases, local legislatures are helping, but more and more, school officials are being forced to look at alternate forms of financing or other fairly radical solutions.

Funding is feasible

In one Virginia school system, for example, a door opened as another closed. According to Jim Jeliffe, AIA, a principal at Fanning/Howey Assocs.’ Alexandria, Va. office, the district received an unexpected windfall when its county government stepped in with an out-of-the-box solution. Jeliffe explains the commonwealth recently implemented the Public Private Educational Act that allows for more intergovernmental interaction. In this case, the county inherited a valuable piece of land when a local army base closed. The county, in turn, brokered a real estate deal with a private developer who not only swapped land with the county, but also built a new school as part of the bargain.

Jeliffe anticipates that other districts will eventually take advantage of this new act, particularly in Fairfax County where more than $1 billion worth of school additions or new construction is needed.

In the U.S. heartland, some Indiana school districts are also exploring interesting options, in essence becoming holding corporations. Jeliffe explains that there is a bonding limit in the Hoosier state. But by establishing holding corporations to do the financing, school boards can create new financial sources while still doing all the planning, hiring consultants and making the bids.

Such an approach was implemented in western New York, where Niagra Falls school officials were able to construct a new 400,000-sq.-ft. school with no increase in local taxes. “The financially strapped school district accomplished this feat through a determined effort by the school board and superintendent to secure special state legislation that enabled the district to sidestep certain procedural hurdles that have traditionally hampered school construction,” explain Hans Kullerkupp, AIA, and David Hingston, AIA, principals with Cannon Design, Grand Island, N.Y.

In this case, the legislation enabled the district to create a nonprofit corporation to sell bonds—technically, certificates of participation—to private investors. In addition, the district was exempted from compliance with the state’s requirement for multiple contractors and public bidding laws. “The district, its financial agents, designers and construction manager were thus able to work as a collaborative design-build-finance team. The construction manager was able to buy out the project in the most cost-effective manner possible with zero change orders,” add the designers. “By working together from the outset, the team also trimmed at least a year from the project schedule.”

Out West, the San Diego United School District has also had success with a collaborative venture. The overpopulated district needed a new school, but no land was available. What happened next, according to HKS’ Vandervoort, was certainly out of the norm when it comes to public-private partnerships. Working in conjunction with San Diego State and a private developer, the venture condemned two blocks of housing so the new school could be built along with new government services and new housing units.

Designers, in general, need to think of schools in the context of the community as a whole. According to Kullerkupp and Hingston, school facilities are no longer being utilized only during the school day. For example, the library, computers and recreational/fitness facilities are being made available to local residents and for adult education classes. Other uses of the school building include community meeting space, day care centers and Boys & Girls Clubs.

“Support for a school project, particularly at referendum time, is extended beyond the school’s local educational community to include senior citizens and non-parents,” explain Kullerkupp and Hingston.

Unusual public-private partnerships are also cropping up where unexpected. In Colorado, for example, the state empowered the Colorado Educational and Cultural Facilities Authority to issue tax-exempt bonds to religious schools. Furthermore, RMH’s Billington notes there’s a big push for a school voucher system. “Although it hasn’t passed yet, if it does, these private schools will see a big increase in enrollment and will need new facilities,” says Billington.

Despite these cases of effective problem solving, Jeliffe points out most school boards still operate as they always have, and indeed, a paradigm shift in the mindset of the average school board is necessary for this movement to truly take off.

“We have the ability to put together the financing package, but some people don’t feel comfortable with that, and some school boards don’t feel comfortable with the whole idea of not owning the property,” he says.

Power diet in the works?

In the interim, school boards continue to wrestle with other issues besides funding for new construction. As with all buildings, lifetime operational costs are a major source of economic stress for many communities.

Energy use is a profound amount of a district’s operating expenses, says Vandervoort. For instance, the average 75,000-sq.-ft. school pays approximately $1 per sq. ft. annually for power. So if a district operates 20 schools, that’s $1.5 million per year.

Not only is power a significant chunk of annual operating expenses, but school districts often represent some of the largest energy consumers within most counties. And, according to Catherine Gettys, director of business development, BRPH, Melbourne, Fla., these schools are paying in the highest peak demand usage time period.

As a result, Michael Hall, AIA, chief marketing officer at Fanning/Howey’s headquarters in Celina, Ohio, says any energy-efficient measure can go a long way, be it thermal ice storage, insulation, glazing, daylighting or ground-source heat pumps. “Every measure possible is being considered, from lower wattage lamps to water-saving urinals,” says Hall.

A technology RMH has had success with is direct-indirect evaporative cooling, which Billington says can make it possible to design a school with just a small backup chiller.

“With direct-indirect evaporative cooling, the cool, moist air is passed across a cooling coil before it is sent to the air-handling system,” he explains. “So mid-August until the end of May, evaporative cooling has the capacity to keep the rooms at around 77°F/78°F.”

Lighting, additionally, is an area where Billington sees an opportunity for savings. “Twenty years ago, classroom lighting levels were between 70 and 80 foot candles, whereas today, it’s 35.”

Daylight harvesting is another up and coming alternative. According to Terrance R. Liette, P.E., executive director, at Fanning/Howey, energy calculations and some actual case studies show an overall reduction of 20% to 30% in annual energy costs with a good daylighting-enhanced design.

