Alternative School Construction Methods

There is generally more than one way to do anything, and the same is true for school construction. While traditional construction has its place, other methods may be more practical and appropriate for different circumstances and needs. In addition, these alternative solutions are being designed to offer energy efficiency, durability and design flexibility at a competitive cost. More and more districts are opting to build new facilities or add on to the current ones using ICF (Insulated Concrete Forms), modular units or tilt-up concrete construction. On the following pages, we present three short articles that describe several of these alternatives, address their qualities and give examples of how they have been used to serve the needs of districts throughout the country.

Saving Money and Time in Kentucky 

Meeting the educational needs of today’s student is a prime objective for school boards across the United States. Record breaking enrollment and an increase in staff to meet the rising enrollment requires improved educational facilities. School districts in the United States spent more than $20 billion on construction projects completed during the 2006 calendar year, including $12.3 billion on new schools, which accounts for 61.3 percent of that total. The percentage of dollars spent, as reported by Market Data Retrieval, was the highest since 1979. With this growing demand for new facilities throughout the US, so grows the demand to build these facilities with sustainable materials. 

One state is leading the way when is comes to building more energy efficient schools. When Robert Rogers and Charles Rector of the Warren County (Ky.) school district set out to replace their aging school, they started looking for alternative, green products to build with — one of those being Insulated Concrete Forms (ICF). In late 2004, they sourced out and began working with a team from a manufacturer of ICF and were intrigued with its possibilities. With the support of Dale Brown, Warren County Schools superintendent, they began the lengthy process of determining the use of ICF with the highly energy-efficient design of the 77,000-sq.-ft. Alvaton Elementary School.

Since the Alvaton school was already using a variety of other highly energy efficient products such as a geothermal heat pump system; an innovative, highly energy-efficient (R-32) sandwich panel roofing material; and lighting and HVAC occupancy sensors.

The tremendous energy efficiency of ICF created their initial interest. Additional features that also seemed to make the project that much more viable included a reduced cost of construction, increased speed of construction, sound attenuation, disaster-resistant strength and a high resistance to mold growth.

With the initial interest being energy efficiency, the Kentucky school district began to see many more advantages it could offer to its students and faculty.

Once the decision had been made to pursue the use of ICF for the construction of Alvaton Elementary, Rector and Rogers enlisted the support of Sherman, Carter and Barnhart Architects. Initially they were understandably hesitant to support such a significant undertaking. The cost of designing with a new product could only be outweighed by the risk factors involved with being the first architects to design an Insulated Concrete Form school in the state of Kentucky. To help overcome the objection, a trip was arranged to visit a school in Arkansas that had been built using this technology. After viewing the surprisingly low monthly energy costs, and hearing of the construction speed, they left with a renewed respect for the product.

In December of 2005, Warren County School officials made history and become the first school board to build a school using ICF in the state of Kentucky. Although the project was delayed until May due to site preparation, by August the exterior walls were fully complete  — four months ahead of expectations. The sub trades were also highly supportive as they received unexpected advantages in the form of time and labor savings.
In August, 2006, the Alvaton School opened its doors. On Sept. 19th, 2007, Alvaton Elementary was awarded an ENERGY STAR award by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). Alvaton Elementary has ranked among the most energy-efficient schools in the United States. Even though energy savings drove this project, the outstanding occupant safety of the design used in this school is one of the biggest sources of pride. Kentucky now provides tours of its facilities to school boards across the United States. The state of Kentucky currently has other schools under construction using ICF, and that has caught the interest of neighboring states including Ohio and Tennessee.

Todd Blyth is a member of the marketing department for NUDURA Corporation, and can be reached at [email protected]

Modular Classroom Design Has Changed

With much needed economic stimulus funding making its way into local municipalities, many school districts are hoping to use these funds to repair, modernize or add capacity to their existing buildings.

Let’s face it, making due with less is a reality for school districts across the nation, but the demand for additional space remains constant. Getting more for their money with a modular classroom expansion is an attractive option.

For temporary space needs resulting from displacement during school repairs, quick-ship modular classrooms are readily available. Longer-term capacity needs can also be met with permanent modular classroom buildings that are budget-friendly and reduce construction time up to 40 percent, as compared to conventional construction.

