What Goes into Designing an Education Facility

How do you even take the first step towards designing an educational facility? It’s a tall order, that’s for sure. Designing and building something of this magnitude needs to harmonize across three levels: the district, the educators, and the students.  All these groups are all seeking security, comfort, and technology.  Additionally, school districts are looking at the budget and scope of the project.

We’re fortunate that we have people invested in all three, from the former and present policymakers in our community, the coaches and mentors, and the parents and former students. With these perspectives, we tackle education projects with the understanding and respect that they deserve.

Welcoming, Safe, Comfortable; More of What Works

Baccus Oliver, Principal/Mechanical Engineer, has a deep appreciation of the craft. That is to say, he understands design trends with an eye for what will persist and, when all is said and done, be looked at for generations with admiration.

Schools are buildings that cross generational lines as a simple expectation. You want to design and ultimately build a structure that will stand tall for thousands upon thousands of students to walk its halls. Part of that is in the integrity of the materials you choose, but much of it is by designing with timelessness in mind.

Longevity Looks Like Security

We asked Baccus what he thinks is timeless in the designing of an educational facility. Beyond that, what is tried-and-true and what does he think will quickly become a standard far into the future.

“There are three facets of education facility design that will never go out of fashion. You must design something with a welcoming atmosphere, something that is safe, and ultimately something comfortable for the occupants. These things will transcend any fleeting trend in school design, and I feel safe putting them at the forefront in any plans we develop at the firm.

Something that I think is being emphasized more today than it was yesterday is security. While that might pertain to the aforementioned focus on safety, I think security as a concept is more about external technology while safety is an internal mindset. Sophisticated lockdown mechanisms and procedures are important, so building a school that can close out the outside world is important.”

We also asked Baccus what an innovative school looks like today.

“They are called extended learning centers. They are non-traditional teaching spaces that emphasize teaching kids workplace skills, so when they’re adults they’re already competitive in the 21st-century workplace. I see a stronger emphasis on this type of curriculum, and the unique classroom you find it in, as we move forward into this century.”

The Future is in “Net Zero” Education Facilities

Never was there an ecosystem that called for energy efficiency more than a school campus. School systems, by their very nature, are living systems that bring with them a high level of input and output. Finding a way to balance that system can have a huge impact on the community they are in. We asked Russ Litsinger, Principal/Mechanical Engineer (Marcum Energy Management Solutions) to talk a bit about energy management at this level.

You Must Minimize to Maximize

“Energy management is first and last about making wise investments in energy-using systems and tools to both improve operational efficiency and maximize the Net Present Value of potential energy investments. Specifically, the less costly an energy-using system is to operate and maintain while still meeting the fundamental intent, the more operating budget the client has available to invest in their mandate.

In the case of schools, there are myriad energy-using systems that are all essential to the mission of education, and all must be actively managed to minimize waste and maximize operational efficiency. Whether it is food preparation, water heating, HVAC, lighting, technology or transportation, all these systems present both challenges and opportunities for minimizing energy-waste and making sound investments in operational and/or technological improvements to improve system efficacy.”

To put it simply, if you think critically about the various systems working collaboratively within a school design, you can find optimized solutions that, when stacked together, create a much larger synergistic effect on your energy consumption. As always, less is more.

Solar Energy is the Keystone

Russ is optimistic that solar energy will continue to mature toward a means to offset utility supplied energy usage within a school system. He breaks the challenges of solar into 3 categories, which he says are quickly being solved: cost, storage, and regulation.

“As technological innovation continues to advance the prospects of renewable energy resources being market-viable, I can envision a future where ‘Net Zero’ schools are the baseline to which all new facilities are constructed to. At least for us in the Midsouth and Lower Midwest, it appears that the leading energy-generating candidate to secure a ‘Net Zero’ future is solar photovoltaic.”

Russ goes onto to break these factors down for us.

