All Systems Go

We live in interesting times. On one hand, we control much of our lives with a few computer keystrokes, yet things as primordial as fire, wind and water still cause major headaches.“Safety first” has grown from a cute slogan to serious business and LEED(s) is more than just a city in England. The fingers of these“interesting times” reach down deep into our lives, wrapping themselves into the core of our structures. What does today’s construction climate mean for your buildings’ systems?

That Sucking Sound

One of the biggest issues facing basic building systems is the price and availability of materials. In a normal year, the cost for materials inflates between three and five percent. Last year saw a 10 percent jump in the price of such basics as cement and steel. Why? Two reasons, according to John D. Keegan, PE, vice president and senior development manager for Gilbane Development Co. “China’s rapid growth has created an enormous demand for cement,” he says. “And a devastating fire in an important West Virginia coke plant impacted the domestic steel market tremendously.”

Just as prices were starting to moderate, the country was hit with Katrina and Rita. “We haven’t seen shortages yet,” says Keegan, “but there is obviously going to be a diversion of materials like lumber, cement and drywall. That is sure to bring prices up.”

But just how high prices will reach and for how long remains a tantalizing mystery. “Will the cost of materials spike then drop and level off or steadily climb? I don’t know,” answers Brian Deichman, AIA, McMillan Smith & Partners, architects in Spartanburg, S.C. “I do know that it will be harder to find materials, which mean jobs will take longer and cost more.”

But don’t start hoarding goods yet. “If you have a project at the precipice, teed up and ready to go, it may make sense to buy all the materials like metal studs, bricks and shingles now instead of in phases,” says Keegan. “But don’t do anything hasty. It could be like purchasing two suits because they are on sale and then retiring to Hawaii, never to tie a tie again.”

Surprisingly, current availability and prices don’t seem to influence material choices. These are still determined by location, ease of use and historical standards. “You have to take a cue from you neighbors and then be practical from there,” explains Keegan. “If everything around the proposed building is brick, then brick should be in your facade. If all brick turns out to be prohibitive then blend it with efficient siding.”

As far as the interior goes, steel studs seem to have gained acceptance, as much of the workforce now feels comfortable with the product. “That learning curve has peaked,” explains Ed Broderick, vice president of Operations, Gilbane Development Co. “Steel studs offer the advantage of a truer product with less shrinkage than wood.” Yet again, Broderick points out that geography plays a role. “In the South, wood studs still predominate.”

Greening Up

Another big trend influencing building systems is the green movement, as embodied in LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). This is a voluntary, consensus-based national standard for developing high-performance, sustainable buildings according to the U.S. Green Building Council. “Energy conservation and LEED will influence everything from exterior wall design to material choices to the R values of walls,” says Broderick.

Deichman agrees. “Sustainability will be an enormous issue,” he says. “There isn’t a major university putting out a RFP today that doesn’t want the building to be LEED certified at least.”

Keeping Control

One way schools can meet LEED guidelines and save operating dollars is in automating services like HVAC, lighting and security. “Open protocol control systems allow users to optimize energy costs while maximizing maintenance staff efficiency,” explains Mark Rehwald, senior marketing manager for Seimens Building Technologies, Inc. For instance, by using an open protocol product, an entire campus can be linked to one central computer and monitored and controlled via the Internet.

How is this beneficial? One central managing point allows tighter control of a building’s energy use. Rooms can be programmed to optimal cooling and heating temperatures. Data can be analyzed to find underperforming structures. And if there is a problem that needs attention, a centralized maintenance staff could be sent out as needed. “This allows a school to refocus resources on education instead of maintenance,” reports Rehwald.

What works for HVAC also works for lighting. Using the same principle, an integrated lighting system promises to save operating dollars as well. “Lighting traditionally eats 30 to 45 percent of a school’s energy budget. That’s what we call ‘low-hanging fruit,’” says Mike Fisher, executive vice president for Easylite. “An open protocol system allows colleges to efficiently control their lighting while still meeting IES foot candle minimums.

“That minimum is 45 foot candles shining on each student’s desk,” explains Fisher. “On a sunny day, that reading may be 120 to 200 foot candles, so lights can be dimmed considerably.” But Fisher warns to never turn them off completely as studies have shown that the psychological effect of an unlit room, no matter how bright, is not conducive to learning. “Dimming them reduces energy consumption by 80 to 85 percent and still promotes a productive atmosphere,” he says.

Security systems may also be hardwired through the structure this way. “Security is one of the most important concerns impacting building design today, and that goes double for schools,” says Deichman. “Camera systems, card swipes and other active safety systems are going into schools along with the more passive design points like conscientious landscaping and a lack of dead corners.”

Raise the Roof

While technology and terrorist events cause swift action in some areas, other building systems remain unhurried to change. Roofs represent this perfectly. These proverbial tortoises remain the same — slow, steady and winning the race. If there is any shift in current it remains with the buyer, now more willing to embrace up-front costs for long-term benefits. “Facility managers have become more sophisticated and more willing to pay today for better quality tomorrow,” reports Rick Schlesselman, roof services manager for Septagon Construction.

Drop Down, Plug In, Go Learn

If building a new structure from scratch sounds too taxing and portables too depressing, a third option may be right. Suppliers now offer classrooms, systems and all, delivered right to your school’s doorstep. “They are 60 percent faster than conventional construction, the exterior can be designed to match your existing campus and they come complete — right down to the clock on the wall,” says Fibrebond Corporation’s vice president of Sales and Marketing Bill Specht.