Overcoming challenges in education projects

Education facilities often come with an array of unique challenges, such as tight deadlines, strict budgets, special user requirements, and owner design standards.

In the last two years, Henderson Engineers, Inc. (HEI) worked through a couple of education programs. The first was the Great Hearts Academies, a charter school organization that has built four campuses in the Phoenix metro area (Architect: Gensler). The second program was for Buckeye Union High School District, where HEI provided engineering services for a number of new buildings, additions, and renovations of existing high school facilities (Architect: Orcutt Winslow).

HEI experienced various challenges for each of these programs that were overcome due to good project organization.

Great Heart Academies – Gensler Architects

Great Heart Academies hired Gensler and HEI in 2013 to complete the design of charter school campuses located in Scottsdale, Mesa, Chandler, and Goodyear, Ariz. Each campus would include classrooms (including arts and science classrooms), administration offices, and a gymnasium/cafeteria. These spaces would be broken out through three separate buildings on each campus. The goal was for the facilities to be prototypes of one another. However, due to site specific conditions, this was not possible for the plumbing design.

In order to overcome the site-specific challenges, one of the first steps HEI took was to determine the user requirements, such as pipe materials and equipment. For example, due to conversations with the teachers of what would occur in the class, the plumbing design team determined that point-of-use solids interceptors would be required for the art and science classrooms. This was noted in the project OneNote file that all team members could access and view.

Asif Kazimi, a plumbing designer with HEI, said, “This streamlined our process so even when buildings changed, our system foundation stayed the same.”

By confirming owner needs upfront, this also allowed more time to talk to each of the AHJs for the various project locations. The best example of this revolved around the cafeteria. Per discussions with the owner, the design team realized that each campus did not require a fully functioning kitchen, as pre-packaged food that was prepared elsewhere would be served to the students. Therefore, for each location the plumbing engineer would reach out to the AHJ to confirm that a grease interceptor would not be required. By having the conversation early enough with the owner, the plumbing engineers had time to reach out to the AHJ to confirm that a grease waste interceptor would not be required.

Buckeye Union High School District –
Orcutt Winslow

Orcutt Winslow (OW) hired HEI at the end of 2014 to work with them on the design of a number of facilities within the Buckeye Union High School District (BUHSD). The BUHSD included the following high school campuses: Youngkers High School, Estrella Foothills High School, and Buckeye Union High School.

The first project was to design a 15,000-square-foot classroom building at Youngkers High School. The biggest challenge for HEI on this project was that this was the firm’s first project with Orcutt Winslow and as such, project organization became key in understanding who the design team would contact. One of HEI’s goals in working with this new client was to “establish a routine.” Therefore, when I started working on this project I came up with a list of initial questions which was sent to the project manager, and then to the architect. By giving the architect the list of questions up front it gave them the appropriate amount of time to come up with answers, rather than asking questions at the last minute.

Due to the success of this initial project, HEI was hired to complete the remainder of the projects in the BUHSD. The subsequent tasks were much more challenging from a scheduling standpoint. The remainder of the projects included 10 different jobs at the three high schools of varying size and complexity that were to be completed in a four month window. In total, the design team worked on over 120,000 square feet of building space including weight room additions, cafeteria renovations, woodshop changes, and a library classroom addition. Due to budget and time restraints, many of these projects overlapped, and HEI worked closely with OW in order to coordinate and complete each task in the appropriate amount of time.

Due to the quick timeline of these projects HEI at times needed to pull in additional staff to help. As the lead plumbing engineer on this set of projects, I utilized a plumbing project organization spreadsheet that included design system status completion, a task list, questions to the architect, and design directives. Specifically the system status completion was particularly useful when he worked with other designers to complete the design of a two story classroom building at Buckeye Union High School that was approximately 14,000 square feet. The building included a culinary arts classroom and stacked bathroom groups. By having the other designers indicate what percentage they were complete with a system (e.g. “Sanitary System 100 percent complete, Cold Water System 25 percent complete”), I was able to minimize time trying to determine where the other designer had left off and was able to start working on the project almost immediately. Additionally, this tracking tool was beneficial to the project manager as it allowed him to determine that the project still had budget available.

Summary and conclusions

There are three highlighted quotes throughout this article. The first, by an the author who wrote about everyone’s favorite childhood teddy bear who loved honey, the second by a chef/TV personality, and the third by one of my college professors. The common theme between the quotes and the experience HEI had with these education projects is that being organized makes work (and life) much easier. Some of the specific lessons learned were:

Utilize a program or document that all plumbing designers can access, edit, and search through for project specific information. If each designer has to spend time looking for information, this comes out of the project’s bottom line. Once all information is organized, make sure that each designer on the project knows where to go to find the file. Organize this file with design status, task lists, questions, and design directives. Keep in mind that while being organized is great, the phone calls to the AHJ, architect, and owner still need to happen. Once they do happen, though, make sure that the decisions, directive, and answered questions are documented in this file.

When project scheduling becomes hectic (or even chaotic), it becomes even more imperative to update your project tracking document especially if you are working with other plumbing designers and engineers. Having multiple cooks in the kitchen only works if everything is organized and tasks are clearly defined and delegated.

By having your project organized, and by working smartly, project success becomes much easier to obtain. Coworkers working with you and other designers/engineers working under your guidance will be able to find information more quickly, and therefore will spend less time (and project fee) looking for information. By spending less time looking for information or trying to determine project status the design team will be able to produce better work, which in turn leads to less errors, which leads to less (if any) change orders. Truly a win for all parties involved.

As HEI discovered, by following these principles even the most hectic or challenging projects can become very rewarding ventures. n


Founded in 1970, Henderson Engineers, Inc. (HEI) is a comprehensive engineering design firm offering core mechanical, electrical, and plumbing design, as well as fire protection, architectural lighting, technology, commissioning, and sustainable consulting services. With eleven locations nationwide and over 600 employees, HEI is able to provide exceptional client service worldwide on a vast array of projects. HEI offers four specialty services that focus on the specific, targeted needs of our clients including Fire Dynamics, Impact Illumination, Collective Tech, and Outcome Construction Services. Visit www.hei-eng.com.

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