Pardon our dust

When education institutions decide to renovate or add to existing buildings, one of the most crucial questions they face is “How can we upgrade an occupied building?”

By identifying construction challenges and involving a site-based design team in the early stages of the design, schools boost the chances of succeeding with their building programs. Creating a master plan with phasing can help schools continue using a building during construction with minimal disruption.

For the design team to identify the scope of work, it should review a facility's as-built drawings, and perform on-site facility investigations and building forensics. The investigation should not be limited to the immediate work area; it should include the entire building and the systems that will be affected by the work. On-site maintenance personnel may reveal pertinent information about the condition and operations of building systems.

After the team documents and analyzes these findings, it should come up with recommendations for the scope of the program and assess the potential impact on the facility as it remains in use.

Facility factors

To ensure a facility utilization plan is successful, the following items should be considered:

  • Traffic issues — parking, bus loading and parent dropoff. These areas must remain intact in order to allow students and staff to reach the facility safely. Planners must ensure that parking for visitors and staff is available during construction. They also should carefully consider construction traffic, contractor parking and construction staging areas to avoid interfering with the daily operations of the school and the construction site.

  • Effect on play areas. Without a prescribed master plan for facility expansion, outdoor activity space often is sacrificed. (At secondary schools, parking commonly is reduced.) Play areas need to remain active or be moved before construction begins, and the site must have safe access between the building and the playgrounds.

  • Locations for contractor parking, site access and storage. Construction activities are distracting to students and staff. The construction plan should coordinate these activities with all stakeholders so they do not interfere with student learning.

  • Entrances and circulation around the building for visitors, students and staff. Planners must predetermine circulation patterns throughout the site in order to isolate the construction from school activities. The primary goal is to prevent students and staff from entering construction zones. Because emergency egress is a paramount concern in an occupied building, school administrators, along with local fire departments, should develop a plan for safe egress and ingress. The team should provide the fire department with final floor plans so they can get to the site in the event of an emergency. Temporary signage and other wayfinding devices will assist in providing safe access within the site.

  • Sequencing of utility services. The plan should establish pre-arranged times for any interruption in communications, data, alarms, temperature controls, fire protection and power. Phasing of construction activities should take into account how service is brought to the new or remodeled areas. The school should coordinate with utility providers, as well as construction crews and school administrators, any upgrades of utility service sizes or rerouting of those services.

  • Temporary locations of portable classrooms. Frequently, construction forces the relocation of some classrooms. Using temporary classrooms raises several issues: choosing which grade levels to move; communications and data; toilet facilities; proximity to special classrooms; distance from entrances; security; safety; and accessibility. The location of temporary units must allow students to interact with students and staff in the main building, yet keep them away from the construction.

  • Temporary relocation of amenities. Relocating some dedicated teaching areas, such as art, science, media center and technology, can be expensive. Considering these areas in the design phase, the team may be able to move these programs to their final location, and necessitate only one move.

  • Maintaining building security and appropriate barriers. The construction process should consider the need for after-hours access to buildings for school programs and community activities. The plan must enable buildings to be secured adequately. It also should provide for sound barriers and dust partitions to buffer the occupied parts of facilities from construction activities. These barriers should be substantial enough to prevent unauthorized circulation between areas.

  • Maintaining a safe and secure environment for the occupants. Because of security concerns that have become more pronounced over the last few years, many school districts use a security system that requires faculty and staff to display identification at all times. Visitors also are required to sign in and wear a badge. To maintain security, all construction workers should be required to display a form of identification when working on school grounds. This identification should be controlled and distributed only by the general contractor, who also should take steps to prohibit unauthorized interaction between construction workers and students or staff.

Coordinating the work

Modifying an occupied school building requires plans that are sequenced to maximize use of the facility and minimize disruption to students and staff. Working with students and staff in a facility is an important step in accomplishing this goal. A school may have to adjust its programs and activities to maintain the educational process during construction.

One of the results of coordinating plans with those who will be in the building is that they will be aware of the challenges that can impede construction. They can help identify issues such as scheduling, budgets, sequencing, access and safety, and are usually willing to help solve problems that arise.

Meeting with the facility staff regularly can ease the stress that can accompany a significant construction project. These meetings should inform staff and students of what to expect during construction. The school should arrange site tours to explain the construction process to faculty and students. The site administrator should be included in all construction meetings and can inform the staff of any potential changes in the schedule or process. The administrator also can inform the construction team of any difficulties that are affecting safety or impeding classroom instruction.

Another consideration when working in occupied buildings is to be aware of a school's schedules. Construction activities that produce excessive noise will need to cease when students are taking standardized tests. The schedules for such tests generally are known well in advance, and the contractor can schedule activities accordingly.

Parents and community members will be attending extracurricular activities at the school; therefore, access and parking for those events will need to be coordinated with construction work. Vacation times are a good time to move construction activities within a site and to perform utility changeovers.

Working with a site-based design team and district administrators, planners can develop a proposal that phases the construction program and minimizes the disruption to the learning process.

Faculty and staff will be more willing to make sacrifices during construction if their opinions are sought in the early stages of design and planning. By listening to all those affected by the project and working with them to devise a plan, the design team can create a master plan that allows for continued use of the building during construction.

Prager, AIA, is a partner with the Denver office of Van Tilburg, Banvard & Soderbergh. He has more than 26 years experience in all phases of architectural practice with an emphasis on K-12 facilities.

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