Evolving Education Facilities

June 19, 2017

By: Chad Musselwhite, P.Eng., LEED® AP, AP BD+C

Education facilities have seen many changes over the last century. Changes to our society and various cultures, advances in communication and technology as well as the introduction of shared or open concept learning spaces that meet the needs of multiple stakeholders, have all contributed to the changing landscape of education facilities and how they’re being planned and designed today.

Wide Open Spaces

The use of open spaces requires the design team to build a high degree of flexibility and resilience into all of the building systems and elements.  These open spaces need to be able to serve multiple purposes simultaneously, and they need to be able to serve future purposes that planners and designers might not be able to predict at the time of design and construction.  Throughout a week, a day, or even simultaneously, they may need to serve as a corridor, a team break-out room, a social connectivity space, a classroom, a presentation space, a community gathering space, a cafeteria, etc.  We are seeing more common use of closed classrooms that can open up into adjacent open spaces through moveable or operable walls.  With the use of large open spaces, we’ve then seen a need for a new category of spaces to address certain functions where acoustic control or privacy are required;  similar to open office concepts, the use of break-out rooms are sometimes considered to serve small or medium-sized groups of students working in teams.  Coaching rooms, sized for two or three people, can be integrated into space programming for activities or interactions where some element of privacy or discretion is required.

Schools are more often required to serve as a hub for the wider community and a resource for community events.  The facility needs to then be designed to react to the specific and unique needs of the community it serves or to be more physically integrated with other shared community infrastructures like recreation centres, libraries, or commercial developments.

New Learning Environments

Right from the project’s outset, the design of a contemporary educational facility requires a more complete engagement of a wider diversity of stakeholders.  There is greater interest in achieving consensus between all the stakeholders to achieve a design that is a truly integrated and culturally appropriate facility that can still meet consistent performance standards and ensure parity with educational outcomes across diverse regions.  A specific example of cultural responsiveness in public facilities is the move to achieve gender neutrality within the physical infrastructure.

We sometimes refer to the need for flexibility and resilience as “future-proofing”.  Learning styles are diverse, and education paradigms continue to evolve, thus the need for very open and flexible spaces.  While the function of the space can be expected to change, which might be a departure from traditional classroom design, the more stringent requirements of contemporary education facilities for indoor environmental quality can’t be compromised.  Thermal comfort, indoor air quality, adequate lighting, abundant daylight, and comfortable acoustic conditions are all known to be important fundamentals for a high-performance, healthy learning environment.

Those increased and sometimes competing facility performance expectations pose a real challenge for design teams.  Electrical, communications, and ventilation systems are designed to be expandable or adjustable to allow for future advances in audio/video and computer technology and space layouts.  Large open spaces with durable surfaces can create acoustic challenges; therefore, a high degree of attention must be paid to the acoustic performance of equipment and systems and how unwanted noise will be attenuated.  Hands-on learning environments, like Career and Technology Studies (CTS) labs and maker spaces, have new equipment that poses new loads on power systems, space cooling, and ventilation systems and these are addressed by collaborating closely with educators to ensure that the usages of these spaces and their equipment are understood by the project team as well as what future trends educators are foreseeing in those areas.

Contemporary educational programs are also integrating better connections to nature and the outdoors.  While this can change classroom designs, it has also offered designers the opportunity to make aspects of the facility part of the learning experience through demonstrations of sustainable design features like solar photovoltaic (PV) arrays that are visible to students or storm-water retention features that serve as wetland habitats.

Comfort & Connectivity

Increased connectivity between students and the ‘outside world’ is being achieved digitally through the more ubiquitous use of computer systems and physically through more place-based learning, hands-on career and technology experience, and connections to the outdoors.  More computer equipment and systems in all classrooms, as well as specialized labs, generally increase the amount of power consumption and the amount of heat generated.  At the same time, we are seeing funding authorities (school boards and government infrastructure departments) tightening the range that they will accept for indoor temperature control; more specifically, they are lowering the maximum temperature that is acceptable within classrooms.  The additional waste heat from equipment and the reduced tolerance for elevated space temperatures is requiring design teams to integrate more innovative means of maintaining space comfort.  Sometimes this is achieved by simply adding cooling systems and cooling capacity. However, the additional constraint of tightening energy consumption standards motivates designers to explore innovative methods.

Energy & Efficiency  

The continual ratcheting down of energy consumption targets requires project teams to continue to adapt their design solutions and even how they work together.  In recent decades, members of Williams Engineering have played a key role in applying the first use of thermal displacement ventilation in schools in Alberta as a means of achieving higher degrees of indoor environmental quality for less energy consumption and capital cost.  That approach is now recommended by funding authorities in Alberta.

Engineering consultants have the opportunity to embrace the role of supporting our project team partners to first explore all the project options for reducing power, lighting, heating, ventilation, cooling, and water loads.  Once those avenues are optimized, the resulting systems that will be required can be smaller, simpler, more cost-effective, easier to maintain, and more energy efficient.  This is the essence of systems thinking, where design perspective must transcend narrow and isolated areas of focus.  Our ability to apply parametric energy modelling techniques early in the design phase is an example of how engineering consultants can support our industry partners in finding the optimal design solutions earlier in the process.

The Inclusion of photovoltaics or, at the very least, allowances for the future addition of these technologies is becoming common.  Industry attention is shifting towards more regularly achieving net zero energy performance at new facilities.

In terms of how industry partners are working together, the industry is responding to the tightening of performance constraints – budgets, energy, speed, and quality – by applying methods that increase collaboration.  Building Information Modeling (BIM) technology is being used to facilitate a process of tighter design integration and improved certainty about construction outcomes.  Even innovative procurement and contractual models, such as Integrated Project Delivery (IPD), are beginning to be employed to contractually align all stakeholders for the benefit of the project.


There are now more manufacturers of, and better performance and reliability from, key energy efficient equipment that mechanical and electrical systems employ in education facilities, equipment such as condensing boilers, energy recovery systems, variable frequency drives, and plumbing fixtures.  Electrically Commutated Motors (ECM) and Pressure-Independent Control Valves (PICV) are offering designers new tools for further improving energy performance, comfort controllability, and ease of maintenance of mechanical systems.

The use of LED lighting has been a welcomed advancement from the mechanical perspective because it reduces cooling loads while at the same time helping to offset the increases presented by more ubiquitous computer equipment mentioned earlier.

The plummeting cost of solar PV panels and energy storage equipment, while not a mechanical system per se, is set to have wide-ranging impacts on building infrastructure and energy system designs.  An example of how mechanical engineers may be able to apply this technology is hinted at by the fact that both solar PV output and a large part of building cooling loads are a function of solar intensity – sunshine.  By powering cooling equipment with PV systems, we can essentially have the energy supply aligned with a large portion of the cooling capacity profile.


As society continues to evolve and develop better ways to prepare future generations, the physical environments in which we do so also need to evolve and adapt to the ever-changing expectations of diverse stakeholders.  Keeping ourselves and our clients informed of the latest technologies, developments, and regulations, in addition to understanding the growing and diverse demands of various stakeholders in the education market, remains crucial to our team’s ability to deliver quality engineering solutions that facilitate the success of our clients and their respective communities.