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A School is not Just a School

Wednesday, January 31, 2018 by Brian C. Wagner

A School is not ‘Just a School’

The condition of new schools in Ohio leaves many people disappointed. There are numerous comfort complaints along with higher energy costs than initially expected. The addition of the Commissioning Agent has helped but has not solved the problem. At a time when NASA is sending people to Mars it is hard to believe we struggle to build comfortable, energy-efficient buildings. 

There are many reasons for this poor performance including the low-price method used for designing and building projects. The Construction Manager at Risk method has given the owner the impression that contractors are chosen based on quality, but we continue to see the same issues with this procurement method.

The poor condition of school comfort and energy consumption in new schools is the direct result of underestimating the actual complexity of their building automation system needs.

I often hear people in the industry say things like “it’s just a school,” referring to how basic the mechanical systems are. They feel that anyone should be able to successfully control the mechanical and electrical systems to obtain comfortable, energy-efficient buildings. This is also reflected by the dollar amounts of the contracts that are awarded for the building automation. It is simply not possible for the customer and the actual occupants of the building to receive the results they are looking for by short-changing their investment in a quality system installed by a quality team.

While systems in schools are beginning to be just as complex as in many hospitals, schools have their own complexities to deal with. A typical high school sees a diverse schedule throughout the day. Classes in the morning, board meetings in the evening, and sporting events in the evening and weekends.  Throughout this beehive of activity, doors are propped open for access to fields, windows are open at the discretion of whoever is close to them, buses pull up next to the building with their exhaust being drawn in to the outdoor air, and instead of one patient per room as in a hospital, there are 30 students and one teacher per room all defining comfort differently.  The constant On/Off and Unoccupied operation of the systems create issues that aren’t brought to light when equipment constantly runs. 

Of the 8,760 hours in a year, a school classroom is required to be in session 1,400 hours annually.  To start with, systems need to be designed with an emphasis on their operation during the off hours and not just during classroom hours – which is seldom a topic of discussion in our industry, and therefore often overlooked during the process. In fact, with some of the systems being installed in schools today, it is obvious there is no consideration being taken into account for this, to the detriment of the school and its occupants when the doors open on opening day.

Often, more diligence is put into the selection of field turf than is put into the indoor environment in which we teach students because owners are given the impression that “it’s just a school” and controlling the comfort is easy.

Adding to the issue of underestimating the complex needs of schools is that at times, the individuals responsible for the building automation may not have the necessary level of expertise or the time to effectively manage the system. This is to be expected since most schools have the impression of how easy it must be to manage the system, that they have added this role to an already overloaded custodian or maintenance person and expect them to perform all the service and preventative maintenance. This is not a feasible expectation. However, this is where CCG can also be of immense help through our expert training and ability to provide cost-effective and responsive support and maintenance.

Don’t let anyone convince you that your building is “just” a school. A school’s building automation system needs are much more complex than the industry recognizes or wants to admit. This attitude leads to not only massively higher energy consumption, it also creates a physical environment that is not conducive to learning, teaching, and fostering the success of students. A school is not just a school - it’s the place we trust to educate our children in an environment that allows them to focus and thrive – and it deserves as much attention as we would apply to a hospital.

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