Welcome to our final article in this six-part series exploring the intricacies of engineering and designing for education industry clients. In our last article, we shifted focus from higher education clients like colleges and universities to the K-12 educational arena, looking at the differences in these facilities regarding site selection and what developers might need from their partner civil engineers.
This time, we're continuing with K-12 facility engineering, considering some of the unique challenges of school building development, renovation, and expansion — and the solutions a civil engineer can provide. Many school districts endure for decades, meaning that K-12 educational facilities must be able to adapt to various changes and evolving expectations. These adjustments include regularly updated building codes, changing expectations for school buildings, and advancing accessibility for a broader range of students.
In this article, ES&S explores the issues surrounding compliance and expectations for both new and existing K-12 developments.
Planning and designing educational facilities requires compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) so that all people can access public school facilities regardless of the nature of their physical challenges. The original ADA guidelines were established in the 1990s, and the federal law has been amended several times to accommodate evolutions in both educational trends and "disability" definitions. Also, because many K-12 school facilities are often used for public purposes other than education (as voting centers, public meeting spaces, etc.) any structural changes must accommodate adults and children. For schools built after the passage of these laws, K-12 facility engineering must now comply with their mandates. Schools constructed prior to their enactment will require retrofitting to bring them into compliance.
Retrofitting aging public school facilities will, in most cases, require restructuring some parts of the school's physical buildings with ramps or alternative access points to accommodate wheelchair access. Reengineering access to bathrooms and office spaces may also be necessary to accommodate similar access availability. Civil engineers who plan and design K-12 educational facilities must also consider and incorporate both usage factors and adjoining structures and systems into those strategies.
Environmental and Infrastructure Concerns
Other rules and regulations have evolved over time and now govern activities undertaken for the construction and reconstruction of K12 education facilities.
Environmental concerns that were overlooked at the time of original construction may now pose significant challenges to both school users and the physical plant itself. Civil engineering projects frequently resolve water management concerns when water quality issues related to underlying environmental hazards are detected. In Missouri, weather-related incidents such as tornadoes pose potentially lethal threats to state residents; schools must now have appropriate and compliant tornado shelters to provide safety for young learners when those storms engulf their community.
A "quadrennial report card" issued in 2017 by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave a D+ to almost 100,000 K-12 public school buildings, which were ranked as being in only fair or poor condition. Years, sometimes decades, of neglect of maintenance issues have resulted in failing foundations, crumbling infrastructures, and toxin exposures. In many cases, the only option for repair is a complete reengineering of the entire structure because the physical and environmental problems present barriers not just to the student's physical health but also to the quality of their education.
Choosing a civil engineer with experience in K-12 facility planning and design means you gain the benefits of their comprehensive knowledge of ADA and environmental regulations, whether overseeing a new development for accessibility or retrofitting an older building for compliance.
Other drivers influencing either the redesign or full development of a K-12 educational facility are the community's evolving expectations for the use of that site. In addition to its use for general civic purposes, as noted above, educational trends are also mandating expanded capacity across the physical plant to facilitate an ever-broadening scale of teaching opportunities:
Most schools are required to provide educational inputs beyond traditional academic pursuits.
The COVID-19 pandemic cemented technology in all facets of society, including K-12 schools. Almost all of America's elementary, middle, and high school students recently completed up to two years of school online; they are now fully acclimated to that learning venue. Schools were compelled to accommodate the transition and now have at least a minimal capacity to continue providing online learning resources. New and retrofitted school construction projects will need to have that digital infrastructure engineered into their foundational systems to remain competent for today's class corps and prepare for those classes.
Many developers will want to incorporate Low Impact Development (LID) design practices to help echo a school district's mission, vision, and values. These design practices also reflect a societal change of perspective regarding the natural world and how individuals interact with it. Incorporating environmentally friendly design features into K-12 facility engineering can make the school a more valuable presence within the community.
ES&S has worked with multiple educational facilities, from the design process and site selection to subsurface investigation to project completion. We can help you create safer, more welcoming environments that are compliant, community-focused, and provide all students with equal access to unique places to learn and grow.
For more information on how ES&S can help you advance your development and renovation initiatives in the education sector, contact Engineering Surveys & Services.