Trends Prioritizing Efficiency Shape K-12 School Construction in Florida

By Daniel Abou-Jaoude 

Skanska’s Florida portfolio has expanded amid the global pandemic—a crisis that has induced an acceleration in K-12 construction throughout the state. On the one hand, districts are investing in the modernization of existing facilities to create safer environments for students and educators. And on the other, they are planning for new and converted facilities to accommodate the influx of people moving to the state and relocating within it. State economists in Florida have reported that almost 1,000 people are moving to Florida each day, which translates to a need for new, flexible, and safe educational spaces to accommodate this unprecedented population boom.

While interior design elements like classroom sizes, flexible spaces, collaborative environments and support amenities have not necessarily changed, school districts statewide are adjusting to new priorities and pushing to optimize current and new learning environments and the way they are delivered.

Combining School Campuses

A key trend is the need for combined elementary and middle school campuses, dubbed K-8 centers. The K-8 centers allow elementary and middle school students to share amenities, which enhance the educational experience for primary school children through the use of spaces available in middle schools such as media centers, gymnasiums and flexible spaces that facilitate both group and individual activities.

The trend of K-8 centers is supported by financial incentives in direct correlation to the funding districts receive. In Florida, school districts receive more in state funding for middle schoolers than they do for elementary school students, thus making the K-8 center model more desirable for ground-up projects and campus conversions.

Energy Efficiency and Eco-Friendly Buildings

There has also been a greater push for districts to embrace the sustainability ethos to deliver healthier and more comfortable learning environments that enhance the overall student experience while supporting earth-friendly initiatives.

In Hillsborough County, the energy management services program included energy metering solutions, new interior and exterior LED lighting systems and high-performance HVAC system upgrades. This district wide approach not only reduced energy costs (typically one of the largest aspects of a school district’s annual budget) but also contributed to the enhancement of student spaces and facilities.

Energy efficiency improvements and eco-friendly buildings are great opportunities for school districts to embrace sustainability, promote fiscal responsibility and redirect saved tax dollars to the improvement buckets for individual schools.

Enhancing Safety and Security

While each Florida school district has responded to the pandemic differently, many districts have invested in upgrading their HVAC filtration systems and are incorporating more contactless items, such as foot-operated door openers and sensor-operated bottle filling stations. This is the case with Hillsborough County Public Schools, which is upgrading 1,500 existing water drinking stations with sensor-operated bottle filling stations at 260 schools.

Districts are also prioritizing the construction of more outdoor spaces to accommodate social distancing and allow for increased outdoor activities and gatherings. The need for outdoor spaces was a trend even before the pandemic, but it has become especially critical now.

Hand-in-hand with these safety improvements, school districts are also investing in security system upgrades through modernization projects. The installation of single points of entry, fencing, cameras, and full campus panic lockdown systems continue to be an emerging trend that helps keep students and staff safe in case of emergency situations.

Greater Focus on Athletics

In addition to the prioritization of outdoor spaces, districts are also investing in outdoor facilities such as football fields and stadiums. Over the past three years, Hillsborough County Public Schools and Pinellas County Schools have injected funding to upgrade 10 middle school and high school football fields with artificial and synthetic turf systems.

The application of artificial turf and synthetic systems are becoming more and more attractive for school districts, especially in Florida, due to their low maintenance level and higher quality. Not only do these kinds of turf systems last longer, but according to US Greentech, maintenance on an artificial turf field can cost as little as $5,000 per year, one-seventh of the cost of maintaining a natural grass field.

These artificial turf systems also help prevent injuries by withstanding heavy usage and the brutal Florida weather conditions while maintaining an even playing field. And as added perks: such systems are more environmentally friendly as they require no water and are free of pesticides – two essential components for maintaining a natural grass field.

Decreasing Duration of Construction

Another trend amplified by the pandemic is the impact of construction activities on campus life and student safety. With modernization projects taking place on occupied campuses, the need to enhance onsite procedures and limit construction durations on active campuses becomes critical.

For example, in three classroom additions Skanska is currently building, a structural precast system has been implemented that substantially reduces the onsite construction duration.

While the use of structural precast systems is not a particularly new method in the overall construction industry, the application is being used more widely in K-12  projects because it can reduce the building timeline by nearly 50 percent – from nine months to four or five months on an occupied school – significantly decreasing disruption to campus activity.

This approach also indirectly contributes to mitigating long lead times—a major concern with masonry and steel structures during these times—and allows for lower project costs and a higher quality of work. Both key concerns directly correlate to the ongoing pandemic.

With the great migration of residents to Florida continuing to accelerate and with districts prioritizing the long-term instructional needs of the student population, these trends are projected to continue to shape K-12 construction well into the future.

Daniel Abou-Jaoude serves as vice president for Skanska’s building operations in Florida. Throughout Florida, Skanska has emerged as a leading construction management firm for public school construction, with five million square feet of projects representing a combined contract value of more than $120 million completed or underway in the past three years.