The collapse of I-35W Freeway Bridge in Minneapolis in August 2007 shattered lives and dreams. In the aftermath, bridges throughout the United States are being checked and doublechecked. Many bridges had minor to severe deficiencies for years. Now, some bridges will be repaired immediately. So, what about schools?
The 1996 GAO report “School Facilities: America's Schools Report Differing Conditions” stated that about one-third of schools serving 14 million students needed extensive repair or replacement of one or more buildings. The 1995 estimate to repair or upgrade facilities was $112 billion.
Many of the crumbling facility infrastructure problems that drew attention in the 1990s remained unresolved. Repairs are delayed until the need becomes unavoidable.
Virtually all communities grapple with how to address school infrastructure needs and balance them with other community priorities. Although some schools have been repaired through federal and state grants, the extent and cost of renovations is overwhelming.
Modernizing facility financing takes time. Education institutions must become proactive to identify problems. Either request a comprehensive study of all systems or of specific systems, such as structural or indoor air quality. Work with professionals to determine the type of study and budget. After the work has been completed, prioritize and develop a schedule to renovate significant defects before a disaster occurs. Results of previous studies have revealed significant deficiencies:
An exterior wall bowing out at the point of roof support was discovered by visual inspection of a rural K-12, multi-storied 1904 building. The structural engineer analyzed the existing blueprints and could not explain why the roof hadn't already collapsed. The state department of education condemned the building.
A precast structural concrete roof with a history of failures was discovered on several elementary schools. These roofs were replaced during summer vacation.
Masonry cracks were observed above the windows in a rural K-12, multi-storied 1920s school building. A structural inspection revealed that the window openings did not have a structural lintel to support the wall and roof load above them. Immediate repair was required.
Complaints of poor IAQ led to mold being discovered in exterior walls and above ceilings several years after school opened. Vapor barriers had not been installed, and pipe insulation had failed. Contractors repaired the work.
One thing to remember: if you order a study, be willing to accept the recommendations. Be prepared to act when the need arises, because procrastinating and delaying repairs can magnify problems and costs.
Rydeen, FAIA, is an architect/facility planning specialist and former president of Armstrong, Torseth, Skold & Rydeen, Inc. (ATS&R), Minneapolis. He can be reached at Jrydeen@atsr.com.