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Schools In The Bay Area Renovate Buildings For Earthquakes And Education Alike

Marin Country Day School in Corte Madera, Calif.

Safety advocates around the Bay Area are pushing building owners to increase seismic safety measures. But even with a booming tech economy and new construction projects abounding, owners seem to be growing complacent. Spending on seismic retrofit projects is stagnating, and neither state nor local agencies have published any recent code updates to protect buildings. Advocates are especially concerned about schools, where the process for evaluating building safety is notoriously slow.

But seismic retrofits aren’t the only updates schools need. As technology changes the way classrooms function, schools also need to address digital infrastructure. With both the education and safety of their students at stake, schools throughout the Bay Area are re-evaluating not only their ability to survive a natural disaster but also to effectively educate a generation increasingly accustomed to technology.

“Upgrading a school is like performing open-heart surgery,” said Truebeck Construction Chief Operating Officer Nick Pera, whose firm has been part of K-8 and high school projects in Oakland, San Francisco, Los Altos and Marin County. “Many of these schools are based in old buildings that are no longer compliant with code. They’re vulnerable in seismic events. We do everything we can to reuse existing structures, but nine out of 10 times, the whole building will need replacing.”

The Student Center at Lick-Wilmerding High School in San Francisco

Classrooms For Tomorrow

Beyond safety, schools have numerous considerations when renovating or constructing new buildings. Schools’ biggest priority, Pera said, should be creating a sustainable environment for teachers to teach and students to learn. He listed three key elements for sustainable classrooms today: built environment, acoustics and connectivity.

“The importance of good lighting to promote healthy learning really can’t be understated,” Pera said. “Classrooms need to take in natural light, so we work with lighting designers to create ideal light levels for learning. You can’t scrimp on good lighting.”

Good acoustics are not just a question of design, but of being able to test sound levels in classrooms once they are built, Pera said. And when it comes to connectivity, adaptability is paramount. Since technology is changing so quickly, digital infrastructure —  like cabling and audiovisual equipment — needs to be easy to upgrade, replace and repurpose.

“When Truebeck builds classrooms, we build them to last, and that means providing flexibility and maintainability in each system," Pera said.

Pera also emphasized the need to choose sustainable construction materials with high levels of recycled content that will not weaken or release gases as they age. Windows, too, should be designed to optimize thermal performance and cut down on noise.

Pinewood School in Los Altos, Calif.

Exceptional Challenge, Exceptional Reward

Schools provide a very specific set of challenges for construction companies. First, the timeline for a construction project is set strictly by the school year: testing extends into June and students and teachers must be back in classrooms 15 months later, when classes start up in August. Construction companies often have to fit what might otherwise be a 20-month project into a time frame of just over a year.

And unlike other projects, a school has to remain completely operational throughout construction, which can make construction a jigsaw puzzle, Pera said. Especially in tightly packed urban areas like Oakland and San Francisco, temporary classrooms often jockey for space alongside vehicles and work areas. 

The other major constraint for educational projects is budget.

“A school isn’t like a corporate client. You can't go over budget even if scope is added. There’s no board of directors or shareholders to appeal to — the budget is the budget,” Pera said.

Pera explained that with such strict timelines and a set-in-stone price tag, schools need to choose a construction firm that provides accurate cost figures and that is agile and decisive when unforeseen challenges arise.

Yet despite their unique slate of challenges, educational projects remain for Pera some of the most rewarding work that Truebeck does.

“You get a real sense of giving back to the community, and doing something great for the next generation,” Pera said. “Building a school may not be as profitable as some other work. But to walk around the finished project, to see the kids in the hallways and hear them talk about how much they love their new building — that’s worth so much more.”

Working with schools can also bring new meaning to value engineering. When your client’s goal is to spread knowledge rather than to turn a profit, Pera said, cost savings feel more tangible and meaningful.

“When we work with schools, we’re always motivated to go the extra mile, because anything that we can save on costs goes right to the kids,” Pera said. “If we choose a more efficient mechanical system or more cost-effective materials, that can mean four years of scholarship tuition for one, two, a dozen more students. Every time we can save, another student gets the opportunity to learn.” 

This feature was produced in collaboration between Bisnow Branded Content and Truebeck Construction. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.