Updated: Dec 8, 2021
In 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic ripped through modern society and changed the way we live. Daily life changed for everyone, and the educational institutions were no exception. Closed schools, empty playgrounds, empty dorms, and virtual gym classes became the norm. Virtual learning has had a significant impact on parents, educators, administrators, and students in different ways. As the end is coming into focus, now is the time to recap the COVID event and discuss what is to come in our schools and universities around the country. Unfortunately, “back to normal” may never be a reality.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers, parents, and administrations have asked the same question, “how can we come back safely?” The MEP industry has been tasked with answering this question, and this guide will set out to give its readers a good foundation on how the pandemic has impacted building systems, what is going to change in the future, and how all this affects each one of us.
The MEP/FP industry was critical to answering the questions for building safety and COVID transmission risk mitigation. An important note to make is that educational facilities pre-COVID were designed for a specific purpose, and that purpose was not to prevent the transmission of infectious diseases. Even with this note in mind, educational leaders have been quick to reconfigure, upgrade, and improve their facilities with this purpose in mind. However, old, outdated equipment, limited air recirculation, and large bodies of students close together have contributed to heightened fears of the risk of returning to school too early and what will happen if we see a future pandemic occur. This guide will give insight into how the MEP industry has dealt with these challenges during the thick of the pandemic, what rapid reconfigure looks like in building designed for alternate purposes, and how we as engineers can help facilities plan upgrades minimize future risk.
The CDC, leading the national task of minimizing transmission risk, directed schools to meet various requirements to help make these environments safer. These requirements include distancing people within confined spaces, improving air quality and airflow. One of these requirements was to distance people within confined spaces. The increased distance between occupants has limited the number of students or faculty within a single room. With reduced single-room occupant capacity, the need for larger classrooms has arisen. Large classrooms need more cooling, which requires larger HVAC equipment, leading to more power, more lighting, and higher costs.
During the height of the crisis, engineers reconfigured existing HVAC systems through recommissioning, a process in which equipment is retested and recalibrated to meet original or new system requirements. Another consideration that educational facilities dealt with immediately was poor air quality and lack of airflow design. Airflow direction, cleanliness, and air change rate within rooms are commonly defined for critical healthcare environments but have been unnecessary in most educational settings.
Fitzemeyer & Tocci Associates Inc. has a long history of healthcare facility design. For many years F&T, along with many architects and external team members, has provided expertise to healthcare facilities within the most critical environments. As a new service created by the pandemic, we conducted several rapid reconfigurations of healthcare spaces and used this expertise to help school systems across Massachusetts evaluate and fix some of the issues preventing a safe environment in this uncertain time. By using common healthcare design principles with airflow pressurization, the strategic location of individuals inside of rooms, and improving the quality of recirculating air equipment, our HVAC design and commissioning engineers have done their best to build classrooms and meeting places to act similar to clinical spaces like exam rooms and treatment areas. Of course, there are significant limitations to the configuration of existing building systems designed for other purposes, but these principles can continue to be used as a model for future facilities to have more flexibility in preventing vulnerability in another critical health threat.
MEP design is constantly improving. School and university facilities that require cooling and heating can leverage technologies such as variable refrigerant flow (VRF) for rapid reconfiguration of zone cooling and heating. Increase air handler coil capacity to allow for more outside air and possible change over duct systems to exhaust more air for less recirculation within spaces. More and larger VAV boxes can be added in redesigning systems and new building to provide better room zone temperature and ventilation control, and this increase flexibility of room applications with possible architectural changes in the future. Technologies for occupancy, UV cleaning and other power saving devices have become more common during the pandemic, and these technologies can continue to be used to provide value to facilities. Planning for flexibility in the plumbing and fire protection systems can provide facilities with flexibility can be increased by adding more pluming features in classrooms and room types, for future changes in the room purposes. Architectural changes can be made to increase and decrease room size.
What will the future hold?
There is still much speculation around this topic, especially with primary schools reopening and universities bringing students back on campus. Our team of expert panel members will give insight into this ever-changing subject in our upcoming guide Designing-In Flexibility: A Win-Win For Resiliency And Rapid Reconfiguration Of Educational Environments. The guide consists of voices from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, the University of Rhode Island, architectural expertise from Sasaki Associates and Stantec Architecture, interior prefabrication construction expertise from Falkbuilt, and experiences from our team at Fitzemeyer & Tocci Associates. We will discuss in detail some of what we think are the most likely scenarios based on expert opinion and current industry trends. We will touch on technologies you may not even be aware exist and sift through the myriad of info out there to give you what you need to know about how the typical environment in schools will change and what this will most likely look like. Anyone else interested can look forward to an in-depth understanding of the often-overlooked impact of building systems and what considerations those in various aspects of the construction process use when planning the building of the schools and universities.
Mechanical Design Engineer