  • Cost – While the total installed cost per watt for solar installations continues to fall, it is still not at parity with utility-supplied power in areas where the energy market dictates the price per unit of energy.
  • Storage – To date, the solar market has been hampered by the lack of an energy storage medium that is reliable, economical, and non-hazardous for end-of-life disposal/recycling. Advances in battery technology hold much promise but remain largely unproven on a large scale.
  • Regulation – Utilities and governmental agencies appear on a crash course as each balance the needs for economical and reliable energy on the one hand with the desire to move toward a more renewable and self-producing energy model on the other. As such, most solar installations to date have been subsidized in one manner or another by government investment or regulation such that the cost to support the increased cost per unit energy is distributed among all utility customers.

To simplify this further, solar energy is a bountiful resource. To maximize its potential, we need to make it cheaper to collect, find an efficient means of storing excess energy (for when we can’t just use it all as soon as we collect it), and we ultimately need solar costs to reach a level that it is financially justifiable to implement it.

We Make the Business-Case for Energy Efficiency

Green energy is about whether it makes financial sense to invest or not. For some clients, there is an inherent value to being “green” that is not measured it ROI. For most, however, energy efficiency is all about improving their bottom line.

“Our approach is to make the business case for energy efficiency. I expect that school districts will continue to invest in energy efficiency and renewable energy solutions when it makes financial and operational sense for them to do so. Thus, as with most segments of our economy, I expect that the pace of renewable energy investments will be largely predicated upon the market viability of the range of potential efficiency/sustainability investments which are brought forth.

We take seriously our charge to serve as our client’s advocate. Thus we consider the financial and practical implications of all available energy-efficient design approaches as though we were deciding for our own home and business. Once we have evaluated potential energy-efficiency investments for viability, we present the range of options to the client for their review and input- taking care to educate them as to the inherent advantages and disadvantages of each potential considering aspects such as first cost, operational cost, operational complexity, reliability, local service/maintenance options, and end-of-life considerations.

The desired net-effect being that the client can confidently decide on investing in an energy-efficiency initiative that is financially sound, meets their needs, is tailored to their operations and maintenance approach, and can be successfully-employed well-beyond the term of the investment.”

Russ knows that what makes good sense to a client has to also make good cents. Crunching the numbers, being straightforward, and understanding the technology is his way of equalizing the two.

Our Edge is Knowing What Educators Want

How do we understand the needs of educators and policymakers? For one, we have people working for us that are one or more of these things. Pete Galloway, Business Development, is one such example.

“My career began as an Agriculture Teacher. After ten years I became a school administrator. Then, I served as Director of Pupil Personnel and Assistant Superintendent before becoming Superintendent. In 1985, we built Graves County High School which was a consolidation of 6 high schools within the county.  Following that we built the new middle school and four elementary schools. I had the opportunity to be involved in those projects. When I retired, I assisted school districts by facilitating their District Facility Plan.”

Pete is one of our guys on the inside. He understands the business needs of districts as well as the needs of the people teaching in these buildings.

From the Inside, Out

Perhaps Pete’s biggest edge is his ability to understand the perspective of the administrators calling the shots. He understands what they lack in engineering knowledge, they make up for in intuition for what works.

“In the school business, the budget always comes into play. More importantly; the company’s reputation, knowledge, and good work are the key. Our goal should be to develop a high level of trust between us and the customer. Once developed, customers tend to come back with future projects. When I was a school administrator, many things came into play when selecting engineers for our projects. I wanted to hire a dependable firm, one that I could trust and one that would get the job done. If the company did this, it would allow the district to take care of the business of educating kids. BFW/Marcum was the company that did that for us.”

Pete emphasizes reliability, knowledge, and a promise to listen and understand with ease. More than anyone, he knows that these are busy people.

With School Building, Collaboration is Most Important

Pete has a respect for the multiple disciplines that must come together when putting together an educational facility. “The most important point that I would make is that we are the best. We strive to cooperate with all involved which include the architect, contractor, and the district. It goes back to trust and the level of excellence that our company has and is noted for. The customer must know that we are available anytime to discuss any concern or answer any question that they might have.”

Pete hits the nail on the head. At all levels, our firm strives to be great listeners but also excellent decision-makers. We’re a firm with a long history of collaborating with school districts. We understand the high standards of education and we know how to navigate the obstacles that come along. We don’t just appreciate the value of an education; we’re invested in the walls and roof that provide it.