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Designing HVAC Systems to Last in Schools

Steve Tossey

I feel very fortunate to work with education clients to make improvements to their buildings that range from 15 to 100+ years old. Each of these buildings boast a different design and system, yet they each show me what has worked well and what has hindered the adaptation to current teaching techniques. One of the biggest things I have learned is that the building needs to be “timeless” from the inside out.

Timeless, in this sense, means a need for a certain flexibility. As curriculum changes and the needs of educators and students evolve, the building should be flexible enough to allow for easy adaptation.  A large portion of the strategic process that architecture and design bring to the table is anticipating these future needs and planning for them, while still achieving today’s goals and budget.

This applies to mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) design as well. There are ways to make an HVAC system timeless and to build flexibility for the future. Here are some ideas to get started.

Distributed air handling system design

First is the design of the distributed air handling systems. These systems are comprised of the heating, cooling and fan mechanics that keep a building at the desirable temperature. Most distributed air handling systems also have the added benefit of filtering air.  By designing a central system that transports energy throughout the building utilizing water or refrigerant you can adapt your building fairly easily. Instead of having literally tons and tons of sheet metal to change around your building you have small pipes to change. You may think that these systems are very inefficient, but they actually always get more efficient with time.

Invest wisely in long-lasting infrastructure

It’s important to spend money on HVAC components that are going to last the longest. When we design piping and duct-work we try to specify better parts and pieces to extend the life of those systems.  The actual heating and cooling equipment will give out in 15 years, but the piping and duct-work will be there for 50 years or more. This is only true if you provide the right type upfront to allow for changes without replacement.

Keep it simple

HVAC systems are felt (literally) throughout the building, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fairly simple. When we over complicate things we end up making life miserable down the road. Keeping the system simple ensures that the staff assigned to maintain the system can understand the system. Again, think about the future! Just because your team today may understand how a more complex system works doesn’t mean that, as staff transition in and out of roles, your future teams will understand. This has the potential to cost more money down the road than a more complex system could ever save today.

Questions on what system is right for your school, how much money in energy costs you could save or if now is the right time to upgrade?  Just give me a call; I’m happy to help.

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