Undertaking Successful Phased Modernizations of K-12 Schools

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 most rewarding endeavors. For public K-12 school districts with aging but cherished buildings, a modernization rather than a new build is often the best solution.

Frequently, a modernization project requires the building to stay occupied and active during construction. This typically requires a phased approach to renovation, which presents unique considerations that must be thoughtfully planned, incorporated into design, and coordinated and sequenced. There are simultaneous layers at work including ongoing space programming and scheduling, staff and class relocations, building infrastructure interconnections, construction timelines, and, of course, budget.

Planning Stage

Given the complexity of a phased school modernization, more planning is required than a ground-up, new construction or even a non-phased summer renovation. For school building operators and administrators, an initial question is what will be modernized? The answer is often a mix of competing priorities of space needs, technology needs, and infrastructure needs.

The list of desired improvements can quickly become extensive and daunting. To help with 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 main objectives.

This initial step leads to another related question – where to draw the line? Often the extent of improvements needed is at odds with the available budget. One approach is to identify a gradient of renovation levels for areas of the building such as heavy, medium, and light. Often, a K-12 building needing modernization is a combination of multiple buildings built over multiple eras. Some building systems and spaces may be adequate or take less effort to modernize. These can be classified at the light on the gradient (both in terms of cost and effort). Other areas may be well past their useful life and require full renovation and are classified as heavy on the gradient. This can be a helpful approach to keep master planning focused on aligning the project scope to the budget. It is important to note that these levels of needed renovation may not align across all construction trades and disciplines.

While an area may be identified as needing minimal space layout changes, and therefore marked low for architectural scope, the infrastructure may require full replacement and may force heavier renovation of architectural systems to accommodate the replacement. This nuance can be identified and addressed through an overlay of the masterplan floor plans (architectural and building systems for example). This exercise will highlight areas that the estimating team should consider adding additional scope.

Renovation projects require a healthy contingency to account for unforeseen or existing conditions. For a school district performing a modernization of an occupied aging school, there are additional considerations to make as they continue to maintain the occupied portions of the building that are not undergoing full renovations.

An experienced technical team will plan for addressing unexpected items that will be a value-add to the district. This may include smaller, failed components of larger systems that overall are in acceptable condition. Determining the best approach for this requires coordination across the design, construction, and owner team. It may involve increased owner contingency, allowances for system repairs, unit pricing, or include in-depth testing during pre-construction to verify scope.

A key element of proper infrastructure phased planning is incorporating major system infrastructure changes into early phases of the project at times when occupancy is reduced. A successful master planning stage with this collaboration in mind prepares the way for a smoother design and construction process.

Design Stage

Even with the complexities of phased modernization, design offers an exciting opportunity to elevate student performance, increase school pride, and make wellness and safety improvements. Oftentimes, upgrades are such an improvement to the existing condition that any sacrifices made are well worth the effort. Integrating this level of investment into the existing building or campus through design is a highlight for project teams that commit themselves to seeing a phased modernization project through.

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

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

Spearheaded by a team that included Henderson Engineers, the modernization and additions to the historic building consisted of seven phases of construction over three years while the school was occupied. The renovations addressed equitable classroom sizing, expanded learning commons, and widened circulation corridors while providing secure entries, increasing campuswide security, and modernizing learning spaces and building systems that had been in place for 30-to-60 years.

The new “Innovation Corridor,” which features classrooms focusing on STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) curriculum and project-based learning on display featuring photography, ceramics, and digital media art, includes large glass windows that look out to new outdoor learning courtyards. Modernized network cabling/Wi-Fi and overhead power infrastructure routing was carefully planned to allow for space and program flexibility. The fine arts renovation included house and theatrical lighting upgrades for the auditorium and stage. Band and orchestra rooms, video production facilities, and music and rehearsal spaces received enhanced audio-video upgrades. Athletic spaces including gymnasiums and locker rooms received new HVAC, lighting, and modern plumbing upgrades. A combined learning commons, learning stair and open media center are featured off the main entry, creating a gathering space for larger events and showing off beautiful daylit spaces utilizing daylight harvesting fully programmable lighting controls.

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

Construction Stage

Finally, the construction stage of a phased modernization also requires unique considerations. The often-lengthy construction schedule over many years while a building remains occupied presents a testing of endurance on many stakeholders including students, faculty, and design and construction teams. A collaborative team spirit with a clear understanding of what defines success is paramount.

Post pandemic construction trends have created challenges in escalated construction costs especially for MEPF building systems. In addition, equipment and infrastructure material availability and procurement sourcing issues in an already tight construction timeline with little room for error require creative problem-solving experience by the entire team. Early equipment packages in early design milestones are sometimes required to meet long lead time schedules for equipment like electrical switchgear, transformers, and larger air handlers. Some level of flexibility and adjustment may be needed either in schedule, sourcing, or product solutions to ensure the project progresses towards successful completion.

Renovating an active K-12 school building is a complex and challenging undertaking, but it can also be a rewarding one. By carefully planning and executing a phased modernization 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 a technical director.