Managing Construction and Renovation While School Is in Session

As school buildings age and populations grow, the need for renovation and expansion of existing facilities becomes more and more prevalent. The resulting wave of demolition, construction, and related work presents a variety of physical dangers, as well as disruptions to the learning environment, which must be addressed both early and throughout the process. This is especially true when the work is occurring while school is in session, which presents an infinite amount of potential problems. When handling these notoriously complex construction projects, school administrators need to keep several things in mind.

Getting Organized

While other important construction-related issues are involved, we will focus our attention here largely on how owner’s representatives/project managers deal with the health, safety, and logistical hazards that inevitably come up during a school construction project — exactly those issues which school administrators need to make a priority to maintain good community relations.

Managing these concerns effectively requires cooperation and knowledgeable participation by the school district and the local school officials, the principal, project manager, architect/engineer, and contractor. The owner’s representative brings an objective evaluation of alternatives to decision-making based on the information provided by this team. He also is there to mediate and resolve conflicts swiftly, without prejudice to progress of work and the integrity of project design and construction.

The project manager can help the owner’s counsel in integrating terms of the business contracts with the various team members to avoid confusion of roles (but never playing lawyer). It is also important to ensure that final contracts haven’t eliminated, added, or changed important features, so that no party will be surprised and/or disappointed later.

Communications channels should be organized early to keep the community, parents, faculty, staff, and construction team, as well as the student body, appropriately informed about the nature and progress of the project, timetable, major steps, effects on the educational process, safety concerns, and how to handle inquiries and complaints. While the project manager will not be directly responsible for managing communications, his/her input is essential and will often make presentations to the various constituents.

Pre-construction Planning

Hazards — Health matters that must be addressed early include pollutants, toxic products, disturbance of toxic materials, dust and other contaminants, odors, mold, and noise. Safety concerns touch on traffic, fires, unattended tools and equipment, open trenches, and general isolation of construction areas from school activities. Provision of adequate ventilation everywhere and at all times is of great importance. Another consideration involves the separation of the construction workers from staff and students. Special arrangements need to be made to ensure that the corridors, stairs, and elevators are used at different times. Badge systems may be employed.

Site preparation — The construction contract must provide for site security, materials storage, traffic patterns, truck deliveries, barriers to separate construction areas from students, dust and contaminant shields, fencing of supplies and debris, noise controls, and debris removal. Prior to the start of work, qualified personnel should inspect the site for such contaminants as asbestos, lead-based paint, moldy building materials, and accumulated bird droppings, and remove them before they can be disturbed and pollute the environment. Overhead protection must be provided, as needed, against falling materials or tools. Gates must be locked at all times, unless attended.

Scheduling — If possible, construction and renovation activity that could adversely affect school operations should be conducted during the summer months or when students and staff are not there. Work that produces dust, noise, or odors, particularly, should be performed when school is not in session — before or after hours, and during holidays, weekends, or vacations. The nature of the construction may require that classes and other activities be moved around the building, thereby creating the need for temporary spaces or the actual relocation of some functions off-site. A useful technique is the designation or creation of swing spaces. The library, with its books and other easily damaged materials, may require special attention. The logistics of all this will require detailed advance planning.

Communication — Starting as early as possible and extending even beyond the completion of work, a program of regular communication with staff, parents, students, and the community should be organized. A small group of parents can be formed to serve as liaison with the PTA or other parent organizations. Assemblies can be planned to provide students and staff with progress reports and reminders of safety and other special procedural rules. A question box at the school, with answers given at the assemblies, could be useful. This can be managed so that the process provides a valuable learning experience for administrators, as well. A system should be created for handling complaints. A staff member can be given the job of receiving complaints, and parents, staff, and students should be told how to report problems. A process for investigating, recording, and responding to complaints should be established.

Emergencies — A list of defined emergencies should be prepared with a system of appropriate response for each, including notification of police, fire, hazardous materials specialists, health specialists, and others. Responsibility should be assigned to particular individuals. A detailed plan for immediate relocation of students and staff, if required, is a necessity. A flexible evacuation plan is needed that continually updates the effect of construction work on the safety and availability of building exits, evacuation routes, and meeting points, and keeps everyone informed. The possibility of accidental triggering of fire alarms increases during construction and plans must be made to deal with it.

