Campus Safety

Budgeting for Safety: How to Build Storm Shelters that Fit Your School’s Needs

By Lee Osborne

As storm shelter codes adapt to worsening climate conditions, schools are left struggling to meet stringent, unfunded requirements on tight budgets. Every school has a unique set of obstacles and opportunities that require individualized consideration – there is no one-size-fits-all. Still, here are a few key areas to focus on as you consider the most affordable option for your school’s specific needs.

Location and Alternative Uses

Thinking strategically about storm shelter placement allows you to capitalize on every dollar. Each location comes with upsides and downsides, so discussing your school’s needs and options with an architect is one of the most important steps of the planning process.

Storm shelters must be within the building they serve or, if separate, no further than 1,000 feet from an exterior door. Most schools are opting to build multi-use storm shelters within other structures that allow them to get daily benefits from their investment. Gymnasiums, classrooms and locker rooms can all be equipped to serve as storm shelters in an emergency.

Classrooms are affordable options, but windows create additional openings that can complicate storm shelters. Schools that opt for classroom shelters can stormproof windows using hardened glazing, roll-down shutters or hinged shutters. Locker rooms come with the benefit of restrooms and running water, but the many nooks and small spaces make it difficult to monitor students during storms or drills. Despite their high ceilings, gyms are an excellent option for storm shelters since their simple interior allows schools to capitalize on more of the reinforced space.

Strategically selecting a location with its surroundings in mind can maximize performance and save money by combining the benefits of multiple spaces. For example, the use of a gymnasium with adjacent locker rooms and other utilities can save schools as much as 40% on the storm shelter premium over the typical building construction cost.

When picking a location for your shelter, consider its access to fresh air and an emergency power source. The increase in occupancy for use as a storm shelter will require increased fresh air. Natural ventilation is an option but requires protection from wind-blown debris, whereas ventilation fans running off an emergency power supply require minimal wall space.

LEAF Engineers, part of the PBK portfolio of companies, recommends battery-powered inverters as a simpler option for tornado shelters, while a more complex generator is better suited to hurricanes. Both emergency power sources must be housed within the shelter itself or in a separate structure also designed to withstand 250 mph windspeeds.

Working with designers to create an operations and management plan for supporting equipment is an integral part of selecting the best shelter location. Schools must regularly maintain and test energy sources long after the shelter has been installed, so discussing practical implications around maintenance and life cycle costs will set schools up for long-term success.

Storms can cause nearby buildings to collapse, making shelter placement an even more significant question. Note the shelter’s surroundings and be aware of tall buildings or trees nearby. Debris or fallen trees could put greater, unnecessary stress on your shelter during a storm. It’s essential to consider what structures a storm shelter is built next to and evaluate layover risk accordingly.

Size and Shape

Some schools are opting to build large storm shelters from the beginning, while others choose to focus on meeting code requirements.

The 2021 International Building Code (IBC) regulations stipulate that the occupancy of an ICC 500 rated storm shelter must be greater than the occupancy load of the largest indoor assembly space or the school’s classrooms, vocational rooms, and offices.

While the IBC lays out basic guidelines, size regulations may vary by district and state, so it’s important to know what is required of your school. For instance, the Texas Education Agency specifically requires storm shelters to fit 110% of the school’s maximum instructional capacity. PBK works with schools across the nation to help them develop a plan that best meets their needs and their region’s building codes.

When it comes to storm shelters, the simpler the better. A simple layout, such as a rectangle or square, reduces cost by allowing for standard modules. The more complicated a shape is, the more difficult it is for structural engineers to build stormproof structures.

Local Market and Materials

Every school is situated in a unique regional market that affects what options are available and which are best for their needs. It’s essential to understand the difference between materials such as insulating concrete foam, precast concrete and concrete masonry units—and which is the best offering for a specific market.

Local submarkets also play into design decisions through their unique talents and specialties. Evaluating the region’s experience, expertise and skills with specific tools and fields is a key part of the decision-making process.

As more schools work to fit storm shelters into their budgets, thorough research and planning can ensure they get the most benefit for every dollar. PBK makes it a practice to begin the design process with an executive level planning session where architects and school leadership can discuss the school’s specific needs. Working closely with architects to understand the implications of all your options – whether about location or size or materials – is the key to building a shelter that protects your students before, during and after storms.

Lee Osborne, AIA, LEED AP, is a Principal with PBK, a leading architecture and engineering design solutions firm.