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PODCAST: Building Resiliency: How thinking differently about educational facility planning can lead to a smarter and more efficient future

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Join us as our education and energy experts discuss smarter, more efficient educational facility planning.

Podcast Summary

In the latest episode of Insights by Bergmann, host Stacy Lake is joined by Education Practice Leader James Hickey, AIA, and Evan DeCotis, PE, CEM, CEA, a Project Manager with our Energy Conservation team to share insights into the world of educational facility planning. Jim and Evan discuss how they are helping schools across New York State think differently about their facility and campus planning to prepare for future disruptive events and create facilities that are adaptable to the different ways students learn, and to do so with future facility needs in mind.

Podcast Transcript

This podcast was transcribed by using AI technology and may contain grammatical or spelling errors.

Stacy Lake Hi, everyone. Thank you for joining us for another episode of insights by Bergmann, a podcast that provides timely commentary from subject matter experts on topics and trends related to our built environment. I'm Stacy Lake and today we are exploring the topic of resilient building design. And we're joined by two of our subject matter experts. Jim Hickey, our education practice leader, and Evan DeCotis, as a project manager with our energy conservation team. They are on a mission to help schools across the state think differently about their facility and campus planning to prepare for future disruptive events, and create facilities that are adaptable to the different ways students learn, and to do so with future facility needs in mind. Jim and Evan, welcome. Thank you so much for being here.

Jim Hickey Hey, Stacy, thank you for having us. I'm very excited to be here.

Evan DeCotis Thank you, Stacy.

Stacy Lake You each have some incredible experience recently working with education clients across the state and you recognize that decision makers could really benefit in unique ways that they approach their planning a bit differently. Can you tell us more about this?

Jim Hickey Absolutely. Both higher education campuses and K 12. School districts are dealing with aging buildings, the materials, the systems are reaching the end of their useful life. And with tight budget constraints reacting to those issues. As they arise, it become increasingly difficult. So although New York State the education department requires school districts, for k 12 to have building assessments, the format and the information that's gathered is not really helping administrators or decision makers develop long term strategic plans for themselves. And it's making very difficult for them to make significant changes to their facilities. So So our team is looking to develop, and to help support those educators better by understanding their physical resources and developing a holistic plan for their buildings and grounds.

Evan DeCotis Yeah, a lot of my work experience is predominantly in performing energy audits, building equipment, assessments, ventilation studies, understanding the ins and outs of the existing building as it is today, and helping guide what the building will look like in the future. Specifically, as it relates mechanically, over the past couple of years, our team has been in and out of over 25 districts throughout the state and region. From some buildings are three or some districts have three buildings, some are 25 buildings in size. So they they range, what we're looking at, whether they're their garages, or high schools, or middle schools. And it's really getting a grasp of what they have, and how we can help plan their future building together.

Stacy Lake And, Evan, I've heard you mentioned a couple times, you know, the, in your role, you're really walking into buildings blindfolded. And I think that's to what Jim was mentioning to a lot of these schools. They're older, and the facilities are older and aging. And one of the things that we've been hearing more about is this focus on improving efficiencies for energy consumption. I mean, just thinking about aging buildings alone, our homes and other buildings, schools, too, are running into a lot of those same issues where they're not efficient, and they're just bleeding energy, and dollars. So this is a really big goal for decision makers. And we're hearing more on this topic. Can you tell us more about this?

Evan DeCotis Absolutely. So I do like that phrase going into buildings blindfolded. Luckily, with technology today, and the satellite imagery that's available online, we can get a pretty good idea of what the building condition is, before we even step foot in the space. So we can we can see does this does this look at a pre war building? Is with the building constructed in the 2000s? What kind of Windows does it have? Are there access for doors for ventilation? General building conditions, how the building is set up and installed, where the gyms are located on aquariums so we can get a pretty good feel for the building as a whole. Before we even step foot.

Jim Hickey Yeah, I'd like to also, you know, as I mentioned before, budgets are consistently an issue and campuses are looking to find ways to be more efficient and decrease their energy costs. And we're seeing that efficiencies is really sort of that driving factor of how decisions are being made on their campuses. So some school districts are looking for, you know, solar to offset some of their energy costs. Some are looking like, like I mentioned, replacing older systems with new higher efficiency units, or performing retro commissioning that find opportunities for their mechanical systems to just operate better. So and then on top of that, you know, many college campuses are working to become greener. They want to start to implement a scheduled for themselves to become carbon neutral, which makes capital planning even more critical than ever.

