The Woodbridge Board of Education painstakingly planned to build a new Avenel Elementary School for two years. It seemed poised to reap the rewards of its hard work after voters approved the project in 2020, just before the COVID-19 lockdowns.

But then the pandemic hit, inflation raged and the school’s builder reported that the project it expected to cost $35 million would cost $50 million.

The district had a tough choice to make. Instead of asking voters for more money, it decided to use the approved funds to renovate an existing school without interrupting classroom instruction.

Yes, these are interesting times if you’re a school board member or stakeholder at a district planning a construction or renovation project.

To help school districts navigate this new terrain, stay on top of construction and design trends and get the most out of their dollars, we reached out to three experts in the field: Scott Downie, principle of Spiezle Architectural Group; George R. Duthie, principal of FVHD Architects-Planners; and Michael J. Wozny, vice president of educational projects for EI Associates Architects & Engineers, P.A. Edited excerpts follow.

How is the high inflation rate affecting construction, architecture and facilities? 

Downie: We are in a cycle where construction costs have increased substantially, and we continue to see dynamic bid results. This has impacted general construction, mechanical and electrical work in particular, and supply chain issues remain with mechanical and electrical equipment, which is impacting both construction timeframes and costs. School districts have dealt with this in a number of ways, including planning to bid projects earlier to allow more time for equipment purchases and construction, as well as early procurement of long lead time equipment. To manage bid costs, specifications are being carefully considered, bid alternates utilized, and different approaches to construction scheduling implemented with an eye toward managing labor costs and building in schedule flexibility.

Duthie: We have seen a historic increase in the cost of construction over the past three years. Overall, construction costs have far outpaced inflation, with some costs increasing more than 30%. Clients are definitely scaling back and deferring projects to save costs. At the same time, we are seeing increasing demand for early childhood centers due to current state initiatives. Additionally, the state has recently completed a round of grants for school improvement projects, which we expect will put even more projects into the pipeline.

How is your firm navigating higher interest rates, hot inflation, bank failures and other economic turmoil?

Downie: Specifically, with the market as dynamic as it is, bidding early and purposely building time into schedules to allow for potential rebidding to achieve better results is critical. Cost increases require careful budgeting of appropriate contingency and escalation allowances depending on schedules. In particular, school districts working on referendums need to consider the added time and cost exposures that these longer timeframes, from concept to construction, can represent. There are many ways to actively design to manage these costs, but they need to be explored and integrated early in project development to be effective. 

Wozny: Our firm provides construction services for our clients in the private sector, and as a result, we have our fingers on the pulse of the construction industry. We obtain updates from subcontractors on building materials costs and factor this information into our construction cost estimates. Market trends leading to potential cost escalation are always given careful consideration. However, large increases in escalation are hard to predict. Preparing updated estimates in close intervals and close to the time of construction helps us be more accurate in our estimates and keep the project on budget.

Adapting to year-round construction and planning ahead to help combat inflation is an option. Schools commonly prefer to complete construction and renovation projects during the summer, but with the recent increase in materials prices and inflation, completing construction outside of the busy summer season can help save resources. Taking the necessary steps to work year-round instead of the two-to-three-month summer window can lessen material costs, labor demands and construction pricing.

Additionally, adjusting for lead times and working backward from expectations on end dates can help alleviate miscommunication on project schedules and aid in managing the overall budget. The sooner districts can start talking about and planning for new projects, the better.

What are some common misconceptions that schools have about the school construction process?

Duthie: I think that the biggest misconception has to do with how many things we cannot control during the design and construction process. We always try to educate our clients about challenges such as agency review times, regulatory requirements, increasing costs, longer lead times, contractor performance problems and many others. Open, honest dialog and constant communication are key to the process. An experienced design team can skillfully assist clients in navigating these difficult issues.

Wozny: What the role of the architect is – and why and when you need an architect. This is especially true during the construction phase. Construction projects can be expensive and time-consuming. That’s why it’s important for architects to help the construction team stay on budget and keep the schedule moving in the right direction. We do this by ensuring buildings are designed correctly from the start. Additionally, architects and engineers design with the construction process in mind, so they can have confidence in achieving success when the building is built. By doing this, they’re able to make sure everything is done correctly – no matter how challenging or complicated the construction project may be. 

Other misconceptions we encounter are:

Architects and engineers are responsible for the performance of the contractors.

School construction costs should be similar to other types of construction and privately funded projects.

The school construction process is similar to other types of construction and privately funded projects.

How has construction, architecture and facilities management changed over time to accommodate the special needs population in schools?

Downie: School designs in general have migrated to a much broader accommodation of student needs, not just for individualized instruction, but to embrace a range of learning styles and teaching methods. This includes environments designed for varied acoustic characteristics, such as increased privacy as well as social areas. Ideally, all students receiving the right instruction in the right environment is becoming a fundamental design consideration whereas in the past, it may have been seen as a programming or operational matter to be figured out after a school was built. It is now acknowledged as an important design parameter, and we are designing schools with more broadly ranging types of space, making it easier to find ways to integrate specialized learning into schools. School services are also being designed differently to help encourage access and use. For example, guidance areas with more private waiting areas, or more flexible health suites. 