The Custodial Staff — Extraordinary burdens will be placed on the custodial staff to ensure maintenance of proper barriers, control access, manage temporary storage, and take added safety and security precautions. And there will be major additional cleaning requirements. All this may call for a larger staff and/or longer hours, as well as extra equipment, for which plans must be made and a budget provided.

Special needs — Plans must also consider students and staff who have special health and mobility problems and may need to be relocated if they are sight- or hearing-impaired; are wheelchair users; or suffer from asthma, allergies, sensitivity to chemicals, or other physical or health deficiencies.

During Construction

Construction and renovation projects are so complex and dynamic that the hazards and problems change literally from day to day. Areas of responsibility and lines of authority must be defined to meet any contingencies and be flexible enough to adapt to new needs as they arise.

Environmental issues — Air quality is a concern under the best conditions, affecting not only health, but also sensitive equipment, particularly computers. The upheavals generated by construction and renovation aggravate the normal concerns and create a range of new ones. Sources of construction-related pollution include dust and debris, paints and other finishes: sealants and adhesives, roofing and flooring materials, fuel exhaust, welding fumes, asbestos and lead. Disturbance of the site also creates problems with bugs and other pests, accumulated bird droppings and animal wastes, as well as increased mold from dampness and standing water. New furnishings, carpeting, and building materials introduce a variety of chemicals, adding to the need for adequate ventilation. The ventilation system must be free of construction-related pollutants and should supply fresh, outside air continuously, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Careful daily cleaning of all surfaces becomes a necessity, and covering of equipment may become a part of daily routine.

Fire precautions — The construction process also calls for increased awareness of fire safety, especially because fire alarms and sprinkler systems may be temporarily immobilized and stairwells, corridors, and exits may be blocked. Daily inspections should address these potential problems, and regular fire drills should be held to keep students and staff apprised of changing conditions. No smoking should be allowed anywhere on the site, indoors or out.

Student safeguards — The construction site presents a variety of hazards for students, some of which stem from their own natural curiosity and interest. The work itself can be fascinating to watch and students must be warned against going beyond construction barriers or engaging in conversations with workers. One head of a school joking stated,“think like a 12-year old boy.“

Communication — Frequent meetings are desirable to keep everyone informed about what will be happening and the potential problems. Custodians must be in continual contact with the construction team to deal with access, temporary storage areas, barriers, and safety concerns. At the same time, it is critically important that unauthorized staff members not communicate with the contractor or workers. Planned communications with parents, students, and staff should be maintained, and augmented as special situations arise.

Delays — Construction delays are inevitable. Weather can’t be controlled; nor can a variety of other factors, including change orders, shipping and supply problems, disputes, and accidents. A contingency plan is required to make and coordinate the necessary adjustments.

Educational opportunities — During the course of the work, there are special opportunities to use aspects of the construction process as part of the learning experience. Teachers should be alert to processes or events that can be related to course work or be the subject of special projects. Representatives of the construction and design teams can be invited to address students on matters that will enhance their understanding of the various trades, the design process, use and functions of the equipment, and career opportunities in related fields. Photos or videos can be displayed to illustrate ongoing processes and events.


After the construction is completed and workmen and equipment are gone from the site, there’s still work to be done. A suitable period should be allowed for clearing the school of possible contamination by opening windows and running ventilation around the clock. A final inspection by a team of interested parties should be conducted before the affected areas are returned to normal use. While the contractor will have been given a“punch list” of final details to be finished off, it’s a good idea for teachers, other staff, and custodians to prepare lists of their own. Minor construction activity, then, can be reasonably expected for weeks after the “completion” date, and new equipment will require adjustments.

Don’t expect everyone to be delighted with the results, even if the project is generally considered a success. They will have had their own individual visions and expectations. Tastes vary, so opinions will differ on the changes in physical appearance. Teachers may not like their new classrooms, and facilities may not function exactly as planned. New equipment may not live up to what was anticipated or be delayed in delivery.

But people will adjust, and, if the team has done its job well, things will work out.

In the final analysis, new needs will soon arise and new opportunities will be envisioned so that, in fact, no building is ever really completed.

Kenneth D. Levien, AIA, is president of Levien & Company, Inc. He can be reached at [email protected]