Stacy Lake Yeah, so So what's the advice that you give these decision makers that you're working with? Where do they start? What's step one and going down this path?

Jim Hickey I would say for me, step one is first getting a full understanding of what their existing facilities are right now today, to better understand what needs to be the priority. What needs to be addressed immediately within the first one to three years, what you know, needs to be addressed within five to seven. I think that's step number one, I think the next step has to do with how those spaces are being used, you know, how the teaching is being done. And not just the classrooms, but gymnasiums, libraries, auditoriums, nurses, offices, cafeterias, you know, all of these things play a role in how are they being used now? And how do you foresee that being used in the future that improves your ability to teach and to instruct, and to to provide, you know, students that that way to learn, I think once you have a better understanding of these two critical items, you can start to develop a plan for the district as to what needs to be addressed immediately that aligns their goals with their facilities. And then once you have sort of a rough idea of what needs to be taken care of immediately versus long term, you can start to create a schedule as to when it's getting done, and how much it might cost. And now you can start talking with the business official, you can start talking with the facilities directors as to a long term plan as to what's being taken care of by the maintenance team, what's being part of a project, what different funding sources you might be able to go after, and when they can be done.

Evan DeCotis Building change of use is probably one of the biggest things that we need to be mindful of in the future, you know, 15 years ago, but the last time that many of these buildings were touched were 30 years ago, in any major way. But now 15 years ago, they started a beach test to get projectors in every single classroom smart boards in every single classroom. Computers and outlets and plugs and charging stations for every student in every classroom. And that was not a design constraint is even in the early 2000s, that that wasn't thought of at that time as something that needed to be needed to happen, maybe at the high school level, but certainly not at the elementary school level. And and these changes, they they are incrementally small over the years. But they are drastically changing the use, and how the public room needs to be laid out for the students to learn. And then, again, mechanically, we now have a pretty hefty electrical load, the cooldown in every single one of those rooms. And then window ACs are very noisy, and sometimes they just don't cut it. So we need to look at other alternatives and other energy efficient alternatives to the building solutions that we're looking at. And, again, short term solution is to put in a window shaker. Sometimes they cut holes in the wall, and then mounted in there permanently, which can have other effects and impacts on the building itself. But there's, I couldn't tell you what's gonna happen in the next 15 years in these buildings we need but we need to plan for that. And we need to get people thinking about that now what is the classroom going to look like? What's going to need to happen? What's going to need to be there? Every every school data class now every every school has a servers and control rooms. And these these things didn't exist in the 1950s Vintage buildings that were often going in and out of. And finding a meaningful way to respect the existing building, while still meeting and exceeding the needs today and in the future. really starts with the planning to get an understanding of where things are and how do we move forward.

Jim Hickey I think it's a great point that you brought up of, you know, we're not necessarily sure certain what the future is going to be for education, but we need to be thinking in those terms. So we need to be preparing classrooms and instructional spaces in schools in general and college campuses as well have the ability to adapt and to be flexible and to be constantly evolving and changing as curriculums change as students needs are changing as because we're technology advances, so we need to, we need to be constantly developing and designing that flexibility into whatever we're doing. So a space could be used in one way at the beginning of the day. But at the end of the day, it's used in a totally different way. And each one of those has different needs. As far as HVAC, as far as lighting, as far as sound attenuation.

Stacy Lake There's so many different sort of issues that need to be thought through. As you mentioned, you know, thinking about a futuristic sort of, you know, education facility, it's pretty amazing to think about it, you know, over the years, we've just kept adding and adding and adding to the existing structure without making real meaningful changes, right, in terms of the insides of the building and how it's all structured. I mean, what does that mean, when you're dealing with a 1950s? Building? Are we going to look at school districts that are going to have to completely overhaul and rebuild New or is it doable? I mean, is it possible to retrofit these existing structures? This might be a loaded question, but I'm curious. I'm thinking of my old schools and where my neighbor's kids go.

