COMMISSIONING BETTER ACADEMIC ENVIRONMENTS

A lot of parents worry about something called the “summer slide” or the loss of learning that can happen to kids on summer break. It hits math skills especially hard. Those parents will be happy to learn that there is a construction industry discipline that is making schools more conducive to learning.

Known as building commissioning, it is a specialized type of engineering that utilizes high-tech testing equipment, drives close collaboration between building owners and installing subcontractors and leads to buildings that work as intended. In schools, that means classrooms with fewer environmental distractions and discomforts.

At Paladin Engineering, we recently commissioned a state-of-the-art campus for Frederick Douglass High School right here in Lexington. Home to more than 1,000 students, the building and its athletic annex cover roughly 287,000 square feet. Our efforts directed at fine-tuning its systems and structure to maximize its energy efficiency had a secondary benefit of increasing “learnability.” It turns out that those same systems can cause sensory overload for students and impair learning if they’re not properly managed. Here is a list based on what a student experiences in the classroom:

Meade County High SchoolWHAT THEY BREATHE: An Indoor Air Quality Plan is an essential part of commissioning efforts and building health. It is a roadmap for measures that contractors will take to minimize airborne contaminants by protecting ductwork and equipment. Minimizing the circulation of dirt and debris in the school space then maintaining proper ventilation and filtration keeps the air safe and pleasant to breathe.

WHAT THEY HEAR: The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) has established a set of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) criteria which include a maximum noise level of 40 dba for HVAC systems. Numerous studies have shown the negative impact of noise on learning and a quality commissioning program can reduce the sounds made by fans, ductwork, and air whistling to levels more conducive to comprehension.

WHAT THEY FEEL: Anyone who has ever taken a child on a road trip has experienced the fidgeting and complaints driven by temperature, “It’s too hot!” The commissioning discipline addresses thermal comfort by establishing a solid building “envelope” that minimizes drafts and moisture from outside coming inside a building then maintains setpoints of temperature and humidity with high efficiency systems. 

WHAT THEY SEE: Not only can improper, inconsistent classroom lighting levels cause eyestrain in the classroom, lighting issues can make athletic fields less safe and compromise campus security. A comprehensive lighting plan requires rigorous testing, coordination and ongoing monitoring of illumination. Whether a student is trying to read a textbook or walking to her car after a night class, proper lighting makes the experience better.

While commissioning may have its greatest potential impact on learning environments in new construction schools, even older schools can benefit from a little fine-tuning of their critical environmental systems. The resulting improvements can help reduce the sensory overload on students, improving the chances for them to learn, their teachers to succeed and their parents to feel more confident when they send their kids to school.

To learn more about building commissioning and its potential impact on your school, contact us today at PaladinEngineering.com.

By: Kelsey M. Leslie, PE, CxA, ACP

Kelsey Leslie is a mechanical engineer who specializes in building commissioning and controls integration at Paladin, Inc., a woman-owned firm in Lexington, KY.

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