Building Resilient Schools

OP INSTITUTIONALBy Graham Roy

Typically, ensuring safety in public schools is a matter of modifying human behavior. From playground bullying to gang activity to more violent crime, these troubling issues are being addressed through concrete, preventative actions and strategies. But in many cities and towns, there’s another danger, one that is to a great extent out of their control. For schools located in regions susceptible to natural disasters, providing protection rises to a higher and broader concern.

Throughout the Pacific Northwest, communities contend with earthquakes inland and tsunamis on the coast. To withstand a catastrophe of this kind, school districts are taking action to structurally upgrade their facilities, in some cases going beyond current building code standards.

In 2013, the Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission published the Oregon Resilience Plan (ORP), a report for the state legislature that outlines several paths to reduce risk, increase resiliency and improve recovery from such natural disasters. The ORP’s survey of more than 2,000 K-12 educational facilities — buildings of various structural types, sizes, and vintages, including numerous structures that are more than a century old —revealed that 47 percent were rated as very high to high for risk of collapse in the event of a severe earthquake. This statistic underscores the urgency of why many school districts are pursuing seismic improvement programs for their buildings. 

What’s the Cost?

Funding for these upgrades is often supplied through school bonds, measures that must be approved by local voters. Because of the expense these projects often incur, sticker-shock can be a factor in whether or not a bond is approved; whether intentionally or by oversight, the cost to increase safety and resiliency is often factored in after the bond passes. Such an unwelcome fiscal surprise can be seen as a political bait-and-switch ploy, alienating the public and jeopardizing future support for similar projects. Another reason voters may resist the measure: the payback isn’t immediately perceived. If the issues regarding resilience are presented in the forefront of a bond, and not buried in the fine print, the priorities are clear. Therefore, honestly framing the scope of the work and presenting its budget from the outset is the best strategy.

A complete and accurate cost analysis forms the basis for this. Several of Oregon’s largest school districts (including Portland Public Schools, Beaverton School District and Camas School District) have created realistic and accurate budget frameworks for these kinds of school construction projects before going to bond. To do this, districts often engage professional cost estimating and management services firms to guide them through pre-bond budgeting, design milestone estimating, and change order management, a process which ultimately ensures that the user requirements are maximized within limited available funds.

Community Shelters

While compliance with current building codes is a minimum goal, some school districts are looking to expand their role beyond the safety of students and faculty and are voluntarily stepping up their seismic standards so that their schools can function as a shelter to provide a full range of post-disaster relief services to the entire community.

The Beaverton School District has taken on that challenge, passing a bond measure that includes the construction of seven new schools. Using the ORP as a guide, these schools will act as a demonstration project to explore how they can be used as shelters following a disaster and be able to re-open in a timely manner – 72 hours instead of the 18 months allotted for resuming core educational functions – to aid recovery efforts.

The American Red Cross has established criteria for minimum emergency shelter requirements. As outlined in the ORP, these are secure facilities that can be naturally ventilated, get people out of the weather and keep them warm. Beyond that, the availability of electricity for lighting and cooking, water and removal of wastewater would be significant additions that would improve the efficiency and livability of the shelter.

Even with new, ground-up construction approved by the voters, incorporating all of these features into a school building requires extensive integration with a community’s infrastructure. To manage this, creating a long-term schedule that benchmarks the entire process, and tracks costs and progress over the life of the project, is essential. The algorithm-based method of estimating expenses analyzes fixed and variable factors so that budgets can allow for adequate safety and resiliency. For both constituents and communities, cost modeling can provide the transparency, clarity, and direction that get a bond project off on the right financial foot, putting a resilient school improvement program on safe and solid ground.

Graham Roy is executive vice president at Rider Levett Bucknall and oversees operations of the firm’s West Coast offices. As a professional quantity surveyor, Graham has provided cost, project, and facilities management on numerous education, healthcare, military, hospitality, library, commercial, and residential projects in both the public and private sectors.

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