Jim Hickey Yeah, I think one of the difficulties, at least in the state of New York is that the way the aid works, renovating old and an existing buildings, provides more financial support from the state than building brand new. So that's why you see some of these, you know, buildings that were in either 1950s and 60s and 70s, buildings or even older, some, you know, some of them are in the 1930s type buildings, and they keep getting additions being added on to them and, and keep getting rent, invaded, you know, in the inside. So I think that sort of formula changes, you're going to see, and we're going to be forced to constantly be working within the same sort of old 1930s framework to get some of these classrooms up to date in these interesting instructional spaces to be more supportive of a 2000 22,030 or 2020 2030, sort of education model.

Evan DeCotis Yeah, it's not easy. And some of some of those old schools are beautiful. It's finding the balance, what can be saved to get saved? And what can be renovated, I think should be renovated. And to Jim's point, you know that that's expensive to do. And renovating those spaces costs a lot of money. And, and sometimes the reality of does it does it make sense to start fresh, needs to be a consideration.

Stacy Lake There are a lot of tools you use when you're consulting with districts, and you're helping them embark on a massive planning process and trying to help them figure out where their dollars should go. One of those is a building condition assessment. Can you share more about how this works?

Jim Hickey Absolutely. You know, I've been part of a lot of building condition surveys and assessments for K 12 schools in Western New York, also some private charter schools. And then we're also working with destiny, which is the Dormitory Authority for the state of New York, to develop a pilot program to assess college dorms and develop improvements that will keep students safe during COVID. And then some future events. So we have a lot of great experience. So what we're experiencing, you know, so what we're finding with that experience is that campuses that want that thorough assessment of their buildings and grounds are looking for something that's not just a snapshot in time, it's it's not a series of boxes that can be checked, they're looking for something that is tailor made for them. And for the facilities. It documents, the condition of each of the elements within their buildings are on their site, you know, so we're using photographs, we're using floor floor plans to accurately depict the condition in the location, we want it to be something that is easy for them to use something that can be live that can be updated by their facilities or by us specifically. In so our team is going in there, we're reviewing each component, whether it's, you know, the system, material type, based off of the age that was installed, you know, we're providing cost or anything that we're finding to be unsatisfactory, we're using these evaluations to also determine sort of the estimated remaining useful life for all these various materials and systems. So this allows decision makers the ability to prioritize, to schedule when they replace something or when they have a renovation project. It allows them to have that careful planning and that budgeting, you know, so we want to be able to help campuses to be more proactive, and planning ahead versus being reactive. A lot of campuses are experiencing right now.

Evan DeCotis And if I can jump on the back of that where a lot of our initial audits come in, where we are as Bergman's first introduction, introduction to the building. We walk in, again, a blindfold that generally, maybe we have floor plans, and we need to find all that equipment, we need to document all that equipment, we need to assess that equipment. Again, mechanically, we know where to look, every classroom may have a unit ventilator, there might be some overhead ductwork distribution. boilers are generally found in the boiler rooms, they're they're easy to find. And there could be air handlers tucked up in the auditorium, rafters on the roof, sometimes hidden in closets, and not everybody that works in the building, even knows what this equipment is, where to find it, or whether it runs or not. And as a multidisciplinary firm, getting the legwork in to understand the building upfront, can drastically help when we frame and phase and provide solutions to their problems. In each of the design phases that follow along

Stacy Lake I was gonna say, I mean, you're talking about a really deep need for understanding what's there before we start talking about, you know, renovations that have to happen, or, you know, the mechanicals that need to change, right? Because those are very much related. The interior systems are directly connected to the design that our architectural side of the house is going to look at and say, Hey, we can solve your problems this way or that way. Can Can you share some examples of just some unique things that we've found, because we've done a number of these studies, and I know, we've done one for, you know, a dormitory, we've done one for a private elementary school, what are some of the things that we've uncovered and things that we've helped them maybe change their plans around, because we were able to go in and take off the blindfold and learn a little more before we get into things.

Jim Hickey One example, you know, for a school district, you know, they were having some HVAC problems and issues in a specific area. And as we started to dive into it a little bit more specifically, we realized that if, you know, if we just solve that one problem, it actually was not addressing some other problems in adjacent areas, it was all connected to one system, you know, so by solving it by just a sort of a, an exact repeat of that unit, wasn't the best fit for that school district, and a bigger, larger sort of renovation of that entire mechanical system made more sense to provide a solution for that school long term. So a lot of you know, a lot of school districts that are reacting, they might you swap out a unit, one for one, not realizing that they're not solving the bigger problems. So I think that that's, that's a great example of what our building assessment does what sort of our team of experts can sort of provide that information to a school district. So they're making decisions that benefit them long term.