RMH has managed to daylight 85% of one of its school projects, which translated to an energy consumption of just one-half watt per sq. ft.

Additionally, Liette says studies have proved test scores improve in spaces that have natural lighting.

IQ and IAQ

On the subject of quality spaces, maintaining good indoor air quality in classrooms is also important in today’s school design. Indeed, organizations like ASHRAE are calling for facilities in general, but particularly schools, to entrain more outside air. The catch is that such actions can bring in more humidity, and to remove that humidity, more energy is required. “It’s a vicious cycle,” Vandervoort posits. “Sometimes, systems that deal with humidity need repair or are too expensive to run, so either less outside air is brought in or there is too much humidity.”

Adding to this dilemma is the spectre of mold, which can creep into walls as the result of high humidity. And with mold grabbing headlines, it’s a subject on many school board members’ minds. In fact, according to Eric Lindstrom, a senior associate with Cannon, some of his K-12 clients have organized IAQ committees.

“The main objective of these committees has been to identify perceived problems, gather test data and recommend solutions to the school board. These committees have also put new pressure on facilities departments, and parents are often demanding documentation that HVAC systems are operating as intended,” he explains.

The upshot for M/E/P engineers, says Lindstrom, is that more people are scrutinizing what’s being done. “Designs must not only clearly achieve compliance with the minimum code requirements, but also must conform to the current recommended practices outlined by other bodies such as ASHRAE or the EPA.”

Technology transparency

Finally, the reach of technology into today’s schools is touching every activity, from project-based learning and assessment to emergency communication and the way school lunches are prepared and paid for.

“This, of course, is an irreversible trend as school age children are growing up in a world saturated with technology and simply know no other way of conducting their lives,” say Kullerkupp and Hingston.

But the implication of this trend for school planning, according to Kullerkupp and Hingston, is something that was unforeseen just a few years ago: the disappearance of technology in today’s learning environments as it becomes both universal and “transparent.”

“For example, general purpose computer labs have been deemed obsolete by many districts, and are being dismantled or converted into specialized labs for CAD or robotics, say Kullerkupp and Hingston. “Even classroom-based desktop computer stations are teetering on the brink of extinction as more students and teachers take laptops and handhelds wherever they go.”

Wireless networks, finally coming into their own, free users from the data port and encourage learners to get together for teamwork—anywhere they find convenient.

“The pace of change in technology will undoubtedly defy any efforts to predict the look of schools a generation from now,” say the Cannon designers.

Nonetheless, the designers add, certain directions are clear enough: First, wireless technologies should be considered in new projects. They also offer considerable advantages in making existing school buildings technology-friendly, since the extent of retrofit wiring can be greatly reduced. Second, traditional instructional materials are disappearing as Internet resources become available. Finally, technology is providing critical support for individualized instruction, offering learners at multiple schools with access to guest lecturers through distance learning networks.

For each district and each new school, the input of users—teachers, students, educational leaders and community—Kullerkupp and Hingston conclude, is essential to be sure that technology is integrated into planning and design in ways that will fully support how learning and instruction are actually taking place.

BACnet-enabled VFD installed sans gateway

The merger of building system technologies continues and K-12 schools are proving ripe grounds for such innovations. Take Harmon Middle School in Aurora, Ohio, as an example.

Energy efficiency, is a goal, thus variable-frequency drives were included as part of the school’s HVAC system. Building automation is also a significant part of achieving that overall goal. What makes Harmon School different from countless others is the fact that their VFDs come equipped with components that make open communication with the BAS possible without any hardware additions.

According to Mike Olson, manager, HVAC applications, ABB Inc., Automation Technologies, LV Drives, New Berlin, Wis., Harmon School installed their new ACH550 drive, which he says comes available with a BACnet interface that can be Flash-loaded directly into the drive itself. ABB worked in tandem with building controls manufacturer Automated Logic to develop the drive, which Olsen says, eliminates the need for wiring gateways from VFD components to the BAS. It specifically operates a motor on an AHU.

ABB says this is the first VFD to offer BACnet without hardware additions. What this means to Aurora building personnel, according to Olsen, is that BAS/VFD technology makes remote access, diagnostics and control easier than ever before. “If you can get to a PC and an Internet browser, you can monitor and modify your HVAC operating conditions from wherever you are,” says Olsen. “Real-time serial communications means better information, which enables operators to make better energy-management decisions.”

What about LEED?

Although energy efficiency is a major trend among schools, the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED accreditation has yet to catch on.

“There are currently only about a half-dozen Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-certified projects, but many more go through the registration process and never proceed to final certification,” explain Hans Kullerkupp, AIA, and David Hingston, AIA, principals with Cannon Design, Grand Island, N.Y. “The certification can be significant for a school district on a tight budget. For example, the LEED certification cost for a 100,000-sq.-ft. school building is currently $3,000, which doesn’t include the additional expense of documenting and assembling the certification materials.”

In southwest Florida, most districts are aware of the concept, says Catherine Gettys, director of business development for BRPH, Melbourne, Fla., and are willing to discuss it, but after they realize how far reaching it is, they are usually content to ask for the incorporation of as many aspects as possible, without requiring increased funding.

That said, some schools are going for accreditation, as 7% of all LEED-certified buildings are K-12 schools, mostly in the Northwest or the Northeast.