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Designing for Children with Special Needs

By Virginia Chavez, Architectural Project Manager at Southern A&E

Practicing architecture is not just about drawings, aesthetic appeal, or profit. It is important that we persist on an ethical practice in which we do not discriminate in our professional activities on the basis of race, religion, gender, national origin, age, disability, or sexual orientation, as stated in AIA’s 2017 Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct. At Southern A&E, we uphold these ethics through our designs. Our main focus is in the educational field. We are designing for children from ages three to eighteen years old. Our school design challenges are to cater to different age groups sharing spaces for learning. There are regulations to follow when designing; we follow guidelines required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and The Department of Education regulations. These regulations uphold the architectural profession to a standard that promotes accessibility for all, despite any disability a person may have. The Department of Education ensures that schools are being designed based on student’s needs in a learning environment. However, it is in our responsibility to go the extra step to promote a learning space that caters to all children beyond the basic need.

Children with disabilities inherently have different needs that are sometimes not specified by regulations. Designing for children with special needs is a challenge that we take on in order to offer a school that caters to all. There are different design strategies that promote a healthy space for children with special needs. Specifically, children with Autism Spectrum Disorder experience space differently due to their brains receiving stimuli and reacting to them differently than a neurotypical child. Children with autism can be hypersensitive to stimuli caused by light, smells, textures, materials, and routines. It is not uncommon for other disorders to have the same symptoms of hypersensitivity to these stimuli mentioned.

When designing a classroom for children with disabilities such as Autism, the space organization, color, lights, and materials used are important to consider. It is important to keep in mind that a child with a disability does not learn the same way a neurotypical child does. They may or may not have impaired motor skills, less developed social skills, impaired cognitive development, or attention challenges. It is important to design spaces that are visually and physically defined to encourage the understanding of routine, discipline, and boundaries. Encouraging routine can simply be done by having specific activities or subjects taught in certain areas of the classroom. This helps children develop a daily routine, have an understanding of discipline, and a boundary of what is being learned in that space. Some children have trouble understanding what personal space is. When a physical boundary is taught within the classroom, then it will be easier to explain personal space by relating two different situations with the same explanation. Delineating spaces also allows tranquil or break spaces for children that need to be calmed down at any given time of the day.

Sensory overstimulation can be addressed in many ways, one of the most important is lighting. Natural lighting is the best option for any space. Studies show that natural lighting promotes improvements in cognitive development. It helps balance moods and sleep patterns among many more benefits. Artificial lighting, such as fluorescent, causes flickering that can strain and cause discomfort in the eye. In some cases, natural lighting is limited due to site conditions. In a case where natural lighting isn’t attainable, technology has advanced in order to help us advocate healthier lighting, such as LED lighting. LED lighting offers a solution to traditional fluorescent lighting. LED can be dimmed, and change colors from warm to cooler tones. These options make a difference in a child with hypersensitivity to lighting. A classroom can be customized with a push of a button for a more comfortable learning experience. The cooler tone lighting should be used when taking an exam or performing activities that require focus; while the warmer lighting can be used when students are taking a break, reading, or being creative.

The colors used within a classroom can also cause a negative or positive effect on the environment. The best colors to use for children with special needs are muted, cooler colors, rather than bright warm colors. Yellows can cause strain in the eyes due to its brightness. Reds can cause hyperactivity in a child. Greens and blues are the best options in a classroom. Blue is calming. Green has the same effect, but with a more inviting, warm feel to it. This does not mean warm bright colors can’t be used. If used, the bright warm colors such as red, orange, pink, and yellow should be used as accent colors that do not overbear the space.

As mentioned, children with special needs may have impaired motor skills. Materials used in a room are crucial for these children. A child that can’t walk independently and has to crawl will be the first to be directly impacted by the floors being used. A child that is sensitive to textures will have discomfort in textures used on chairs, sofas, or the floor. When designing classrooms it is important to have furniture with soft edges, sharp corners can be a safety hazard for children. The soft curved lines can create a space with a more natural and less rigid flow. Floor rugs and pillows in the classroom makes the space less institutional, creates a comfortable, inviting space similar to home for children. Creating comfort for children with special needs is essential in the learning process. Today’s market offers many different options for materials. There are also natural alternatives that eliminate toxins released in the air from materials. Many times, children with disabilities may also have food sensitivities. What is often overlooked is that these sensitivities carry on in the type of paint and floors used as well. Cork flooring has become a popular material used for children. The floor is natural, easy on the joints and reduces noise. Noise is another important factor to consider in the design process. Loud noises will hinder a child’s comfort and can even cause headaches or pain depending on their sensitivity levels. Having acoustical wall panels and soft materials will allow noise to be absorbed in the classroom.

Comfort, safety, and enjoyable spaces are attainable. Designing for children with special needs should be a priority. These children will benefit from the space and enjoy learning. Designing accomodating spaces for them is a small, but major benefit in their development as individuals. It is important to lay a positive foundation in the early stages of their lives in order to help them grow and attain their goals for the future.

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Going Green with Morningside Elementary


By Michael Waldbillig, V.P. of Mechanical Engineering at Southern A&E   

Southern A&E congratulates Morningside Elementary School of the Atlanta Public School System for being named a 2017 U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon School award honoree. Morningside Elementary is one of 45 schools, nine districts, and nine postsecondary institutions across the country that have been honored for their innovative efforts to ensure effective sustainability education by reducing their environmental impact and utility costs, and improving the overall health and wellness of their students, faculty, and staff.

