Construction in K-12 Schools: Considerations for Safety, Cost and Quality


In the recent election in Oregon, voters overwhelmingly passed bond measures to support our schools, with 14 passed out of at least 17 on the ballot, all for good reason.  According to the US Government Accountability Office, a June 2020 report states that an estimated 54 percent of public school districts need to update or replace multiple building systems or features in their schools.  There is a large emphasis on improving security, adding technology, upgrading systems for energy efficiency and monitoring health hazards, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.  An estimated 40 percent of school districts need to upgrade HVAC systems, as many systems are decades if not nearly a century old. 

According to this US News & World Report article, the need to complete deferred maintenance and improve safety and health in our public schools is astonishing. The recent wave of passed bond measures across Oregon will help to fill that void.

Construction in school settings requires particular care in planning for safety and responsibly utilizing public funds.  Here, we will explore the types of work occurring in schools, and the complexities that come with completing work in the K-12 education space, with challenges that arise due to the age of the buildings, deferred maintenance, occupied space considerations, and budget concerns.

New Construction and Remodels

The Pacific Northwest has seen its share of new construction of school facilities in addition to a large number of remodels and renovations.  Those typically focus on upgrades related to:

  • Building security
  • Seismic upgrades
  • Expansions to accommodate student populations
  • Technology upgrades
  • Gym renovations
  • Roofing and HVAC system replacements
  • Energy improvements
  • Increase efficiency of space utilization

We have extensive experience in the education sector with the most recent being several remodels for the Gresham Barlow School District and North Clackamas School Districts.  Most of these renovations occur during the summer months when students and staff are not occupying the buildings.  Larger and more complex scopes of work may span a year or more. 

Safety in School Construction

Environments occupied by and serving youth dictate an extra level of care specific to safety. While safety measures are imperative in other product types, schools present an added challenge as children are more susceptible to environmental contaminants and must be protected from the hazards that inevitably exist in work zones. 

Special care is taken to install secure barricades and signage to separate the work zones from student zones, to avoid excessive noise or odor producing activities, and plan material deliveries and traffic routes to minimize the impact to school operations and maintain traffic flows.   

Given the age of many public schools, hazardous materials abatement is often involved in renovation work.  Close attention is dedicated to inspecting existing systems and materials containing hazards and completing the remediation work without contaminating the building. Workers in all trades are trained to recognize these hazards in the event that demolition activities reveal contamination where it was not expected. 

Maintaining the optimum learning environment for students, and low levels of noise or disruption is our top priority.

Multiple Stakeholders

Unlike private developments, school projects involve a long list of stakeholders due to the nature of their funding. Teams of decision makers directly involved in the project may be a large group, including:

  • School principal and leadership
  • School staff
  • School board
  • District facilities operators
  • Building engineers
  • Design partners
  • Third party construction management firms
  • Bond oversight committee members  

The selected general contractor is a steward of public dollars, is accountable for managing the funds in a responsible manner, and must strive to meet a higher standard of care in completing this work.

One challenge that occurs with such a large variety of project decision makers is the ‘analysis paralysis’ that can sometimes come with group decision making in spite of the best intentions. In addition, most of those involved in making decisions will have varied priorities for each project.  A good general contractor must find a way to collaborate and listen to each of them, ultimately finding the best path forward to meet as many individual needs as possible while still completing the work under budget and on schedule.

Immovable Deadlines  

School projects, whether new or renovation projects, are tied to occupancy dates that cannot be moved.  As is true with any construction work, meeting deadlines can be challenging when unanticipated impacts like weather delays, pandemics and other events interrupt the work. In this case, there is more than money at stake – the nature of some work is such that it cannot occur when students are inside the facility so finishing late is simply not an option. 

Strategies that can be used to prevent schedules from being overrun might include:

  • Hiring the general contractor on a negotiated basis in lieu of hard bid so that they can participate in preconstruction investigations and constructability reviews.
  • Review subcontractor pricing not just for low price, but evidence that the company can sufficiently staff the project.
  • Complete a thorough schedule analysis long before work commences and evaluate phasing options for completing the work.
  • Relocate students and staff to portable buildings or offsite so that work can take place during the school year. 
  • Pre-ordering long-lead materials to arrive onsite prior to beginning work.

A variety of factors will go into decisions about scheduling of work, but the bottom line is that the building team, including the decision makers, general contractor and design teams must work in a collaborative manner to fully develop the scope of work, site logistics and materials used to complete the project.

Renovation Costs vs. Lifecycle Costs

One important component in education projects to consider is the lifecycle cost of anything that is constructed. Given that many schools in our country are decades or centuries old with budget limitations, these buildings must be planned to last for a very long time.  Low cost cannot be the only consideration, as the materials and systems installed need to be high quality, long lasting and with as low of maintenance costs as possible – all while considering the learning environment they reside in. 

In addition, designers and users must consider flexibility for the future.  As technology changes, learning strategies evolve and populations and cultural priorities develop, so will the school needs to be able to adapt. Therefore, paying attention to all of these factors during the preconstruction period of the work is critical. Some examples may include:

  • Installing hollow metal door frames and steel doors in lieu of less expensive door systems.  While the first cost is increased, the quality and longevity of the product far outweighs the initial cost.

  • Heating systems come in many shapes and sizes, and some are much more expensive than others to install, but have much lower operating costs. 

  • Lighting systems can include controls for daylighting or occupancy sensors to minimize energy use.  Highly efficient light fixtures may have a higher cost initially, but lower cost to operate over time.

  • Plumbing systems can be evaluated for water usage requirements but must consider the wear and tear from rambunctious children. 

  • Finishes must be evaluated not only for cost, but for their contribution to the learning environment.  The colors of the walls or furniture, for instance, can impact the emotional well-being of students and their willingness and ability to learn.    

It’s easy to get trapped in a ‘spend less’ mentality when public dollars are involved, but it’s critical to evaluate both the initial and life-cycle costs, as well as the environment we are providing for our children during planning discussions. 

Final Thoughts

Construction in the K-12 space is anything but simple, with the variety of needs that must be met, tight schedules and varied stakeholder concerns.  However, it’s critical work for improving the lives of our children, improving their education and responsibly stewarding public funds.  With a good general contractor on board and extensive planning, these projects are successful and rewarding.

To see more of Perlo’s past experience, take a look at our education projects.  If you would like more information about the services we can provide, please contact us here.