On the Right Track

Aging school buildings are a major challenge not just for educators and administrators, but also for the community as a whole. Fortunately, governments at all levels are showing a healthy respect for maintenance issues, not only recognizing the problem but also-something that has not always been the case-budgeting sufficient funds to begin the process of renovation.

While every renovation program is unique, some simple "dos and don'ts" can go a long way toward making the process smoother and less painful, and eliminate unnecessary friction and delay:

*Seek an early consensus on what the community needs. The program of requirements for the renovation program should be, in effect, the charter for everything that follows. It is essentially a shopping list that establishes the overall scope of the work to be done, both in the short-term and for as much as 10 or more years into the future.

It is important to make every effort to achieve a clear consensus on what items belong in the program. For instance, have the building committee tour the buildings. Interview not only custodians and maintenance workers, but also parents, students, teachers and all affected segments of the community. Keep the local press well-informed, as well as local legislators and regulatory agencies. Taxpayers do not like unpleasant surprises; therefore, making the process as inclusive as possible from project inception is one way to help ensure broad support as the program moves forward.

*Use the architect/engineer (A/E) as a resource. The A/E can help refine and complete the scope of the rehabilitation before developing a final budget. Obviously, the program has to be defined in general terms even before the A/E is brought on board, since he or she will need a program of requirements in order to prepare a realistic fee proposal. Once a thorough inspection is underway, it is probable that additional requirements will be discovered. Upon completion of the inspection, develop a full scope of work before developing a final budget.

This also is the time to consider both long- and short-term needs of the community, based on demographics, anticipated economic and population changes, changing technology needs (computer labs, multimedia centers, etc.), changes in teaching methods, and any specific needs unique to individual schools or the district.

*Establish clear priorities before work begins. This can be more complicated than it sounds. The A/E can suggest the technical priorities, such as which repairs are most urgent or what sequence of renovation projects is most practical. But many priority questions-life-safety issues aside-must be set by consensus.

For example, suppose the community has a beloved old school building-which is 70 years old and in need of major repair-that it wants preserved. Do you make the costly repairs or build a new facility? In a case like this, the design team can analyze alternatives and give life-cycle costs of renovating vs. building new; but the numbers are only part of the story. The decision needs to be made in a public forum after a full, open discussion of the alternatives.

*Do not expect taxpayers to agree with all rehabilitation plans. Once rehabilitation plans are announced, taxpayers may suddenly develop a remarkable sense of thrift. It can be critical, therefore, to anticipate and address any concerns or resistance to plans.

The best tool for this purpose is a clear, understandable and supportable rationale that is clearly linked to the students' needs. If specific groups are being underserved, or test scores are not at acceptable levels, show how the rehabilitation program can have a positive effect in those areas. It is a good idea to point out that a good school system supports property values in the neighborhood and city.

*Consider various options for meeting ADA requirements. The ADA imposes many responsibilities on school systems. Some older schools have monumental entrance stairs that are non-accessible; or there is grade-level access, but no accessibility to the upper floors; or there is no elevator, and space for an elevator is nonexistent. Stall doors may be too small; or when the doors permit entry, privacy screens and small stalls preclude wheelchair access. Restrooms may not be located on every floor.

Often there are affordable alternatives to requirements that at first may appear to require extensive and costly alterations. For example, it may be more affordable, and more structurally and procedurally feasible to install a new toilet facility to accommodate handicapped users than to attempt to renovate existing facilities. In confined areas it may be more feasible to install a wheelchair lift rather than alter existing stairways or access routes to accommodate ramps.

*Establish and consistently use clearly defined communication channels. It is essential to have clear, unambiguous communication from the outset of any building project. Having too many parties and voices getting into the act is an almost sure-fire recipe for confusion, misunderstanding, cost overruns and missed deadlines.

This can be avoided if all parties understand that requests for work have to go through the district's representative, and through that person to the A/E's representative. Designate one person who will serve as the point of contact between the owner side and the A/E team, which should likewise be represented by a single contact individual.

*Identify long-lead items and plan accordingly. Long-lead items are those that must be ordered or otherwise committed long before they are needed. Common long-lead items are specialized fixtures such as doors, windows and millwork (custom architectural items such as cabinets, wardrobes, shelving), especially if these involve classical detailing, cornices and such. This is especially true when the rehabilitation includes restoration and rehabilitation of traditional or historic architectural detailing, such as door frames, metal ceilings, metal and plaster detailing, exterior terracotta and stonework.

Even more important is the availability of contractors who perform specialized types of construction and rehabilitation work. This means anticipating trends that may affect the cost and availability of products and specialized skills.

