Taking Stock

Aug. 1, 2001
School and university officials should take steps to make sure their buildings are in synch with their environment.

The principles of acoustics, thermal comfort and laws of building physics have not changed significantly in the last 300 years. Together with weather, climate and gravity, they continue to cause the same costly facility problems.

Laws affecting school building safety have led to significant transformations.

Every building design begins with an assessment of some kind. For a new building, it might mean a site feasibility assessment. For an addition, a detailed assessment of the connecting buildings also is mandatory. For a renovation within an existing facility, a whole cluster of issues becomes important, not the least of which is the assessment of possible historical implications or even an evaluation of the necessary phasing of occupancy during construction. In the case of a university or a public school system, facility assessment may contain all of the above and then some.

Between 1985 and 1998, Yale University in New Haven, Conn., undertook the repair and historical preservation of no less than 30 buildings. Planners anticipate 15 more projects in the next few years.

The various buildings at Yale have straddled four different centuries. A 1989 assessment found that the 11 million square feet of space owned by Yale was crumbling. It took five years for the university to fully assess and understand the scope of the problem and then link the planning process with the necessary finances. At a recent conference at Yale, university provost Alison Fettes Richard explained school officials needed to “see the campus through new eyes.”

The crumbling state of affairs has now been halted. What Richard calls the “line item for maintenance and financial equilibrium” at Yale is an annual capital maintenance budget for buildings of $50 million.


The principles of acoustics, thermal comfort and laws of building physics have not changed significantly in the last 300 years. Together with weather, climate and gravity, they continue to cause the same costly facility problems.

Frost causes porous surfaces saturated with water to freeze, expand and crack. Wind causes erosion, movement and pressure changes in buildings. Solar radiation causes the deterioration of sealants and paints, the fading of fabrics and thermal movement in roofs. The normal seasonal fluctuations in temperature can cause changes in the length and volume of adjacent building materials. The water that accompanies seasonal change can transport chemical and biological substances from place to place on a building. Metals corrode, glass becomes stained and efflorescence crystallizes on brick. Various kinds of biological agents also act on buildings, not the least of which are termites, mold and various types of rot.

Laws affecting school building safety have led to significant transformations. We have halted the use of asbestos and lead paint. We have stopped demolishing valuable historic buildings. Schools now must accommodate usage by people of all ages and physical abilities. A better understanding of fire performance and a long-overdue increased use of sprinklers has reduced fire deaths in buildings. Between 1977 and 1997, civilian deaths by fire in the United States were reduced by an amazing 45 percent.

The standard renovation of an educational facility requires examination of several issues: the cost of preserving or replacing historic windows; installing ADA-compliant ramps, mechanical stair-climbers or elevators; meeting or exceeding fire regulations; retrofitting to meet updated seismic standards; and increasing energy conservation. An institution considers itself fortunate when a building's mechanical equipment is still in use after 30 or even 40 years. The mechanical systems of a new building easily can consume 40 percent of the building budget.

A projected enrollment increase frequently causes a school facility assessment. Square-footage requirements and faculty-to-student ratios guarantee a minimal standard. They are necessary but rarely sufficient. Somewhere in the equation, quantities must be considered in the larger context of quality. Rooms can have more than one intended use. Others must change their use with time. High ceilings and abundant daylight can render a room with a small square footage more than adequate. A warm, colorful and responsive classroom space can relax both students and teachers.


In 1998, the American Institute of Architects Committee on Architecture for Education (AIA-CAE) held a meeting entitled “Lessons Learned for All Schools.” Daniel L. Duke, director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for Educational Design, defined the ultimate school-assessment characteristic: “A good learning environment is one that reflects a clear understanding of how people learn.” What if our methods of learning change?

For the last two decades, educators have been trying to gauge the value of a new tool that has been inserted into the learning process: the computer. According to EDUCAUSE, between 1997 and 1998 the academic computing budgets of public universities increased almost 65 percent.

To accommodate computers, classroom wiring has been upgraded, lighting has been dimmed, student desks have widened and teaching podiums have been transformed. Technology has renewed school libraries. With distance learning, the number of students who use a classroom can be increased dramatically. Some believe it will cause classrooms to become obsolete. Technology enhancement must now be part of every educational facility assessment.


Another set of problems is entirely health-related. For example, the prevalence of asthma in our school children has become a subject of concern for educators. U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher has noted that between 1980 and 1994, the percentage of Americans with asthma increased 75 percent, and the percentage of preschool-age children with asthma increased 160 percent. Asthma has been blamed for more than 10 million missed school days. The unsolved question: Are school buildings themselves contributing to the problem?

Sick-building syndrome also has become an issue in nations such as England. The British have led the way in formulating strategies to assess and ameliorate environmental concerns in buildings. The Building Research Establishment (BRE) devised an environmental assessment methodology in the early 1990s. The BRE established the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Methodology (BREEAM). The program concentrated on existing buildings and focused on specific building types such as schools. BREEAM established a benchmark evaluation system, giving credits to a building that took specific steps toward being environmentally friendly.

Typical components of a BREEAM assessment include issues related to controlling carbon-dioxide emissions and ozone depletion. Water quality and conservation, site ecology, and the environmental impact of construction procedures and construction materials all have point values in the rating system. Performance characteristics such as acoustics, lighting and air quality also contribute points. School buildings were among the first BREEAM building types to be assessed environmentally. They remain a key element of the BREEAM program.

As the BREEAM system proceeded from building type to building type in Great Britain, it also migrated to other countries, such as South Africa, Norway, Hong Kong and Canada. In the United States, a BREEAM-inspired effort by the U.S. Green Building Council called Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) has chosen to emphasize new building design rather than assessment of existing facilities.

Even in cultures less advanced technologically, facility maintenance can be low-cost, environmentally sound, and almost immediate. In the Ivory Coast, the mud and thatch houses in a village called Fakah spanned the same 300 to 400 years that the buildings at Yale do. Unlike Yale's stone, the mud and thatch were constantly deteriorating, but they were replenished regularly by their occupants.

How the houses have been used over the 300 years has not changed significantly. The appearance is nearly constant while the materials, mud and thatch, are in flux. The material construction cost is zero. These mud huts and the historic stone Yale buildings share a common bond — the people who use them choose to care for them. In Fakah, the buildings are always in synch with the natural environment. It is an old lesson and the ultimate key to effective facility assessment.

Rush, AIA, is an architect with The Office of Michael Rosenfeld, Inc., West Acton, Mass.

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