Facilities (Learning Spaces)

Deciding What Building Materials to Specify

Building Materials


Building a new school is a lengthy, multi-layered process, requiring input from and strong communication among team members. To believe less is to be naïve, and school administrators are anything but naïve. One portion of the process includes determining what materials to use, and why. Here are some guidelines to help you through the decisionmaking, ensuring you choose the best products, resulting in a beautiful, effective facility lasting well beyond its projected years.

What Is the Process Structure?

It would be nice to be able to say, “Here are the steps to follow to choose the right materials for your next construction project.” Unfortunately, it isn’t always that easy, because there are different types of projects.

In some cases, the project architect provides school administrators with material options, and they make the selection. In other cases, there is a collaborative environment where the entire project management team is involved, including the architect, engineers, construction manager, materials suppliers, interior designers and school administrators. “This happens often, and especially on our big projects, such as New Haven, Conn. schools and Rochester, N.Y. schools,” says Susan Hentschel Tully, senior project manager and K-12 Center of Excellence/Market Leader for Gilbane Building Company, Philadelphia.

In both of these situations, materials decisions are made during design. Administrators can often expect three options to be presented: one with a low up-front cost, one with a longer-term life expectancy and lower maintenance cost, and one in between.

And then there are large school districts that have a set of building standards in which materials are determined in the master planning stage for the entire district before thoughts are put into place about how each individual school will look. “That’s done well in advance of the design of any schools,” says Tully. “When this is the case, there really is only one predetermined option, with choices given to finishes, colors or patterns, which are determined during design.”

Building Materials


New School. Children observe the construction of their new school. But before ground could be broken, someone had to decide what materials were going to be used to build the facility. Making those types of decisions requires a team effort — in most cases a large team. In the case of the Billerica Memorial High School, in Massachusetts, that team included staff from Perkins+Will, the superintendent, principal, facility director, building committee, owner product manager (OPM) and construction manager (CM). On many projects it is also wise to include a group of students and staff.

One benefit of design standards is eliminating issues with replacement parts being able to be purchased in the future. Another is maintenance consistency. A third is time savings during the design process.

Who Is Involved in the Process?

Knowing what materials to use requires a team effort — a large team, in fact, because there are different areas of expertise that have to be addressed. Each team member is vital to ensuring the right products are chosen.

“We involved everyone early on,” says Brooke Trivas, principal and K-12 practice leader at Perkins+Will’s Boston office, referencing the new Billerica Memorial High School (BMHS) in Massachusetts (that officially broke ground on March 27.) “This included the team from our office, the superintendent, principal, facility director, building committee, owner product manager (OPM) and construction manager (CM).” She also notes that, on some projects, they invite a group of students and key staff to look at the building design and color palette to gain buy-in from the school users. The 324,000-square-foot BMHS, accommodating grades 8-12, is estimated to be complete in 2020, with a $124,000 construction cost.

Each of the team members brings a different area of expertise to the decision-making process. For instance, the superintendent brings expertise of budget and goals: he wants to choose products that ensure the project stays on budget and fulfills its goals. In the case of Billerica, the design goals were to honor the past and aim for the future, because the community has a deep history, and they want to look at both their history and their future. The facility director brings expertise of preventive and restorative maintenance. He wants to choose reliable products that his staff is able to maintain in terms of training, budget and time.

Continuing the example, Ryan Lynch, project executive for Shawmut Design & Construction’s Boston office, notes that, “The construction manager’s role is to work collaboratively with the design team and owner to ensure that the products selected are appropriate for the project. This appropriateness is determined by multiple factors, including cost, durability, product availability/manufacturer stability and sustainability.”

Building Materials


And, yes, the team even includes supplier expertise. Not all suppliers offer the exact same product; often there are subtle differences that can have a huge impact on whether a product is right for a project. For example, Terry Westerman, vice president of Marketing for ClarkDietrich Building Systems, Inc., West Chester, Ohio, which offers a comprehensive lineup of steel construction products and services, works closely with architects and specifiers to ensure performance matches products and systems. This can be fire rating, sound ratings or limiting heights. “Included is providing information regarding sustainability and any assistance in achieving LEED points,” he adds.

The best way for the team to work together is collaboratively. “The owners should be very open and honest about what the budget is and what’s important in terms of material selection,” says Tully. “When selecting materials, they must be able to prioritize what they want and what concessions they’re willing to make so the team has a starting point to make recommendations based on the budget. Then the owners can set the standards with the construction manager, architect and materials supplier to work together to establish values for different options.”