*Do not skimp on probes. Probes are an early expense, and often a troublesome step, but an essential one to determine the extent of deterioration. "Soft" areas-behind masonry, at flashings over windows and at parapets, beneath multiple layers of roofing material, and sometimes even below foundation walls-can call for extensive sampling and testing. Often, one dollar spent judiciously on probes can save $50 to $100 in change orders during construction.

This is important because things are not always as they appear. Windows that appear to need minor repairs may actually need replacement. Roofing, especially in older buildings, is a notorious weak point. Asbestos-containing materials may turn up in roof flashings, roofing materials and caulking, as well as in pipe insulation, paint and plaster. Water damage, which may appear only as surface discoloration or stains, often goes deep into the masonry wall.

The expense of probes is not normally part of the A/E fee, because typically this is an actual construction-trade function and done by contractors. The A/E should develop a bidding package for any needed probes, which specifies, with drawings where necessary, the extent of the work and the necessary interim repairs. This allows competitive bidding, which helps to limit the overall cost.

This is one area where new technologies are coming into play. A range of non-destructive testing technologies has evolved in recent years, including infrared thermography to determine the presence of moisture, deterioration and voids in a building facade; as well as ultrasonic-pulse-velocity, impact-echo and radar techniques that can determine underlying conditions without destroying the exterior material. These methods are increasingly more affordable and especially appropriate in cases where conventional probing is undesirable because stone, brick and terracotta materials are part of a sensitive or historic building fabric.

*Be alert to unexpected warning signs. In older buildings particularly, problems that seem superficial and easy to fix, such as spalling plaster or leaky brickwork, may point to a deeper underlying problem. A simple replacement of exterior roofing material may end up requiring repairs or replacement to the substrate, insulation, tapered fill or even deteriorated structural members. Caulking around windows may turn out to contain asbestos, which can trigger a costly abatement program.

The A/E consultant should discover these, but the consultant's scope of services must be defined broadly enough to accommodate detailed investigation.

*Do not be inflexible about construction staging. Often it is assumed that most construction can be done during "off" periods-weekends, nights, summer periods-but in many cases the increased labor and supervisory costs make this unrealistic. For this reason, staging of construction is essential for certain phases of most projects.

One important issue is swing space, i.e., available unoccupied areas to which students and/or faculty can be temporarily relocated while their own space is being worked on. For example, students and staff must be safely out of the way for asbestos and lead abatement, classroom remodels or roofing work that may generate noxious fumes.

Usually it is best to find space within the building, if possible. If modular classroom or office space must be leased, this should be budgeted beforehand. If an in-use classroom is needed for very short-term projects, it may be possible to schedule student fieldwork or overnight trips in coordination with the construction schedule.

By helping the contractor work more efficiently, an effective staging plan can be a significant factor in controlling construction costs. Likewise, continuous communication at each stage of the project helps all parties anticipate what is coming next. This lets students, staff and faculty members who are next in line to prepare adequately to vacate the space with the least possible disruption of work.

*Do not skimp on construction monitoring. The quality of construction often can suffer unless the A/E has a strong presence during the construction phase. Often, owners try to save on fees by limiting the services to checking of shop drawings and occasional field visits. On large projects, it is desirable to have a full-time resident architect or engineer on-site throughout construction for immediate resolution of problems as they arise.

Periodic visits to the site during construction allow the consultant to become fully familiar with the quality and quantity of the work being performed, and better able to assure that the work, when completed, will be in accordance with the contract documents. These observations also enable the architect to certify that the contractor's request for payment corresponds to the quantity and quality of the work performed.

*Schedule ample time for project review. Obviously, the schedule must allow a reasonable amount of time to accomplish each task. However, schedules commonly do not allow a realistic amount of time for review of the project as it goes through the planning and design process.

The constituencies concerned with the process also need sufficient time to absorb and respond to the many ideas and issues. Allow time for review by the school committee and governing authorities, and others, and for the incorporation of their ideas into the design documents.

*Require and demand follow-up on safety guidelines. Although much attention has been focused on lead and asbestos, these substances rarely pose a hazard as long as they are left undisturbed, and there are well-established procedures in place to govern their handling. More important but rarely commented on are such items as safe entrance and egress corridors to protect students, staff and public in continuous-occupancy projects. Dust partitions and impact-resistant partitions also are needed in situations where, for example, construction operations could pose a hazard.

Metzner, AIA, is architectural project coordinator, and Feifer, R.A., is chief architect for Gandhi Engineering, Architects & Engineers, New York City.

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