Wozny: Some of the current trends in special education include increased inclusion in mainstream classrooms, differentiated instruction, personalized learning plans, use of assistive technologies and a focus on social-emotional learning. The design of these spaces is continually being developed to accommodate these changes. While the movement toward the inclusion of special needs in mainstream classrooms continues, there is an increasing awareness of mental health issues in the general student population. 

How did the pandemic change the needs of school districts?

Downie: COVID was highly impactful with regard to HVAC, environmental operations and accommodations in how schools flow from morning drop-off to end-of-day activities. Greatly increased IT demands and security considerations have grown out of remote learning, and these are now a lasting consideration in school design. Not just laptops and flexible equipment, but technology backbones and broader connectivity of buildings are all far more robust than they were prior to COVID. Mechanical systems are typically being designed to not just meet but, in many cases, exceed building code requirements as the building codes are still catching up to the impacts of COVID.

Duthie: During the pandemic and after, schools reopened and much focus was given to disinfection, ventilation improvements and social distancing. As schools have returned to normal operations, most of these protocols have been lifted. Schools are now focused on the return to normal. As for design, we have definitely given more thought to HVAC systems, fresh air and the design of more collaborative spaces. People are happy to be back in school now, and we are definitely giving more emphasis to spaces that foster and enhance the school environment.

What is changing in the areas of construction, architecture and facilities to respond to and mitigate security concerns?

Wozny: Although it is impossible to plan for all contingencies, several measures can help district leaders maintain safe, healthy and productive educational facilities. The goal is to balance security with an attractive and welcoming school environment as school facilities become more community friendly.

The perceived difficulty of conducting a criminal act promotes deterrence. Keep school grounds organized and well maintained and implement “obstacles” to crime. Clearly direct visitors to an identifiable main entrance. Provide signs that indicate where visitors are allowed and where they are prohibited. Ensure clear sight lines by maintaining buildings, landscaping and lighting. Trim trees and shrubbery to eliminate hiding places. Provide fencing that limits access while allowing proper egress. Fence off areas that may create niches and blind spots.

Most districts have established security measures to control building access at the main entrance. However, the entire building envelope must be hardened to eliminate unauthorized entry. Hardening includes securing air intake openings and installing a master shutoff for the school ventilation system. Those are two low cost, high impact preventive measures that promote building security. Additional actions can help secure the building: Limit the number of entry points; use technology integration for keyless entry; always lock exterior mechanical equipment and other utility enclosures; restrict roof access by eliminating any potential climbing points; secure roof hatches; protect basement windows with security screens or window well covers; place trash containers and dumpsters away from buildings; ensure that outbuildings, such as field houses and modular units have adequate fencing and connections to main buildings; make sure that campus lighting is uniform; eliminate shadows or glare; lighting should enhance visibility, discourage trespassing, and prevent school vandalism.

Consider the activities that happen on and around school campuses, including vehicular and pedestrian movement, traffic and crosswalk activity, and gathering areas that may make staff and students vulnerable to risk. Each school should have mandatory, consistent, and secure drop-off and pick-up procedures that are enforced by highly visible staff members in halls and on the grounds during arrival and dismissal. Use traffic control devices, such as stop signs and speed bumps or dips. Intentional or accidental high-speed vehicle approaches can be deterred by bollards and concrete planters. Boulders and earth berms can offer more aesthetically pleasing barriers. Ensure that buses can drop off and pick up students directly from a designated, marked loading and unloading zone near a supervised school entrance. Ensure parent drop-off and pick-up zones are clearly designated and separated from bus traffic. Clearly mark parking spaces for visitors, students and staff members, and separate those parking areas, if possible. Require parking decals to identify unauthorized vehicles easily. Maintain space for emergency vehicle access and evacuation of buildings, play areas and fields.

Security experts recognize that districts cannot plan for all emergencies, but they urge school leaders to implement security plans and procedures that will slow down, deter and detain school intruders; maximize responsiveness of first responders; and maintain effective communication with authorities during school emergencies.

Beyond price, what are some of the main questions a school district should ask when deciding what firm to work with when implementing construction projects?

