Traps and Treasures

May 1, 2002
How to stay safe and avoid the perils of school construction.

Major construction at a school or university is a bit like an “Indiana Jones” movie — filled with surprises, pitfalls and unforeseen obstacles — and those are just the mental challenges.

School construction can be potentially dangerous too, putting you, your staff and your students at risk. But to a school administrator, a new gym and extra classroom space are just as treasured as an ancient Egyptian mask or a rare ruby crystal found by Indiana Jones — and well worth the hazards.

Be prepared

You, as a school administrator, will need to maintain program continuity. You will contribute to the efficiency of the construction project by managing school facility resources and maximizing space flexibility. You also may act as spokesperson for the project for the entire school community.

During a construction project, the definition of your school's community will expand to mean not only staff, students and parents, but also neighboring homeowners, the town and school district administration. Joining your community temporarily will be construction workers and tradespeople — some whom the school likely will never see again but whose integration into the school community will contribute to the success of your construction project.

To accomplish all this, you must be willing to invest time and interest in all phases of building renewal, including facility inventories, planning, design, demolition, construction and punch-lists/closeout.

One important tip starts well before the construction process. In an ideal world, construction projects are scheduled during school vacations, but sometimes a project's timetable or extent dictates that work must occur during the school year. It is preferable to plan a school project in such a way that ensures the majority of construction work will take place when school is not in session. In the case of alterations to existing buildings, try to start projects by early spring so contractors can mobilize and gather all their materials. Consequently, when the building team starts inside the school, it is ready to go and can accomplish a significant amount of work in a compressed period of time.

Step by step

Here are some specific ways you can ensure a smooth, safe and successful construction project:

  • Stay visible

    You will need to maintain high visibility and interaction throughout the project, from pre-construction through demolition, construction and closeout. Frequent movement throughout the project will keep you up-to-date with construction progress and demonstrate your concern to the staff. Early on, try to delegate some of your paperwork to help you get out in your school's halls.

  • Keep students up-to-date

    Inform students of the upcoming phases of demolition, construction and safety needs through regular assemblies and small-group meetings. Provide definite rules of access and make sure they are clearly understood. Tony DeGrazia, former principal of F.E. Peacock Junior High School, Itasca, Ill., says safety was such a key issue with a construction project at his school that there was no tolerance — not even discussion — of a breach of construction spaces. Significantly, the students must understand what is off-limits as well.

  • Separate students and construction workers

    When Ralph Cook was an administrator at Mark Twain School, Wheeling, Ill., an extensive renovation project added on classrooms and a large gym. Cook, who now is principal of Walt Whitman School, Wheeling, Ill., disallowed any construction workers in the hallway when students were present. Work was carried out behind locked doors, which required much policing by the administrative and custodial staff. Trucks also were not allowed near the playground during hours when children were outside. If recess time and truck activity overlapped, temporary fencing was set up to separate the two areas.

  • At the same time, engage workers in the educational process

    While safety requires that some areas be off-limits, some principals find that other less dangerous construction activities can be mixed with regular school activities and provide their own educational opportunities. DeGrazia says that the more workers are involved in the educational process, the more mutual respect and sensitivity will develop among them, students and staff. A renovation project at Washington School, Ill. in District 148, students and construction crews became so comfortable with each other that the students voted for “Worker of the Week,” complete with a reward of a donut.

  • Monitor student movement regularly

    When combined with your knowledge of construction timetables, you can anticipate upcoming safety issues and precautions. Encourage teaching staff and custodians to circulate frequently to monitor potentially unsafe conditions. You will need to recruit extra “eyes and ears.” You will need to be involved particularly during arrival and dismissal times, as construction equipment and crews may arrive and depart at the same time as students, parents and staff.

  • Observe construction workers

    Note how they carry materials to anticipate potential safety hazards. DeGrazia required construction workers at Peacock Junior High School to carry long lengths of pipe only when students were not changing classes, and to carry the front end pointed down toward the floor.

  • Barricade work areas

    Use markers that are obvious to student traffic, such as trash cans. When work areas are near a blind corner, the barricade should start around the corner so all are aware of it before they turn the corner. When work areas are barricaded, allow space for adequate exits from both sides of the partitions.

  • Watch out for stored materials

    Caution construction workers, who must frequently store materials in hallways where they work, to not store materials by blind corners. Do not allow them to store materials up high (on scaffolding) where they could be shaken and knocked down.

  • Check emergency exits for safe passage daily

    As work areas change, temporary emergency exits will have to be established to keep children from having to exit through a construction area. Work with your architect and your local fire marshals to ensure their understanding of the construction site and update them on construction activities, should there be a future problem.

  • Conduct fire drills regularly

    This should be standard practice throughout the year, not just during construction times.

  • Involve your local board of health

    Invite the board to “spot check” the school building during construction with a write-up and recommended improvements to minimize complaints.

  • Develop a plan for staff and contractor parking

    Staff cars should be in a secure area away from construction debris and nails. At school closing time, an administrator may need to actively direct the combined parent, student and bus traffic.

  • Talk to your students' parents early and often

    While not a physical risk per se, you will be well served to consider the mental well-being of your school community. Before the ground is broken, get out the word about the positive changes that will come at the end of the project and the use of tax dollars in the immediate community. Take advantage of school newsletters and parent meetings. Contact your district's public relations/public information official who may be able to help. Regular information helps offset impatience and frustration. Get the PTO or PTA involved in the project's planning, and keep them involved throughout construction.

  • Be a tour guide

    Take parents who are very involved in school activities on tours of the project during its different stages. You will need to be their “eyes” in seeing how the school will soon look. Both DeGrazia and Cook found it helpful to maintain their schools as “open schools” throughout the construction phase, encouraging parents to drop in anytime for a tour or to raise a concern. Consider sending home regularly to parents a calendar of construction activities to update them on what activities (demolition, finishing up interiors, etc.) will be happening at what time.

    Supervising school construction is never easy, but the rewards are invaluable. If you follow some of these steps you will hopefully have a happy ending to your next school construction adventure.

Marshall, AIA, is principal of GreenAssociates, an educational architecture firm based in Evanston, Ill.



Ideal time to start a school project so the majority of construction will take place when school is not in session.


As work areas change, make sure all are informed of safe passage out of the building.


Make yourself available throughout construction to let parents and the community know what is going on.


Make sure work areas are obvious and properly closed off to curious onlookers.

Sponsored Recommendations

Latest from mag