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Renovating educational facilities while school is in session

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School may be out for the summer, but remodeling of educational facilities is in, as an estimated $20 billion in such projects is now underway nationwide.

School construction also is booming around San Diego County, with public and private educational facilities being rebuilt, repaired, renovated, modernized and enlarged at a smart clip.

Local architects specializing in redevelopment of schools and retrofitting of educational facilities are moving to the head of the class, as they are asked to assist small schools and large districts alike in the most innovative, cost-effective and environmentally friendly ways to create invigorating and safe learning environments.

According to John Pyjar, a principal at Domus Studio Architects, there are significant benefits to renovating existing schools as opposed to building brand new ones.

Schools are often viewed with considerable sentiment, particularly if they occupy a prominent location in a community. "Keeping these schools enhances a community's traditions and history," said Pyjar.

A second benefit is economic. New building systems will reduce maintenance and operational costs, as well as provide an environment as good as any found in a brand new school.

Vibrant places of learning

Older or over-crowded schools all over the county are being transformed into more vibrant, lively and efficient places of learning.

Specializing in the planning and design of educational and religious facilities, Domus Studio Architects has successfully completed a number of school projects in the past decade, including new construction, renovation, remodeling and additions. Most recently, it has been retained to design a renovation and expansion of the Gillespie School in La Jolla.

Construction that takes place in or near a school building when class is in session is the most difficult kind to design and manage, said Domus Studio Principal David Pfeifer.

"It takes substantial planning and cooperation to safely accomplish the construction with minimal disturbance to school operations and student learning," he said.

"Additionally, whenever you redesign an existing campus, great care and sensitivity needs to be exercised in integrating the updated facilities so they coordinate aesthetically with the old, as well as with the open space and circulation patterns of the existing campus," he said.

Success depends largely on the preparation, competence and teamwork of the school staff and the project's architect, engineer and general contractor.

School primer

The design team must work with the school administrators from the start to fully understand the program requirements and design goals.

"A committee of teachers, faculty, parents and sometimes even students and neighbors is usually involved early on to give us design input," Pyjar said. "They often have a wish-list of desired items and we discuss the feasibility and potential costs of these from the get-go."

From Domus' 22 years of experience, most school facility executives are generally up to speed on what needs to be upgraded or expanded at their campus, even before an architect or engineer is hired.

"If a school doesn't have the expertise, then it might look to architects like us to do the evaluation and analysis, and then present that information to the school board or building committee," Pfeifer said.

A good analysis should be comprehensive and look at all aspects of a building, documenting the condition of each component, estimating the life expectancy and determining the cost of replacement or upgrade.

In addition, students and staff must be protected, property and existing facilities must be safeguarded and both access and egress must provided -- all in a cost-effective manner that meets the school administrator's intent.

It takes substantial planning by the project team to accomplish the construction with minimal disturbance to the school. According to Pfeifer, "provisions must be made regarding site security, storage, staging, fencing, safety, lighting, construction hours, dust and noise requirements, worker identification, traffic patterns, truck deliveries, bus routines and similar matters that can have a profound impact on school operations."

At Christ Lutheran School in La Mesa, for instance, a temporary road was installed to improve traffic circulation and keep the student drop-off and pick-up area separate from the construction zone.

Teaching tool

The construction process provides unique opportunities for students to learn how buildings are designed and constructed. At Christ Lutheran School, tours of the site were given to students, teachers and parents during various phases of construction.

At Encinitas Country Day School in North County, where two additions to the burgeoning school were completed, the construction process became a source for the educational curriculum throughout its yearlong duration.

Some teachers shared information on careers in architecture and construction, and others gave specific math and science projects and special assignments focusing on the work being performed at the school.

Webcams and weather stations also have been used by tech-savvy students to document day-by-day onsite events, and construction photos and updates posted online and displayed on special public bulletin boards on site.

After-school activities

After the construction equipment is gone and the school has reclaimed its territory, the job isn't really over. There's usually a "punch list" of items (such as touch-up painting, adjusting equipment and making repairs) that still have to be completed by the contractor. School staff can expect minor construction activity for weeks, perhaps months, after the job is completed.

Even with the most successful school remodeling projects, not everyone is always100 percent pleased, said Lewis Dominy, founder and principal at Domus Studio Architects.

A building's traditional character might have changed. Teachers may be moved to new rooms they don't like. Promised equipment may have been eliminated due to cost overruns or its installation may be delayed. Spaces may not turn out the way they were visualized by staff, or they may not work as intended.

"But everyone will adjust to the new conditions, and, if the project team has done a good job, everyone eventually will be satisfied with the remodeled school facility," Dominy said.

Esterbrooks is a media specialist for Scribe Communications.

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