Enhancing the learning experience in K-12 schools

K-12 schools are among the most important projects engineers can tackle. Professionals with expertise in mechanical, electrical, plumbing, fire protection, lighting, and commissioning offer design advice for educational facilities.


Tony Cocea, PE, Principal, DLR Group, Los Angeles. Courtesy: DLR GroupMichael Do, CEM, CxA, AX TCP, Director of Engineering Sciences and Commissioning, Setty, Fairfax, Va. Courtesy: Setty, FairfaxJames Dolan, PE, CEM, CPMP, LEED AP, Principal in Charge of Energy Engineering Services, OLA Consulting Engineers, Hawthorne, N.Y. Courtesy: OLA Consulting Engineers

Mark Fisher, PE, LEED AP, Principal, AlfaTech Consulting Engineers, San Jose, Calif. Courtesy: AlfaTech Consulting EngineersDouglas R. Hundley Jr., PE, CGD, LEED AP, CxA, Mechanical Engineer, CMTA Consulting Engineers, Louisville, Ky. Courtesy: CMTA Consulting EngineersPeter McClive, PE, LEED AP, Senior Vice President, CannonDesign, Grand Island, N.Y. Courtesy: CannonDesign


Tony Cocea, PE, Principal, DLR Group, Los Angeles

Michael Do, CEM, CxA, AX TCP, Director of Engineering Sciences and Commissioning, Setty, Fairfax, Va.

James Dolan, PE, CEM, CPMP, LEED AP, Principal in Charge of Energy Engineering Services, OLA Consulting Engineers, Hawthorne, N.Y.

Mark Fisher, PE, LEED AP, Principal, AlfaTech Consulting Engineers, San Jose, Calif.

Douglas R. Hundley Jr., PE, CGD, LEED AP, CxA, Mechanical Engineer, CMTA Consulting Engineers, Louisville, Ky.

Peter McClive, PE, LEED AP, Senior Vice President, CannonDesign, Grand Island, N.Y.


Figure 1: AlfaTech Consulting Engineers recently completed the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) design for the new 140,000-sq-ft Christopher High School in Gilroy, Calif. The Collaborative for High Performance School (CHPS)-certified campus inclCSE: Please describe a recent K-12 school project you've worked on—share details about the project, including location, building type, team involved, etc.

Tony Cocea: DLR Group is in the midst of a comprehensive program to upgrade the lighting systems at Malibu High School in California. The project includes the classrooms, library, administration, gymnasium, auditorium, and cafeteria buildings. We are replacing existing fluorescent fixtures with LED fixtures. We implemented the latest California Title 24 requirements for controls and used Exergy digital network lighting controls.

We also are working at Paseo Del Rey and Coldwater elementary schools in Los Angeles. Each project had a basis of design (BOD) document and a lifecycle cost analysis provided as a part of the predesign effort. The BOD alleviated any confusion between the designer and the owner because it provided a document to reference and a way to best facilitate communication with the owner. The projects included single-story existing classroom buildings and involved mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP), and structural design.

Michael Do: At the New Ballou High School in Washington, D.C., our company is designing an innovative net zero school facility with common HVAC and energy systems, but combined in a unique manner. The building is slated for 4 floors, with a total building area of 322,000 sq ft, and includes a large football stadium. The District of Columbia is pursuing U.S. Green Building Council LEED Platinum as well as a Net Zero Energy Building certification.

Mark Fisher: AlfaTech, as a part of lead architect BCA's design team, completed MEP design for the new 140,000-sq-ft Christopher High School in Gilroy, Calif., which has achieved Collaborative for High Performance School (CHPS) schools status. The campus includes classrooms, a cafeteria, and a gym. Phase I of this project also recently received the Award of Excellence at the 2011 Leroy F. Greene Design and Planning Awards.

Douglas R. Hundley Jr.: A recent project we completed is a new high school in a rural district of Kentucky: Nelson County Public Schools. Thomas Nelson High School was a new high school to relieve the existing high school, which was exceeding capacity. The new school is a 144,000-sq-ft, 1,000-student school, serving grade levels 9 to 12. In addition to the traditional classrooms, the facility included a 2,000-seat gymnasium, 450-seat auditorium, field house, football field, baseball field, softball field, soccer field, and band-practice area.

The district was very interested in high-performance design, and through collaborative design starting at the programming and schematic phase, the school is operating at an energy-use intensity (EUI) of 22.7, and is the most efficient high school in the state of Kentucky. High-performance strategies include a ground-source heat pump system, dedicated outdoor air units with energy recovery and occupancy-based ventilation controls, daylighting of all south-facing classrooms, insulating concrete form (ICF) wall construction, super-insulated roof, and window tuning to reduce solar loading.

Peter McClive: The Inventing Tomorrow project has made the Niagara Falls City School District the first known school district in New York State to construct dedicated, shared science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) labs in every school building. Stakeholders believe that providing students with STEM education from kindergarten through high school encourages collaborative problem solving and multifaceted exploration to be a natural part of students' thought process. In particular, Niagara Falls High School received two STEM specialty labs, one focused on engineering and one on biomedical technology. The engineering lab is equipped with overhead utility grids, mobile furniture, a prep room, lab utilities, and 3-D printing; the biomedical technology lab provides fully outfitted student lab stations, a fume hood, a prep room, and a 3-D interactive whiteboard allowing virtual dissection. K-8 labs, agile for a wide variety of subject matter, consist of three distinct zones: an open area for large, possibly floor-based project work; a workshop zone with mobile group tables and chairs; and a resource bar for computing, note taking, and work-in-progress displays. Custom-designed rock walls adorn each lab, displaying a cross-section of the geological layers of the nearby Niagara Gorge, complete with related fossils and era timelines.

