Intelligent Buildings

5 Considerations for Resilient Schools

“Contrary to widespread belief, resilience isn’t just about preparing for and protecting against climate change-related stressors,” says Steven Turckes, who leads Perkins+Will’s K-12 practice. “It’s also about economic and social stressors. As school designers, we must also take into account the daily stressors that impact students’ personal resilience—issues like safety and security, homelessness, hunger, income disparities, and healthcare inequities. When we do that, we can help schools be more successful.”

To find out what a comprehensive approach to resilience for K-12 schools entails, a team of Perkins+Will architects, interior designers, and urban planners crowd sourced feedback from the firm’s global network of resilience and education experts. They discovered that K-12 schools are considering at least five key issues:

1. Student and Staff Safety
Trends in new school buildings include secure perimeters and entrances, and an entry sequence that allows for better control over visitor access. Districts are also exploring floor plan configurations that support shelter-in-place/lock-down procedures. Specialized security consultants can help existing schools identify vulnerabilities and chart a course for remediation. In addition to reviewing for compliance with U.S. Department of Homeland Security guidelines, school districts may benefit from discussing what constitutes “security” as it relates to the unique aspects of their facilities.

2. Storm and Hazard Preparedness
Where possible, siting the building away from natural risks is often a cost-effective approach. For example, avoiding flood zones protects infrastructure and conserves fragile wetland ecosystems. For buildings already experiencing flooding, options may include mitigation or relocation. At Ridgeview Middle School and High School in Clintwood, Va., for example, a district located in a problematic flood zone, one proposal involved onsite flood mitigation. However, rather than protect aging schools, the district elected to build a new consolidated facility on higher ground. The new facility has features that provide for community shelter, emergency power, heat, water, and food storage. The replacement school made the best use of funds because, in addition to improving safety, the consolidated facility also supports best practices in contemporary education.

Of course, every geographic region has its own weather challenges. School districts should examine their local weather patterns and look for overlaps in vulnerability. By understanding overlapping risks, school districts can prioritize issues and leverage funding.

3. Community Safety
During acute events, a resilient school building can be a community resource for shelter, food, water, and even medical care and emergency supplies. Schools should consider placing cafeteria equipment on back-up power to allow for refrigeration and cooking, especially where students rely on the school for the majority of their nutritional needs. If a school will be used as a refuge for the greater community, there may be a need to separate areas to fulfill the school’s obligation to protect children. This could be achieved through a strategic layout of the building, or by adding doors.

4. Campus-Wide Health and Safety
A successful resilience strategy should include more than just the school buildings. Parking lots, playgrounds, and safe street crossings are all part of the solution. For example, onsite green infrastructure can help protect against localized flooding while creating attractive outdoor learning environments. Shaded playgrounds that protect against skin damage from sun exposure can be achieved by planting an arboretum supporting biodiversity.

5. Building as Teaching Tool
Resilient school buildings should be treated as “living labs” where students learn firsthand how their actions affect their environment. One way to do this is through Building Automation Systems (BAS), which are computerized energy management systems that efficiently control HVAC systems. Combined with window sensors that tell the HVAC system to stop conditioning classrooms when the windows are open, BAS give students a sense of control of their environment. For the first week of classes, students may think the thermostat is broken, but with an academic curriculum that includes lessons on sustainability, they soon realize how their daily choices can reduce energy use.

“Approaching K-12 school design from the perspective that schools are critical community anchors and a priority for community investment is paramount,” Barnes says. “Through design, planning and partnership, today’s schools can be better prepared to meet the challenges of the future.”

About the Authors

Shannon Gedey, Janice Barnes, Angela Whitaker-Williams, Yanel de Angel, John Poelker, Steven Turckes, and Jon Penndorf form a team of Perkins+Will architects, interior designers, and urban planners who have experience and expertice in education issues.

This article originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of School Planning & Management.

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