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Beck Helps Life School Fulfill its Vision of a Dedicated High School Campus, On-Time and Under-Budget    
By Louis Sierra, AIA, LEED AP BC&C and Jim Talkington, LEED AP

Founded in 1998, Life School is one of the most successful charter school systems in Texas. With 5,200 K-12 students on seven campuses, Life School needed a dedicated charter high school. Positioning itself to be the first charter school in Texas to access the Permanent School Fund, which was, until 2014, reserved for Independent School Districts, Life School was able to secure the bonds to design and build Life High School 30 miles south of Dallas in Waxahachie, Texas.

Opened for the 2015-2016 school year, Life High School took just two years to design and build, despite numerous challenges, an aggressive schedule and a practical budget.

Life High School can accommodate 1,000 students in 131,500-square-feet on a 41-acre campus. Athletic facilities include a gymnasium with two practice courts and a seating capacity of 1,200, a football stadium, a weight room, locker rooms, and practice fields. The interior space includes classrooms, science and computer labs, a band and choir room, a black box theater, an audio-visual lab, a cafeteria, library, kitchen, administrative office space, and a commons area.

After a bidding process, Life School awarded the project to The Beck Group. Having worked with Beck in the past to renovate facilities for its other schools, Life School was confident Beck could design and construct its flagship school while establishing a design standard for future campuses. In addition to architecture and construction, Beck also executed the interior design.

Beck began the architectural design in August 2013, and finalized construction documents in April 2014. Once funding was approved in June 2014, construction started. Thirteen months later, the project was completed just weeks before school opened. Beck relied on fostering collaboration between the design team, construction team, the owner and the City of Waxahachie. Beck also relied on the use of technology to meet the schedule, and to come in just under budget.

Building in a Floodplain
A portion of the school site designated for the athletic fields was located within a FEMA Flood Hazard Zone, or 100-year floodplain, created by Grove Creek. In addition to athletic fields, the main access drive for the campus would also cross Grove Creek, requiring construction of a box culvert bridge. The City of Waxahachie regulated development within FEMA floodplains to ensure new facilities would not cause increased flooding.

The city required Beck to conduct a flood study to evaluate the impacts of the proposed athletic fields and culvert crossing. As a result, a detention pond was added to hold and slow down the increase in water flow generated by the school site before it enters Grove Creek.

The city further mandated that watershed conditions from upstream of the site be considered in the culvert crossing’s design to ensure it was large enough. City requirements increased the size of the box culvert by twice the length of the bridge originally estimated for the project, adding cost and time. Once construction was completed for the culvert crossing and athletic fields, a Letter of Map Revision was submitted to FEMA to remove the athletic fields from the floodplain.

An Undeveloped Location
Built away from the populated part of Waxahachie, the school had access to neither the city sanitary sewer lines nor a road connecting to the highway.

To build a sewer line extension to the sanitary sewer line, Beck worked with the city’s Public Works Department to negotiate with owners of the properties the pipe would have to cross in order to gain permission. Beck also worked with the city to build an access drive to provide entrance to the school from the highway.

Energy Efficiency, Environmental Responsibility
Life School wanted natural light in the corridors and classrooms, as well as energy efficiency and an environmentally friendly structure.

School administrators wanted a design with modern aesthetics using natural light. Due to the school operating during the hot months of summer and spring, Beck designed it with energy efficiency in mind. To ensure optimal natural light, the interior classrooms were built around a courtyard.

Roof systems include a sloped seam metal roof on classroom wings and a modified bitumen roof on the gymnasium. To shield the Low-E insulated glass pane windows from the sun, the roof has overhangs for shade. To further reduce cooling costs, there are 4 ½ inches of foam insulation on the roof deck, and the walls have continuous insulation outside the studs.

The school is equipped with low-flow plumbing, and many of the light fixtures are LED. Flooring is comprised of composite carpet tiles in classrooms, a maple floor in the gym, and polished concrete in the Commons, cafeteria and science labs. While most schools use vinyl composition tiles, Beck used sheet linoleum in the corridors. Sheet linoleum is made of recycled materials, produces no off-gassing, and only requires mopping. Beck also painted walls with low VOC paint.

To minimize landfill additions, Beck recycled a high percentage of construction waste.

Keeping to an Aggressive Schedule
With two years to design and build the school, and multiple schedule obstacles, including the flood study, sewer line extension, and bridge redesign, there was no margin for error.

Beck relied on its Integrated Design and Build delivery method to ensure there would be no delays due to poor collaboration or missteps. The process required tight coordination between the design and construction teams, the subcontractors, and the owner. These efforts shaved some four months off construction.

Beck assigned an architect to be on-site during construction to interpret drawings, which helped the project move quickly. They also had weekly meetings with Life School’s operations director who was frequently on-site, offering suggestions based on his experience with charter schools. The design and construction teams worked closely to expedite the submittal process, and RFIs and submittals were done online using Newforma Project Cloud.

Beck relied on technology to resolve design issues, such as clashes between the above-ceiling systems. By creating a Building Information Model (BIM) of the school, Beck identified and resolved clashes involving the plumbing, sprinklers, ductwork, and light fixtures. The 3D model allowed the team to come up with solutions before construction began so everything would fit, preventing onsite delays.

To expedite construction, Beck divided the building into five areas, focusing on building the most important areas first. Similarly, conflicts were resolved in the 3D model by area. The first phase included the gymnasium, because of its size and height, along with the classrooms and administration area. Other areas followed. Using this sequencing strategy, Beck kept subcontractor crews busy, letting them move from one section to
another without delay.

To track punch work status, Beck issued iPads® equipped with BIM 360, a cloud database, to the construction superintendent, project engineer and on-site architect. Using the iPads®, photos were taken of areas needing work and items were assigned to subcontractors, who could print a list of their specific tasks. Subcontractors recorded task completions with a button click, making it easier to track status versus paper lists.

Beck worked with the city’s Building Department, gaining its confidence that the building was safe and near enough to completion that it allowed furniture to be moved in three weeks before issuing the Certificate of Temporary Occupation.

Life High School was finished on-time and under-budget, despite obstacles. Beck attributes its success to the Integrated Design and Build delivery method, the collaboration between the design and construction teams and with the owner and subcontractors, the use of technology, and the good working relationship with the city.

About the Authors
Louis Sierra, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, is an Associate Architect for Beck Architecture, and Jim Talkington, LEED AP, is a Senior Project Manager at The Beck Group. For more information, visit www.beckgroup.com.

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