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Engineering Solutions for the Challenges of K-12 Educational Facility Development

Welcome to the fifth article in this six-part series exploring the complexities of design and engineering for educational facilities. We’ve already reviewed the benefits of having a civil engineer involved early in the planning process, and common design considerations unique to higher education institutions. In brief, an experienced civil engineering partner can address and anticipate issues before they cause delays and excessive costs to educational development and renovation projects.

The same applies to many K-12 facility engineering projects, but there are also key differences that designers and contractors should take into consideration, and below we provide a brief discussion of some of those factors.

Designing for Education: K-12 and Higher Education Campus Similarities

Building cycles for educational institutions at any level, from kindergarten to college, should involve thoughtful, long-term planning. New buildings need to be evaluated for adequate service from existing infrastructure. Renovations must avoid conflicts with existing utility services.. Environmental impacts such as water demand, storm water management of both runoff quantity and quality, degradation or loss of wetlands or sensitive habitat, etc….these should to be considered. ES&S provides infrastructure planning to support educational clients in a cost-efficient way. They work as a strategic partner alongside project team members, including architects, contractors, and urban planners, to ensure successful project within required timeframes and budgets.

Similar Building Types

Most educational institutions, regardless of level, share a common mission. This leads to a requirement for many similar building and facility types. While institutions may differ in the magnitude of the total building program, each will generally include classrooms, laboratories, performance and art spaces, lecture or assembly halls, music facilities, kitchens and dining rooms, and indoor and outdoor athletic facilities. They also require sufficient vehicle, bike, and pedestrian access, plus parking facilities. Civil engineers play a critical part in both higher education and K-12 facility engineering and design, ensuring site selection and preparation are sufficient to support all aspects of facility usage.

Accessibility and Inclusivity Requirements

Accessibility is vital in all educational facilities. It impacts students, faculty, other staff members, and visitors like family members. Designers must consider that everyone is entitled to equal access to engage in educational and extracurricular activities regardless of their individual abilities.

The 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design provide a range of expectations for developers. These include compliant accessible routes for pedestrian traffic, curb height limitations for wheelchair users, adequate volume and location for parking, to name just a few. Civil engineers help planners and architects go beyond the basic expectations to create educational facilities for everyone, with accessible outdoor spaces as well as internal facilities.

Considering accessibility and inclusivity during the planning and design process can prevent the need for costly retrofits to a site once a project is already under construction or complete.

The Differences in Planning and Designing Educational Facilities

There are many ways K-12 schools and college campuses differ that affect the planning and design of educational facilities and the support needed from a civil engineering partner.

Campuses Expand in Differing Ways

K-12 institutions are typically more sensitive to population growth, whereas colleges and universities have to continuously focus on recruiting students. K-12 attendance is also often dictated by district boundaries. However, the sheer growth of the general population can lead to sudden requirements for expansion or additional flexibility in the development of facilities. The needs of a district can shift and change much more often and unpredictably than those of higher education communities.

Deeper Community Engagement Required for K-12 Facility Engineering

In the K-12 arena, there is a greater need to focus on where facilities will be located, whereas buildings for higher education are typically added to an existing campus. This requires thoughtful and thorough site screening. ES&S provides detailed site screening and selection services for K-12 schools. Site selection requires expertise, diplomacy, discretion, and a deep understanding of the community, as well as engineering skills and knowledge.

Public opinion about the location of K-12 schools can be widely varied, and site choices may be controversial. This is where engaging a team with existing community relationships and a track-record of maintaining confidentiality proves particularly valuable.

Site Screening Complications and Competition

Desirable sites for developing a K-12 facility generally have to be of a particular size. For example, a new middle or high school might require a 50-60-acre parcel of land, and sometimes larger, that ideally already has excellent access to transportation and utility networks. If a large tract of land with good roads and utilities hasn't yet been developed, this could be for a good reason. Explore potential underlying issues such as the presence of a high volume of rock, a significant difference in elevation across the property, or karst features that need to be addressed. Environmental constraints could also be present, such as jurisdictional waterways, presence of wetlands or habitat for threatened and endangered species, or are located in sensitive watersheds with downstream constraints such as water quality-impaired streams.

The factors that make sites and properties attractive to educational developers tend to also appeal to other interests, so schools are often competing with commercial and residential developers for the same land. Competition can drive prices up, so maintaining confidentiality during site screening and selection is critical and should always be a primary expectation of an educational institution.

Working with a civil engineer who has experience with education clients can make your projects more efficient and cost-effective and help you build the right relationships that could bring you more project opportunities in the future. Contact Engineering Surveys & Services for more information about development and site engineering for K-12 and higher education clients.

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