In an ideal world, all school construction would be performed during the summer recess, commencing the day after school closes and finishing well before Labor Day. In the real world, this is not always possible. Nevertheless, with proper planning and skillful execution, additions and renovations can successfully be managed during the school year.

A project involving an addition to, and renovation of, an existing school building is a good candidate for construction during the school year. Renovation work can be carefully phased to take advantage of the new addition as swing space for occupants of the existing building once the addition is certified for occupancy.

A project that solely involves the extensive renovation of an existing school building presents a bigger challenge, because so much of the work cannot be performed when the building is occupied. A renovation can be done during the school year, if necessary, but it virtually always requires building temporary classrooms and offices to act as swing space.

The overriding goal of any construction project adjacent to or in an occupied school building is assuring the safety of children, teachers, staff and visitors. Maintaining normal building access and emergency egress, school-related vehicular traffic and deliveries, and numerous environmental issues all pose challenges for the school administration and builder. Here is an overview of some of the key issues and strategies for success.

Preconstruction Planning Essential

It is always advantageous to involve the builder during design and planning. This allows owners to take advantage of cost- and time-saving expertise in estimating and trades contracting, and it is especially important when undertaking construction during the school year. Special provisions must be built into schedules, contracts and construction procedures to accommodate the building users. Well before construction begins, a site plan and schedule must be prepared and reviewed, first with the owner or owner’s representative and then with the trades. The site plan should show the existing facility; building additions and/or remodel areas; play areas; staging areas; temporary fencing and barricading; existing and temporary access and emergency egress provisions; traffic patterns for buses and vehicles used by staff, teachers and visitors; and construction traffic patterns. Nothing should be left to chance. This must be accompanied by a detailed schedule that includes provisions for phasing and any work that must be performed during nonschool hours.

For the sake of safety and efficiency, certain activities — tying new roof joists to an existing beam in an occupied space or tying into the existing mechanical or electrical system — should be scheduled when school is not in session. Options include early morning, late afternoon, evenings, weekends or holiday breaks. These must be planned and scheduled far in advance of the work.

Communication is key to the success of any project, especially in an occupied school. It is important to establish and maintain a communication chain of command, that is headed by a school-appointed person, usually the principal and the project superintendent. The project superintendent and the school principal must coordinate activities on a regular basis, daily, if necessary. The school principal is responsible for communications with staff, teachers, children, parents and visitors. The project superintendent is responsible for all communications with the trades.

Access and Egress

All too often, the work will get in the way of normal access to the existing building. Bus drop offs may need to be relocated, and doors that were regularly used to access playgrounds for recess might be blocked. More important, normal emergency egress routes may be blocked. A floor plan showing existing and temporary emergency egress routes and doors must be developed and reviewed with local governing authorities.

For example, a building addition project may require building a temporary fire-rated corridor and possibly cutting an emergency egress door in the existing wall. In the case of multistory buildings, building a temporary fire-rated stairwell and door may be needed. Emergency egress paths through work areas should be avoided. But in instances when they are impossible to avoid, pathways must be barricaded, or enclosed, if necessary, to assure safety. Once an egress plan is approved, it must be reviewed with the school and trade contractors. Fire drills need to be run so that teachers and children know their new routes and are comfortable with them.

Schooling Kids in Safety

Ideally, the builder will run a safety program for children explaining construction hazards and the need to avoid construction areas. Construction sites and equipment create an attractive nuisance that all but invites children to play when no one is there to supervise.

At the elementary level, a safety movie geared for kids, construction coloring books and safety poster contests have been successful strategies. The program should be modified for older children to offer more specific information about the hazards involved and to stress that entering a construction area is considered trespassing and is against the law. In any case, barricading and fencing must be well built, clearly marked and diligently maintained. Explaining what will be done to their building, and letting them know what to expect, will also make for a smoother project for all involved.

Educating the Trades

Concrete trucks and school buses do not mix. The builder should make the trades aware of school traffic times and locations, so material deliveries can be coordinated. Additionally, trades must be made aware that they are guests of the school and are expected to comply with“house rules.” These might include the banning of radios; a ban on smoking; requirements for proper attire, language and behavior; and avoidance of contact with staff, teachers and children.

Maintaining absolute separation between occupants and workers is all but impossible when working in an occupied school. For example, mechanical and electrical tie-ins will require limited contact. Staff and teachers should be made aware, in advance, of scheduled activities in occupied areas. The builder should establish proper protocols to be enforced by the project superintendent, such as signing in and out at the main office or wearing ID badges.

Protecting the Environment

Air movement, dust, odors, noise and moisture are among the environmental issues that must be addressed during construction. In many cases contractors are required, by law, to build one-hour-fire-rated partitions between work areas and occupied areas. A fire-rated partition not only protects the occupants from potential fire hazards, but will prevent the flow of most construction-related contaminants into occupied spaces.

On some projects, it may even be necessary to create negative air pressure in the work space. Modifications may be needed for the air handling systems in the occupied portion of the building. For instance, when outside work is particularly dusty or creates strong odors, temporary ductwork could be added to fresh air intake units to assure a supply of fresh air.

The potential for water intrusion caused by new openings for structural, mechanical and plumbing tie-ins must be avoided through proper planning and execution. Teachers and staff will need to know when roofs are cut or exposed for new equipment so they can protect or move their equipment if needed. Noisy activities near an occupied space must be coordinated with the school as well. It would be difficult to run an exam at the same time foundations are being removed just outside a classroom.

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs), lead, asbestos and molds present special challenges when building in or adjacent to an occupied school. Federal, state and local laws regulate handling of these materials. Some school districts may have their own stricter regulations. It is up to the builder to be aware of and comply with these regulations.

The unexpected discovery of hazardous materials must be carefully handled. Most will necessitate appropriate abatement procedures by qualified contractors. And the unexpected usually adds scheduling, cost and logistic challenges to the project. Communication and rumor control will be most important when the unexpected happens.

Administrators, teachers, staff, students, parents and the construction crews would prefer construction take place during summer vacation, but when that is not possible, by working together, these same people can plan and execute a successful expansion or renovation project.