CSE: When commissioning K-12 school buildings, what's the biggest challenge?

James Dolan: A key challenge for commissioning is that the commissioning authority (CxA) is often brought in later in the design or near the start of construction. Successful commissioning relies on the CxA integrating with the team early, helping the owner establish the owner's project requirements (OPR) at the outset of a project. Due to funding structures, the CxA for public schools is often brought later in the project, when key features to help with comfort, turnover, and maintenance are already "value-engineered."

Do: As more innovative strategies are designed in an attempt to save energy, CxAs must have strong controls and integration skill sets to guide and verify the proper implementation and integration of these systems. Many of these contractors have been "building these schools for 20 years" and additional coordination is needed, especially with regard to the integration and controls of systems such as dedicated heat-recovery chillers, geothermal, chilled-beam, and variable refrigerant flow (VRF) systems. Additionally, sometimes sequences of operation are overly complex, leading to difficulties in programming and execution. It is important for designers to be conscious of both energy efficiency and constructability when creating their controls strategies, and for commissioning engineers to be able to bridge any gaps that may exist.

Fisher: We find that many contractors are unfamiliar with commissioning, so educating them on the process is a challenge. Also, selection of the low bidder (no matter what) is a challenge, as you typically "get what you pay for" and the quality of service can be lower than with other, more experienced bidders. Also, air conditioning is required in most districts, but teachers dislike the noise the air conditioner makes, and some even turn them off. Therefore, acoustics is a very important consideration.

McClive: New York State's Energy Conservation Construction Code (adopted January 2015) mandates commissioning for all MEP systems. Consultants need to explicitly state their assumptions regarding commissioning in proposals while advising clients that commissioning is now a code requirement.

Hundley: The biggest challenge we face on projects is timely completion of the building systems to complete proper commissioning before school is occupied. Typically, we are commissioning the school after the building is occupied. Commissioning the buildings after the building has been occupied results in increased time to complete the work, as we have to address complaints, which are usually a result of incomplete systems or incorrect setpoints. It is not to say that the controls contractor is at fault, as project schedules always get compressed at the end. This is a challenge the entire team needs to help improve.

Cocea: I am lucky, DLR Group's Building Optimization Team provides commissioning so we can offer that as a service to clients in-house.

CSE: Public school enrollment is predicted to increase 6% through 2025. How will this population increase change classroom requirements, school safety, or other design issues?

Hundley: Population increase will require classrooms to be more flexible, allowing multiple teaching configurations. Improvements in classroom technology will be critical for teachers to make sure all students are getting the best education, in school or at home. School safety is a present concern, regardless of population increase. We have seen tremendous changes in security in the past 5 years, and expect it to continually evolve as technology improves.

Cocea: The designers in DLR Group's K-12 studio are constantly innovating and evolving K-12 design. Our engineering teams are integrated into those design teams, and as energy cost continues to climb, the design of HVAC building systems will become the focal point. These systems need to be resilient and flexible and, to some degree, redundant. For example, if an auditorium has an HVAC system set to accommodate 600 students, being a performance-based system, it should be capable of adjusting to the elements so there is no shortage of air, heating, or water.

Fisher: We have found that enrollment in some local areas is declining due to the housing crunch. California law includes class-size limitations so an increase in population would result in new construction (more portables and/or classrooms to be built). However, many districts consider leasing of portables as a waste of money, so they will typically end up building permanent buildings whenever possible.

CSE: On what aspect of K-12 projects do you see the most emphasis being placed by building owners? In what areas is your firm doing the most engineering work?

Fisher: Clients are leaning toward more sustainable projects (building envelope, natural lighting, etc.). There are still some roadblocks, however. Construction budgets are usually locked due to bond amounts being fixed, so payback isn't really a critical element in the design process. In other words, districts typically cannot increase the budget to purchase elements of the project that may have a favorable payback. Also, California's Proposition 39 budgets for the general fund (for operations and maintenance, or O&M, projects) and bonds (for construction projects) are separate, so moving operational budgets to construction budgets to purchase more efficient systems is not possible.

McClive: Emphasis is being placed on three key areas:

1. Health and safety in the existing buildings, to comply with latest life safety codes—systems include fire alarm, carbon monoxide-detection, and ADA-related building components

2. Energy and sustainability following nationally accepted benchmarks for the design, construction, and operation of high-performance green buildings

3. Commissioning including inspection, testing, and training to confirm that building systems are operating correctly and conform to the design intent.

Hundley: Owners are looking for flexible classrooms with classroom technology to address different teaching methods. Classroom technology requirements have tremendously expanded. Students use so much technology at home, and the classroom is the natural extension. As technology devices play a larger role in our everyday life, classrooms have taken advantage of these for learning in creative ways. One-to-one and bring-your-own-device (BYOD) schools are on the increase, and that ushers in a new set of infrastructure requirements to satisfy the usage load. For instance, wireless in the past might have been provided for convenience, but now it is often required to enable interactive learning practices and for the teacher's lesson plans. The most engineering work is spent on HVAC and classroom technology design.

Cocea: Energy use and environmental impact. These elements are intertwined; they're connected. We have to be able to size the owners' concerns and get them interested in allowing us to design a very energy-efficient system. HVAC, water reclamation, and electrical design form the main focus for DLR Group to comply with the benchmarks we have set for energy efficiency. A less energy-intensive system will cost an owner more upfront, but the longevity of the system gives them a better deal over time. It's up to the designers to make building owners see the bigger picture.

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