Mark Wood, vice president for the South Region for ModSpace, a supplier of modular solutions, says his company has worked with thousands of schools over the last 40 years to design fast, affordable classrooms and campuses. “Each classroom project is designed with the learning environment in mind, using techniques such as increased natural lighting, improved temperature and ventilation control, integrated white boards and chalk boards, and flexible floor plan layouts.”

John Shepard, superintendent of Northridge School District in Ohio, says that he is impressed with the modular solution. “The ability to quickly turn around our modular building project before students returned to school allowed us to continue meeting the needs of our district,” he says, “this is the type of safe, clean learning environment that parents expect their children to enjoy every day of the year.”

Modular classrooms have changed over time, and they continue to work with school districts on new classroom applications. New innovative designs in modular might be just the answer for school districts trying to balance serving the needs of their community and maximizing stimulus funding.

Tilt-Up Gets Nod in School Construction Comparison

The construction of two new elementary schools, by the Leander Independent School District (LISD) in Texas, provides a valuable cost comparison of different building envelope skin materials.

According to Tim Cahalane, project director for American Constructors, Inc. of Austin, LISD unveiled a new academic design in 2007 for its elementary schools. Buildings are now to be designed around LISD’s learning model, which includes making extensive use of natural light in all common areas and improved flexibility, so teachers can easily shift between whole group and small instruction, or collaborate with other teachers. Further, the design uses small learning communities that eliminate the typical long hallways, as well as integration of classrooms with L-shaped configurations that have more corners for small group instruction. 
Building on these design themes, LISD selected two separate architect/construction manager teams for elementary schools #20 and #21. Both are 110,000-sq.-ft. in size and contain the same basic floor plan and educational programming, as well as mechanical/ electrical/plumbing (MEP) system. However, the teams were allowed the flexibility to select their structural and exterior skin system. The design/construction team for #20 selected a traditional block/brick and steel construction approach, while the team for #21, selected site-cast tilt-up construction. 

Cahalane says tilt-up concrete’s advantages include energy efficiency, low cost, faster construction, durability and flexibility, along with other significant sustainability contributions. Key elements include the use of a blend of inlay thin brick and natural concrete with coating colors offset by reveals for an attractive and consistent response to the environment. The design team used interior structural tilt-up components to further minimize masonry and steel, which resulted in cost and schedule savings. With fewer interior columns than other building methods, it enabled easier space configurations when “clustering” the classroom spaces around common areas, connecting spaces visually, providing gathering spaces and allowing classrooms to change with the activity and group size. The learning centers were offset at 45 degrees from the main building to maximize natural lighting and visual effect.

According to Gary Pickett, P.E., the structural engineer for the project, the combination of exterior and interior load-bearing tilt-up walls eliminated the need for exterior columns and minimized interior column requirements, which maximized the project architect’s flexibility to design interior spaces. Further, speed of construction was improved due to construction of the wall system at ground level, a reduction in the number and coordination of trades, the elimination of the need for scaffolding and the combination of structural and architectural elements.

“In addition to the structural design and speed of construction advantages, the exterior insulated tilt-up panels provide a superior building envelope,” Pickett says. “Water tightness is excellent due to a reduced reliance on joints, sealants, caulks, multiple components and elaborate details.

In addition to meeting functional and aesthetic goals, as well as a tight schedule, long-term cost efficiency was key. With regard to the budget, Cahalane states that, based on life-cycle costs, tilt-up enables the district to optimize energy performance, and the structures are easy to maintain. Construction began in October of 2007, and the owner met their target dates for moving in furniture and staff during the summer.  And, the occupancy permit was received in time for the Aug. 25, 2008 start of the school year.

Final costs are not yet available, but Cahalane states that he believes the project cost at least five percent less than the masonry project for the same configuration and floor plan including MEP and interior systems. Virtually all components are identical with the exception of the structural and exterior and interior walls, which are either tilt-up or masonry. According to Cahalane, the district views this as an opportunity to evaluate the two systems when considering future designs.

Jim Baty is the technical director for the Tilt-Up Concrete Association.