Evan DeCotis Yeah, I've seen my fair share of things. The best thing isn't always that one for one replacement, like Jim was saying, you know, it may be it may be the best solution for that building today. But that's only because your backs up against the wall, where you didn't necessarily put the planning and forethought in five years ago, to get the funding in place to start really thinking about it. And, and that some of that the facilities team that we're working with, they see the day to day. But they sometimes need somebody to come and help pull them out of the day to day and look at the bigger picture, where sometimes the administration side is only looking at the bigger picture, and may not know of the day to day concerns that the facilities people are dealing with. And that's, again, one of the benefits of getting both people to the table. So everybody understands what the building is doing and what it should be doing.

Jim Hickey You know, whether it's a college campus or a K 12 school, you know, there's hurdles as far as taking care of their buildings. And we understand that, you know, just the cost of associated with doing a building assessment, you know, the K 12 school districts that only complete the bare minimum that are required by the state, I think that they're really doing themselves a disservice. You know, and I fully understand that budgets are very tight. But to have that ability to completely recognize, you know, first the existing state of your structures. As I mentioned, the current use of those spaces, the operating systems within the building, the adjacent sites, all of these things can have, can help a school district make the best decisions for their students and their staff. And we just want to make sure that, you know, as we're as a team member, we're helping them make those decisions wisely, and spend their money in the best possible way.

Evan DeCotis Yeah, we want we want all of our customers, regardless of who they serve or what they do. got to be smart with their money. So that would be our goal is to direct them down those paths.

Stacy Lake Jim, something that we can't ignore is the direct impact that this pandemic has had on schools. Can you talk to us about the philosophy that you share with your clients around how they can maybe take a more resilient approach with their planning as they move forward here?

Jim Hickey You know, over the past two years, COVID has had a significant impact on education campuses, whether we're talking pre kindergarten, to high school to college, university workforce development programs. And although we're not fully through this challenging event, yet, educators have a great opportunity to make substantial changes to their facilities, to their curriculum, to the ways that they're teaching their students so. So improving on resiliency, I think, is one of the key components of explaining it sort of helping college campuses and schools today, you know, as I mentioned, you know, the past two years is provided important insights on the shortcomings of our facilities, you know, teachers and students and staff went from fully, fully in person to immediately having to go fully remote. And that brought a lot of challenges in and of itself, then there was various levels of hybrid learning. And now, even you know, with the in person students, or students being in classrooms, again, there's still daily challenges that go along with the spread of this virus. So there's a lot that we can be learning from the process of what worked well, and what really needs to be improved in our facilities. So. So with that, I mean, there's available federal and state funding, you know, through through various initiatives that support the campuses that are implementing changes that will prepare them to be more resilient in the future, and for future events. So campuses need to really understand the big picture, and use this funding funding in a way that allows them to make the largest impact for their their school district or for their campus. In addition, as I mentioned before, it's a great opportunity for campuses to align the changes that they're doing in their facilities, with resiliency, to fit the pedagogy changes for their physical spaces, right. So as we're seeing changes in the way that educators are teaching and focusing on flexibility and adaptability, based on the way students learn, they can also be, you know, incorporating the resiliency, incorporating the big picture of things that need to be addressed through the building assessment. And all of these help educators plan for their future so that they can see that big picture of not only their needs, but the direction of what they're trying to go to for their goals, and develop that strategy to improve versus being reactive.

Stacy Lake Well, Jim, Evan, this is definitely an important topic that sparking interest with a lot of people. Our schools have been through a lot over the past couple years, our students, the school decision makers, parents, and I know that you know, making smarter decisions about the energy usage in the facilities is top of mind. So thank you for sharing your work. And we really look forward to hearing more about the impact of this in the future.

Jim Hickey Thank you, Stacy. And I think this has been a great conversation. Really glad to be a part of it.

Evan DeCotis Jim, Stacy, thank you.

Stacy Lake Great. So to our listeners. Thanks again for joining us for another episode of insights by bourbon. We hope this gives you a new perspective on the buildings that you spend your time in everyday or perhaps the buildings that you directly have a hand in supporting or maintaining clearly, really relevant topic. We have many more exciting topics coming up in the future, so be sure to stay tuned. And as always, you can find our episodes at or on your favorite streaming channels, including Spotify, Apple Podcast, Breaker and many more. Have a great day.