New Network, No Interruptions

Technology is transforming K-12 education. Not long ago, schools concentrated their IT infrastructure in climate controlled, dimly lit “media centers.” Today, these institutions are multimedia networks unto themselves — with state-of-the-art telecom/data systems, interactive technology in every classroom and robust server and storage requirements.

Trouble is, while technology evolves at light speed, buildings don’t. Bringing school facilities in step with modern learning requires complex phased renovations, meticulously planned around academic calendars. Since educational continuity and safety are the chief concerns during these projects, IT functionality can be overlooked as a priority.

That’s too bad because maintaining IT performance during renovation projects is more than a matter of just moving wires and servers around. It’s an increasingly complex discipline that requires lockstep coordination with building design and construction. And mistakes — from service interruptions to unforeseen changes and fixes — are costly for school districts and debilitating for school operations.

School planners and administrators can prevent these problems by taking the time to understand the essentials of maintaining IT performance throughout renovation projects — teaming, strategy and execution. The following best practices are a good place to start.

Teaming: Hire an Architect With an In-House Network Designer.
Every project is unique, but from an IT network perspective just about all of them begin with the same questions:
  • Where are the IT equipment rooms? Will they remain in place, be relocated, be demolished?
  • Where do the communications service lines enter the building?
  • What type of wall and floor structures exist in the current building?
  • How can we reduce/eliminate downtime during construction?
The answers reverberate through every aspect of the project. For example, if a renovation calls for demolition of an existing IT equipment room, merely surveying and assembling existing conditions documents will require the services of the technology designer and structural, mechanical, plumbing/fire protection and electrical engineers.

Once a schematic plan is developed, the team might expand even further, possibly including hazardous material, acoustical, audiovisual, kitchen, theatrical and other specialties. That’s up to 12 disciplines, all impacted by the most recently developed specialty in the group — technology design.

Given this interdependency, school districts are best served hiring architects and engineers who have worked successfully with their technology designers in the past, or, better yet, have technology designers working with them in-house. Collaborative ability generally trumps individual expertise. A well-integrated team will find answers to project questions faster than those that have been pieced together, and they’ll ensure IT concerns are properly represented from day one.

Planning: IT Maintenance Is a Project Within a Project. Staff Accordingly.
You’ll be happy you chose an integrated architectural/IT design team because ensuring continuity through a major phased renovation is often impossible without constructing new, temporary IT infrastructure — things like temporary IT closets and telecommunication equipment rooms. These are design projects unto themselves, and should be staffed accordingly, with school administrators willing to work hand-in-hand with IT consultants and designers, just as they might work closely with their building architect.

The recent renovation of a Bedford (Mass.) High School offers a case in point. On this two-year phased project, network and telephone feeds to the school were adequate, but in order to maintain network service, the renovation called for the replacement of the existing telecommunication equipment rooms with a new main distribution frame and the construction of various new temporary rooms.

District administrators knew all-too-well that this approach involved risks. In earlier renovations, critical building wiring had been accidentally cut during demolition, and temporary IT construction had set off a chain reaction of small changes to the overall design plan that snowballed into major headaches.

To avoid these issues at Bedford High, the district began with an integrated teaming approach. Rather than seek out contracted IT consultants, they hired a prime architect whose platform combined technology design with architecture and engineering — Symmes Maini & McKee Associates (SMMA) of Cambridge. Next, they made sure the team was properly supported. District IT Manager Ken Lord worked in lockstep with the network design team to assess systems, walking the site and sometimes even wading into subterranean spaces below the building in order to clearly map every network nuance and arrange for the protection of key wiring during demolition and construction.

Like an owner’s project manager, Lord also got to know the school’s various communications service providers and their engineering personnel. These partnerships helped the district fully understand which services potentially interfered with construction, and where and when temporary services would need to be provided.

It was worth the time and effort. The district’s close oversight, combined with the integration of the building and network design team ensured accuracy in the architectural drawings; team-wide understanding and communication of vulnerable areas prevented accidental disconnection of key infrastructure; and Lord’s knowledge of the full engineering and communication service team meant any needed work was scheduled well in advance.
Execution: Be “Bi-lingual.” Learn the Language of Both IT and Construction.
Of course, even when well-planned, projects inevitably involve surprises and 11th-hour changes. This is especially true of phased renovations, where virtually every design alteration sparks a chain reaction. For instance, an architect may request to move a water fountain, which sounds simple at first. But that might mean the IT team needs to relocate a main distribution frame, which is a significant undertaking.

At a minimum, preventing these surprises from becoming problems requires school personnel to be present at meetings and kept abreast of every project change. But this communication is much more effective when they also understand the separate “languages” of IT and construction. Indeed, while it’s unrealistic to ask school administrators to learn every technical nuance, many districts underestimate the value of being able to interpret basic construction/design documents, design plans and IT schematics. That can be a costly mistake because when a change order or design adaptation gets lost in translation, the school will have to live a long time with the impact on network operation.

What’s the best approach for schools? Know your personnel. If a principal doesn’t have experience with renovation projects, their district is better served bringing in someone who does — someone willing to take the time to comb through change orders, go to every meeting and engage with both the architect and M/E/P staff and the IT team. An educated client is a network designer’s best ally. Their input and operational knowledge helps keep everyone focused on the big pig picture, and they offer another set of trained eyes to catch mistakes along the way.

Patrick Weygint is a Technology Designer at Symmes Maini & McKee Associates/SMMA, an integrated architecture, engineering, planning and interior design firm in Cambridge, Mass., and Providence, R.I. Prior to joining SMMA in 2000, he was with the Center for Advanced Educational Services at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.