Downie: When selecting a team that may include architects, construction managers and other consultants, schools should look at what those firms have previously created. You are looking for a team that will not just listen but help you explore your goals. They should embrace but also challenge your thinking and lead you through a visioning process that integrates leadership, teachers, students, the community and others to gain the broadest possible design input right from the start. Any school built today will be in service for 50 or more years on average, and the collective team needs to be able to envision and work together to make sure that today’s investment is made with a focus on creating educational opportunity today and into the future. Tour schools designed by architects to understand how they were designed and are currently being used. Importantly, realize that that school may have been designed to function very differently than your school. Ask those schools about the goals that the design was based on and assess how the design reflects those goals, which may be different than yours. On the construction side, ask construction managers to illustrate some of the challenges encountered in construction and how their team responded. Construction rarely goes exactly as planned, and the key to a positive outcome is how situations are managed to keep them from growing into bigger problems and how issues are mitigated along the way with creative thinking. 

Duthie: The most important questions to ask are:

How many of these types of projects have you done? Can you provide examples? How was the project successful? What issues occurred?

What is the overall experience of the firm with school construction?

What can your firm do to ease us through this process?

Can you share an example of a school project you’ve led recently that you’re proud of – and why?

Duthie: Community Middle School in the West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District stands out to me. This project has completely transformed a school building to make it more efficient, aesthetically pleasing and functional. New additions added state-of-the-art PE spaces, science labs, classrooms, media center/learning commons and expanded STEM/Robotics space. Renovations reorganized major program areas and improved circulation. These included performing arts/music, STEM/robotics and dining/food service. Overall, this project created a much nicer learning and working environment for both students and staff.

Downie: We have undertaken numerous projects recently where the client school districts have recognized the need to deliver facilities that are supportive of moving toward 21st century learning and teaching practices. This has included integrating inputs from educational experts into the visioning process along with the teachers and other district team members to broaden what is considered in the programming, design and planning for these facilities. These have included new school projects but also quite a few adaptations within existing and older school buildings to enhance STEAM and STEM learning environments, reimagining traditional libraries into diverse media environments, distributed dining facilities and flexibility enhancements to make classrooms more conducive to team teaching. 

Wozny: While we are proud of our new construction projects and renovation projects that address new trends in education, much of our work entails completing upgrade projects in a timely fashion while saving clients money. We recently obtained $5 million in grant money for two mechanical upgrade projects in one district. The grant became available after the project was already under construction and required the testing and balancing of existing equipment just days before it was about to be removed. Our in-house mechanical department is always on the alert for new opportunities for grant money, and we were able to act quickly.

What should school board members know about the school construction, architecture and facilities business – and in your view, what is their role when it comes to projects?

Downie: School board members have a unique opportunity to connect the school design and planning process with the community. Integrating broader community inputs along with educational considerations as early as possible in the design process magnifies the potential that school designs can embrace features that strengthen both the educational environments and their connections to each community. Schools are local, and school designs are most effective when they reflect that local character. School board members can stay involved with facility projects, looking for opportunities throughout to enhance these local connections – but they can also help educate their community members about the opportunities that the dollars being spent are creating.

Duthie: School board members should know to trust their administrators and professionals and rest assured that they have the project’s best interests in mind. This is a time of uncertainty, and board members should be flexible and patient with the complicated process of carrying out a project or especially building a school. As the gatekeepers of the district, board members should stay informed and be advocates for their facilities and their projects.

School and Day Care Projects Require LSRPs

By Rohan Tadas

Anyone involved with opening a day care center or expanding or constructing a school should retain a  licensed site remediation professional  during initial planning stages. 

For day care licensees, school boards, architects and engineers, early engagement of an LSRP allows for necessary remediation to take place during planning and avoids unnecessary delays. 

In 2007, New Jersey signed into law the most stringent requirements for environmental investigation for proposed day care centers or K-12 schools. At the time, it was the most important piece of environmental legislation in New Jersey in more than 15 years and the precursor to the Site Remediation Reform Act of 2009.

The legislation was a reaction to the Kiddie Kollege day care facility in Franklinville, Gloucester County, which opened in a former thermometer factory and exposed children and employees to mercury contamination. The facility was shut down in 2006.

Under SRRA, the Legislature created the licensed site remediation professional, an individual deemed to have the knowledge and experience to oversee remediation in New Jersey. Under the law, all facilities looking to obtain a day care license or planning to construct a school in New Jersey must engage an LSRP to issue a response action outcome, indicating no further remediation is required. 

An LSRP must issue an RAO before an operator can obtain their daycare license. An LSRP also must issue an RAO before most schools can either be built or be occupied. You should consult an LSRP for all the potential RAO requirements, which include for school expansions, changes in use, new construction and any potential construction on property undergoing or with the potential to undergo environmental remediation.

If the LSRP identifies concerns that require additional investigation, the LSRP will oversee and direct the remediation. Upon completion of the remediation, the LSRP will issue an RAO, which is required before the local code official will issue a Certificate of Occupancy for the new structure. 

Without an LSRP-issued RAO, the day care center or school cannot open. So, early engagement of an LSRP is essential to school boards, day care licensees, architects, engineers and most importantly, the public.

Rohan Tadas, LSRP, is with Environmental Resolutions, Inc.

Thomas A. Parmalee is NJSBA’s managing editor.