Schools, other clients enter new phase of COVID retrofits
With the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines and new calls to resume in-person K-12 classes, the COVID-retrofit market is entering a new and busy phase.
Several BC&E members are currently working with multiple K-12 clients who are rushing to modify their HVAC systems. In some cases, projects are starting even though project drawings haven’t yet been completed.
“The school systems are initiating projects and it is going to be a scramble because they want them completed by March,” said Michael Purtell, Senior Vice President of Gipe Associates, Inc.
After months of investigating the best options to reduce the potential for spread of airborne viruses through HVAC systems, ASHRAE is recommending facilities maintain code-required ventilation and employ MERV 13 filters, Purtell said. “ASHRAE determined that that the mean relative risk of infection decreases substantially as you move from a lower efficiency MERV 4 to MERV 13 filters. Then the mean relative risk of infection doesn’t decrease much as you go above MERV 13, so that’s kind of the sweet spot for filtration.”
Consequently, school systems are trying to determine if existing filter banks, racks and fans in older buildings can accommodate MERV 13 filters, and what additional renovations might be required. Some facilities are exploring the possibility of installing UV lights inside ductwork or altering the settings of building controls to increase ventilation, such as completing three air exchanges before a building opens each day.
A few are looking at augmenting building systems with portable air-filtering units. Roughly the size of a mini-fridge, the stand-alone units circulate room air through HEPA filters and can also employ UV light and bi-polar ionization to further reduce disease spread. The units, Purtell said, can be a good solution for poorly ventilated or high occupancy areas. Although at a price of around $5,000 per unit, they are not a cost-effective remedy for entire buildings.
The current spate of renovations is expected to lead to further and possibly larger projects. Several school systems are currently studying select schools in order to establish new building standards system-wide and identify necessary renovations.
That bigger discussion about what will constitute a healthy school going forward is already prompting some owners and project teams to consider significant changes to building systems and design features. HVAC professionals, for example, are debating whether supply high/return low or supply low/return high ventilation systems are better for schools, offices and other buildings. Advocates of supply low argue the system pushes air and contaminants up and away from a room’s occupants.
In addition, “ASHRAE says if you supply low and return high, your ventilation can be 20 percent more effective so you could get about 20 percent better air cleaning, using the same air flow,” Purtell said. Meanwhile, more owners and project teams are considering displacement ventilation. By continuously running low-velocity air through an in-room diffuser, the system can both filter out contaminants and better control room temperature.
As school systems work to get students back in classrooms, administrators also need to think about design elements that “reinforce the main reason why students are going back to school,” said Brian Minnich, an Associate with GWWO Architects. “They are going back for social interaction and face-to-face collaboration. A school has to be a welcoming place of learning. Otherwise, you are defeating the purpose.”
Some of the early efforts to bring a portion of students and teachers back into classrooms have left some children dealing with uncomfortable and isolating arrangements.
“For example, my daughter is in high school. When she went back, she was assigned a student desk in the gym to have lunch. The desk faces the wall,” Minnich said. “There is no reason why we can’t come up with designs that keep children properly distanced but facing each other so they can have an interaction, make a new friend.”
Creating safe, comfortable and collaborative learning environments during and after the pandemic, however, will require design changes, Minnich said. They could include greater use of hallways, flex space and outdoor space for classroom activities, installing technologies that support hybrid learning and changing how students move through buildings, especially for traditionally congested activities like morning arrivals, lunch breaks or lining up for afternoon buses. It may ultimately require school systems to make the costly decision to allocate more space per student within school buildings.
K-12 schools, however, are just one market segment that is dealing with COVID-related retrofits. Petrie Construction has reworked the front end of numerous retail outlets and hotels in recent months while Plano-Coudon Construction has modified office buildings, courthouses, healthcare facilities, senior living facilities, county-run senior centers and college buildings.
Both Petrie and Plano-Coudon say their clients want something more than basic safety measures: They want custom-designed solutions that are safe, attractive and make customers and employees feel comfortable in the environment.
“Literally everything we have done has been a custom job,” said Blair Radney, Division Leader of the Small Projects Division at Plano-Coudon. “For example, one client had a reception desk that was nearly round and it had transaction counters at different levels. Our guys prepped items in our shop and then they went out and field-built this custom piece.”
To deliver those unique solutions, Plano-Coudon sent staff members to a plexiglass factory to learn more about manufacturing and develop processes to jointly create custom pieces.
Now, Plano-Coudon is preparing for the next phase of COVID-related construction projects.
“I don’t think we have reached the point yet of seeing the full influx of projects that really address COVID issues,” Radney said. “I imagine in late spring to early summer, we are going to see projects coming out that really dig into solving this problem of how do you tailor your space so that you can operate normally and safely.”