Engineering in K-12 schools


CSE: How have the characteristics K-12 school projects changed in recent years, and what should engineers expect to see in the near future?

Jefferson: We are seeing a lot more specialized curricula going into school programs, particularly science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programs. A huge focus of school districts now is “21st century learning.” Of course, we have to work with them to understand what that concept means to them and our architectural partners, because it can vary dramatically.

Oathout: The diversity of spaces and expectation for high-quality indoor environments continue to be top priority when designing modern K-12 facilities. The evolution to student focused instructional methods will expand the need for flexible use spaces requiring systems to be more robust to achieve these requirements. Many K-12 facilities are used year-round by multiple community and public users’ groups from before sunrise to well past sunset. The impact on design from the 365 virtual 24/7 use is that systems must provide quality indoor environments for all weather conditions, a much wider range of occupancy, with a level of redundancy not found in school designs 20 years ago.

Najafi: School systems have seen a high increase in sustainable practices throughout the recent years. This is due to a combination of many factors. Studies have shown that students learn and perform better in environments that are thoughtfully and sustainably designed with appropriate light, comfort, ventilation, and noise levels. This has raised the bar for K-12 design. LEED has become a standard for many schools as the expectations of the classroom environment have increased in order to improve learning. In addition, owners are becoming more concerned about long-term operations and maintenance costs. We’re seeing more sustainable and design-savvy clients in the school systems. An increase in funding to support better built spaces has also allowed quality designs to be realized. As the design industry progresses, so will the sustainability and design criteria, particularly in the K-12 market. Engineers can expect to see a continued upward trend in sustainability and thoughtful design within K-12 schools.

Hedman: Energy efficiency and LEED are the driving forces on all school projects that we are currently designing. Municipalities are using the schools as an example to the community on sustainability and energy efficiency. With future energy codes and communities embracing energy-efficient buildings, engineers need to become more familiar with how to design to meet these parameters while staying within budget.

Roy: First, the production has shifted from Autodesk’s AutoCAD to Revit and its attendant complexities and coordination. Although the promise of Revit is obvious with greater integration and coordination of architectural and engineering design, the final execution is still lacking, primarily due to proficiency issues of both architectural and engineering users. The added effort is not benefitting the overall project as clients are generally not able to use the Revit model and, in many instances, contractual and liability issues limit sharing of the models with the installing contractors. The architecture/engineering and the contracting sides are still not effectively integrated. Secondly, the adoption of the 2012 version of the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) combined with the more stringent energy guidelines of LEED v4 have tightened up design options to exceed a baseline ASHRAE 90.1-2010 model versus ASHRAE 90.1-2007 for LEED v3. Each incremental increase in energy-efficiency requirements necessitates even greater integration and coordination of building envelope and internal mechanical and electrical systems. One side or the other, alone, cannot provide the necessary energy savings.

CSE: How does engineering systems in K-12 schools differ from colleges and universities?

Oathout: There are some significant differences between working on a K-12 facility project and a project for a higher education institution. The utility plants common to colleges and universities are larger and far more advanced than what is commonly found at the K-12 level. The demand for more sophisticated equipment in laboratory environments for higher education projects is significantly different than what is common to K-12 projects. Another difference is that K-12 projects tend to be architecturally driven so the engineering teams commonly fill a role as a consultant. There are more instances for the engineering professional to be the project leader on a higher education campus.

Roy: Typically, elementary schools don’t have the in-house maintenance and engineering to support very complex systems. Even many high schools have limited resources to fully staff permanent building engineers with the experience necessary to optimize and effectively operate highly complex mechanical and electrical systems. It is imperative for design engineers to keep this in mind when designing systems to ensure the systems that are being proposed and designed can be economically maintained and operated as intended.

Najafi: Colleges and universities tend to have multiple buildings with a wide variety of uses. Students attend class in designated classroom function buildings. Students attend sporting events and use gym spaces in designated athletic buildings. Science laboratories are often built into a laboratory of science and technology type building. With K-12 schools, we’re taking all of these spaces and combining them into one building. This requires careful zoning and an attention to space usage, scheduling, and proper system selection for each individual space within the building. K-12 buildings must be versatile, robust, and flexible in space usage, unlike almost any other type of building. Designs for K-12 buildings must be versatile, robust, flexible, sustainable, and affordable.

Hedman: We believe that systems types are similar; however, colleges and universities have dedicated the staff to exclusively maintain and operate MEP systems.

Jefferson: Decentralized systems are the norm in our K-12 projects, but fairly rare with our university clients. As a designer, if I’m connecting into an existing central plant at a university, it’s sometimes tough to get creative with the systems approach, especially if the client requires adherence to a very specific technical standard. I think that K-12 often offers more opportunity to be really creative and find the best possible set of systems for their district.

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