As part of the green initiatives recognized by this national distinction, Southern A&E worked with Atlanta Public Schools on the design of a $5 million dollar HVAC renovation completed in two phases over the 2016 and 2017 summers. The design consisted of variable refrigerant heat pump systems to provide heating and cooling for each individual space. Variable refrigerant technology achieves extremely high efficiencies by varying the flow of refrigerant to the indoor units based on the exact demands of the individual areas. This allows for precise temperature control and resulting zone comfort. In addition, a well-designed variable refrigerant system will serve areas known to have opposing heating and cooling loads, therefore redistributing excess heat from areas that require cooling to those that require heating.

In addition to the variable refrigerant systems used for space temperature control, dedicated outside air units were installed to pretreat and dehumidify the outside air delivered to the classrooms and other occupied spaces. These units help to maintain the overall comfort levels throughout the facility while delivering the ASHRAE recommended quantities of outside air into the building to promote a healthy and productive environment for the students, faculty, and staff.

Southern A&E also worked closely with Atlanta Public Schools and their commissioning agent, Total Systems Commissioning, in developing control sequences for the HVAC equipment that focus on user friendly operation, sophisticated system monitoring capabilities, and standardization in the school system. The HVAC controls allow for optimization of system operation and energy consumption, while allowing teachers control over their local environment with no adverse impact on other areas served by the same system.

Other initiatives taken by Morningside Elementary that contributed to their national recognition include:

  • Partnering with Trees Atlanta
  • Utilizing the on-site gardens for an interactive learning environment
  • Providing effective environmental and sustainability education for students and staff
  • Incorporating STEM, civic skills, and green career pathways
  • The establishment of a school wide recycling program
  • Utilizing turf fields to conserve water

Southern A&E applauds the Morningside Elementary faculty, students, and community, along with the Atlanta Public School System, for their commitment to green initiatives.

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Special Structural Inspections and Tests

By Michael Eidson, V.P. of Structural Engineering at Southern A&E

The State of Georgia’s regulations for special inspections and quality control testing trace back to the adoption of the International Building Code 2000. This Building Code contained Chapter 17, which introduced the requirements for inspections and testing. Before these requirements became Code, it was common for concrete testing to be in the scope of work for the contractor, but for soils testing to be provided by the owner. The IBC 2000 attempted to standardize the testing requirements, to remove them from the influence of the contractor, and to give the local building official the authority to enforce the testing and inspection requirements.

The current IBC 2012 requires testing for soils, concrete, masonry, and structural steel. There are also inspection requirements for sprayed fire-resistant materials, exterior insulation and finish systems, and smoke control systems. The authority to waive any requirement rests only with the local building inspector. Special inspections and material testing firms are not allowed to be hired by the contractor – instead, they must either be hired by the owner or by the registered design professional.

The costs associated with special inspections and material testing vary with the size of the job, but they typically run from 0.5% to 1% of the constructed cost. For example, for a job that bids for $5,000,000, you could estimate the costs of special inspections and testing to be at least $25,000, but not to exceed about $50,000.  The costs are generally billed hourly each month, with unit prices for certain tests.

The services of a testing firm may be procured in various ways. Since these firms work on an hourly basis, it is common to just hire a firm based on their qualifications or previous work experience. Southern A & E recommends obtaining competitive pricing from 3 or more firms based on an estimated fixed scope of work to include unit prices for each category of testing services. A true fixed fee generally is not obtainable without significant costs to the owner, since the testing firm does not control how often it will be called to the job site. It is more common to obtain a lump sum fee based on an estimate of service to not be exceeded without written authorization. Southern A & E LLC is always ready to assist the owner in obtaining these proposals.

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Aging Site with Outdated Infrastructure

By Frank Campo, V.P. of Electrical Engineering at Southern A&E

Morrow High School, Clayton County School System
2299 Old Rex Morrow Rd, Morrow, GA 30260

In 2013, Southern A & E was charged with renovating Morrow High Schools aging technological infrastructure.  The schools existing data network cabling system was installed long after the buildings were built.  Data frames were located in janitor’s closets, storage rooms, and classrooms with minimal clearances, few supports, no standby power and no environmental control (A/C).  Entrance facilities for telecommunications, wide area network and cable television were in different parts of the building.

First, a wireless network was added to the school. It was installed as a separate, parallel network to the original system.  Our electrical engineers noticed that the horizontal and backbone cabling was outdated.  We then identified spaces that could be captured or subdivided to serve as the new data closets.  Where existing square footage could not be sacrificed, spaces were added to the building to meet the need.  The entrance facilities were consolidated to the new main data closet.  Standby power circuits were added to each data closet for survival of voice-over IP and intercom system during power outages.

Southern A & E’s electrical engineers worked with the Owner to integrate modern technology systems design standards into older buildings by establishing dedicated equipment spaces, then providing adequate power, lighting, climate control, and pathways to support the current and future cabling requirements.  In many cases, local power for computers is inadequate and requires additional power systems work.

Southern A & E, understands the challenges that school systems face with respect to equipping older buildings with the infrastructure (communications pathways, backbone cabling, cable support systems, and telecommunications equipment rooms) necessary to get the most from their capital investment.  With a BICSI certified Registered Communications Distribution Designer (RCDD) as our chief electrical engineer, we stay abreast of evolving technologies.