The construction of two new elementary schools by the Leander Independent School District (LISD) in Texas gives new meaning to academic competition. Each is being built using a different construction method, and the race is on for project success.

According to Tim Cahalane, project director for American Constructors Inc., Austin, in 2007 LISD unveiled a new design for its elementary schools: the product of a design review process and charette that began in 2006 and included the efforts of educators, stakeholders, construction managers, and architects. "The district realized that today's K-12 educational facilities, in particular the elementary grades, require high-performance design to enhance the learning environment," says Cahalane. "Since school facilities have a profound impact on their occupants and the function of the building, LISD wanted to create a collaborative school environment where everyone shares the same vision of success. As such, LISD used an integrated design approach and team process. The stakeholders worked together throughout the project phases to evaluate the design for cost, quality of life, instruction, future flexibility, and efficiency. Building systems were selected on the basis of life-cycle cost analysis, balancing initial design, and construction cost, while providing LISD a building that complements both the District and the community values, allowing form to follow function."

A new model of success

According to the District's new model, buildings now are designed around LISD's learning model, which includes making extensive use of natural light in all common areas and improved flexibility so teachers can shift easily between whole group and small instruction, or collaborate with other teachers. Classrooms are clustered around neighborhood areas. The new design incorporates sinks and other resources built into classrooms to eliminate long trips down hallways to access areas such as science labs, as well as strategically placed common areas adjacent to classrooms with good transparency between the spaces. Further, the design eliminates the long hallways common in typical school designs, resulting in classrooms with L-shaped configurations and more corners for small group instruction.

Building on these design themes, LISD selected two separate architect/construction manager teams for elementary schools #20 and #21. Both are 110,000-square-feet in size and were on schedule to open in fall 2008. Each project contains the same basic floor plan, educational programming, as well as mechanical/ electrical/plumbing (MEP) system. However, the teams were allowed to select their structural and exterior skin system. The design/construction team for #20 selected a traditional block/brick and steel construction approach, while the team for #21 selected site-cast tilt-up construction.

A new, yet proven solution

A longtime solution for durable and maintenance-free facilities in the commercial and industrial sector, the growth of architectural treatments, formliners, and even cast-in brick products has allowed tilt-up to compete with the traditional school material of choice: masonry. Athletic facilities, modern meeting spaces, and assembly areas also are a must, all easily accommodated with the site-cast tilt-up concrete method of construction.

Cahalane's company is on the team for School #21. Building on experience constructing four elementary, two middle, and two high schools for the District, all tilt-up, he stated that this team selected the construction method because it takes advantage of the inherent flexibility of a unique, well-proportioned blend of building massing, color, texture, and articulation.

"Since our initial tilt-up projects for the District, thermal image results have proven the benefit of concrete tilt-up walls with integrated insulation as compared to masonry in terms of energy efficiency and lower operating costs," says Cahalane. "Based on our knowledge that tilt-up could meet all the parameters established by the design and process team, we felt confident recommending the building system."