Conduct successful phased updates of K-12 schools

Written by Doug Everhart, Chris Greer, and Carl Holden

Renovating an active, well-utilized, and sometimes beloved building can be one of the most challenging and rewarding endeavors. For K-12 public school districts with older but cherished buildings, retrofitting rather than new construction is often the best solution.

Often, a retrofit project requires that the building remain occupied and active during construction. This typically requires a phased approach to renovation, which introduces unique considerations that must be carefully planned, incorporated into the design, coordinated and sequenced. There are concurrent layers at work including ongoing space programming and scheduling, staff and classroom transportation, building infrastructure interconnections, construction timelines, and of course budgeting.

Planning stage

Given the complexity of a phased school retrofit, more planning is needed than new construction or even a non-phased summer renovation. For school building operators and managers, the initial question is what will be updated? The answer is often a combination of competing priorities of space needs, technology needs, and infrastructure needs.

The list of desired improvements can quickly become extensive and exhausting. To help answer this question, pre-design master planning is an important addition to the typical design process. This allows the district, construction manager, and architectural and engineering design teams to collaborate on a conceptual plan to define key goals.

This initial step leads to another related question – where do we draw the line? Often, the extent of the improvements required conflicts with the available budget. One approach is to define a gradation of renovation levels for areas of the building such as heavy, medium and light. Often times, a K-12 building that needs updating is a combination of multiple buildings built over multiple eras. Some building systems and spaces may be adequate or require less effort to update. They can be classified based on scale (both in terms of cost and effort). Other areas may have outlived their useful life and require complete renovation and are classified as heavy on grading. This can be a useful technique to keep major planning focused on aligning project scope with budget. It is important to note that these levels of required renovation may not be compatible with all construction trades and specialties.

While an area may be identified as needing minimal space planning changes and therefore classified as low on architectural scale, the infrastructure may require complete replacement and may force a greater renovation of the architectural systems to accommodate the replacement. This nuance can be identified and addressed by overlaying major floor plans (architectural and building systems for example). This exercise will highlight areas where the estimation team should consider adding additional scope.

Renovation projects require sanitary contingencies to account for unforeseen or existing conditions. For a school district that is modernizing an older, occupied school, there are additional considerations that must be made as it continues to maintain occupied portions of the building that are not undergoing full renovations.

An experienced technical team will plan to address unexpected items that will be of added value to the area. This may include smaller, failed components of larger systems that are generally in acceptable condition. Determining the best approach to achieve this requires coordination between the design and construction team and the owner. This may include increasing owner contingencies, allowances for system repairs, unit pricing, or including in-depth testing during the pre-construction phase to verify scope.

A key element of proper infrastructure phasing is to incorporate major changes to the system infrastructure in the early stages of the project at times when occupancy is low. A successful master planning phase with this collaboration in mind paves the way for a smoother design and construction process.

Design stage

Even with the complexities of a phased retrofit, the design provides an exciting opportunity to raise student performance, increase school pride, and make health and safety improvements. Often times, upgrades are such an improvement to the existing situation that any sacrifices made are worth the effort. Incorporating this level of investment into an existing building or campus through design is a highlight for project teams who are committed to the vision of a phased retrofit project.

Case Study: Lawrence Public Schools $497 – Lawrence High School

Originally built in 1954, Lawrence High School in Lawrence, Kansas is a great example of how thoughtful, phased modernization can make a real impact on students, faculty, and the greater community.

Led by a team that included Henderson Architects, the modernization and additions to the historic building consisted of seven phases of construction over three years during the school’s occupation. The renovations addressed equitable classroom sizing, expanding shared learning, expanding mobility corridors while providing secure entrances, increasing campus-wide security, and modernizing learning spaces and building systems that have been in place for 30 to 60 years.

The new “Innovation Corridor,” featuring classrooms focused on STEM curricula) and project-based learning on display featuring photography, ceramics and digital media art, includes large glass windows that look outside. To new outdoor learning arenas. Modern network cabling/Wi-Fi and overhead power infrastructure routing are carefully planned to allow space and program flexibility. The Beaux Arts renovation included house and stage lighting upgrades for the auditorium and stage. Band and orchestra rooms, video production facilities, and music and rehearsal spaces received enhanced audio and visual upgrades. Sports spaces including gyms and locker rooms received modern HVAC, lighting and plumbing upgrades. A shared learning commons, learning staircase and open media center are projected off the main entrance, creating a gathering space for large events and showcasing beautiful daylit spaces using fully programmable lighting controls to harvest daylight.

After years of careful planning and construction, Lawrence High School can comfortably serve future generations in a healthy, modern, high-performance and beautiful space.

Construction phase

Finally, the phased retrofit construction phase also requires unique considerations. The often long construction schedule over many years while the building remains occupied represents a resilience test for many stakeholders including students, faculty, and design and construction teams. A collaborative team spirit with a clear understanding of what defines success is crucial.

Post-pandemic construction trends have created challenges in escalating construction costs especially for MEPF building systems. In addition, the availability of equipment, infrastructure materials and procurement sourcing issues on an already tight construction schedule with little room for error required creative problem-solving expertise by the entire team. Early equipment packages in the early design stages are sometimes required to meet long schedules for equipment such as switchgear, transformers, and larger air handlers. A certain level of flexibility and adjustment may be required in either schedule, sourcing, or product solutions to ensure the project progresses toward successful completion.

Renovating an active K-12 school building is a complex and challenging task, but it can also be a rewarding one. By carefully planning and implementing a phased retrofit project, school districts can preserve the character of their buildings while also making them more functional, modern, and safe.

Doug Everhart, Chris Greer, and Carl Holden are K-12 education design experts at Henderson Engineers, a national building systems design firm. Everhart serves as Community Sector Operations Director, Greer as K-12 Practice Director, and Holden as Technical Director.

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