How to Decide What Materials to Use

According to Trivas, a large part of deciding what materials to use is based on a process that prioritizes materials values, understanding that each project, and even different parts of an overall project, may have different priorities. There are six major considerations.

1. One consideration is the material’s durability. For example, upholstery is graded according to Wyzenbeek rubs: light use is 6,000 to 9,000 double rubs, medium use is 9,000 to 15,000 double rubs and heavy use is 15,000+ double rubs.

2. Another consideration is budget, including product and installation cost. “When considering initial costs,” says Lynch, “products that are not custom and are commonly installed benefit from a labor force that is familiar with the installation and has developed an efficiency in the installation phases — these efficiencies directly impact the bidding subcontractor market in a positive direction.”

3. Lifecycle cost is more important for some administrators than others. “It’s a reoccurring cost through the life of a project,” says Trivas. “It’s important to understand that a product may cost a bit more upfront, but may cost less to maintain through the duration of the installation.”

4. Sustainability is another consideration. This is the impact on the environment to produce the product and the product’s impact on building users, such as whether the product off-gasses. “LEED v4 has a Health Product Declaration (HPD),” says Trivas, “which reports the material contents of building products and the health effects associated with the materials. This is important because LEED’s V4 material resource credit has to show the HPDs, and the industry has not yet caught up to these requirements.”

5. Ease of the repair and replacement of the material by the maintenance personnel is the fifth consideration. This answers the question, How complicated is the product to repair and/or replace? For example, in choosing carpet tiles, individual tiles are more easily replaced than is an entire room of broadloom carpet.

6. Finally, there’s aesthetics. “We say we’re designing experiences, not just facilities,” Trivas explains, “so materials selection completes a story.”

Building Maerials


Lynch hammers home the importance of the decision-making process: “Schools are designed to a standard that provides decades of service — each product selected must be able to achieve this goal as well.”

Getting Real About Material Selection

Before you hit information overload, there are just a few more things to know about choosing the right materials for your next school construction project.

1. Think about what’s behind the wall. “Understanding performance criteria and specialty applications, like how video monitors and other heavy objects are being mounted and supported, are important to performance and ongoing maintenance of the structure,” Westerman says.

2. Manufacturers who are members of strong industry associations are a solid bet for ensuring high-quality materials. The Steel Framing Industry Association (SFIA) (sfia.memberclicks.net), Falls Church, Va., the largest organization for cold-formed steel, is one example. “With a third party testing program in place, the SFIA members offer a consistent level of quality and peace of mind,” says Westerman.

3. Ask to see product samples before making a decision. “There are different thicknesses of rubber tile and a considerable cost difference in the thicknesses,” says Trivas. “This is a perfect example of how you have to see a product to really understand the differences and know how it will wear in your project.” 4. Be open to new ideas. “Don’t rely on what’s familiar and what you did the last time,” says Trivas, “because it may no longer be the best option and the most cost-effective current option. Listen to the team to understand what new products are available and how they may be better than the old.”

5. If you’re on board with lifecycle costs over first costs, be prepared to bring the rest of the administrative team on board. “The best argument is the return on investment,” says Tully, “supported by examples. Vinyl composite tile (VCT) is one example. It has a low upfront cost, but is easily damaged and has to be replaced, and it has to be waxed regularly. Terrazzo, on the other hand, costs more upfront, but it does not have to be replaced often, and it requires less maintenance.”

Armed with this material decision-making knowledge, you’re well on your way to making effective material choices for your new school — decisions about which you can rest assured.


Brooke Trivas, principal and K-12 practice leader at Perkins+Will’s Boston office, indicates three dangers to avoid in the materials selection process.

1. Lack of longevity: “It’s important to prioritize the budget in terms of high-traffic areas,” says Trivas, “being careful to understand the longevity of the products you choose for the location in which they’re used. For example, drywall does not have longevity when used in a corridor.”

2. Long lead times: Some materials have a long lead time, such as those coming from Europe. This can be detrimental when you’re working on a tight timeline. “Not only might it make initial installation difficult,” Trivas says, “but it may also make replacement difficult.”

3. Choosing unhealthy products: “I hope all administrators are careful to not use materials unhealthy to the environment, to the people producing them and to building occupants,” says Trivas. “Choose products that are healthy, pure and honest.” Perkins+Will has on its website an open source precautionary list of materials harmful to humans, animals and the environment. It includes suggested alternatives.

This article originally appeared in the issue of .

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